Momentum in Chess: How Emotions Can Win Games

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and maybe you can relate with me. In a lot of my recent tournaments, I’ve noticed that the quality of my chess is stronger after a win than a loss. Winning seems to create some unstoppable force, and losing sees it all come to a screeching halt. When I started to think about my own results, this seemed odd – often I’m playing in the open section, and usually without much of a chance to win the tournament, so why the gap in quality?

You may recall my recent article about the Chicago Open, where my third round opponent hanging his queen gave my tournament a much needed spark. I played arguably my best game of 2018 in the following round, and despite a close loss in the fifth round, I had the resolve to get a draw against a higher rated player before closing out the tournament. This spark helped me find untapped potential, and “momentum” to finish with a respectable result.

What is momentum, and what is its role in chess? Without a lot of common ground for chess psychology, we should probably start with some foundational basis. Within a game of chess, we as players experience trends. Trends, positive or negative, describe if the natural flow of the game favors us or our opponents. As much as chess is about the quality of moves being played over the board, how we react to certain positions emotionally is equally important. Understanding the flow helps us ask questions like: how did we react to a dubious move? and what happened when we missed a strong move for our opponent? The stronger the trend, the harder it is to break the current and fight for a stake in the game – even if the actual moves required are not so difficult to find.

To demonstrate this, I found an example in one of my own games where the negative trend was so strong that I failed to find a basic resource to equalize the game:

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 21. Rac1

Up to this point in the game, everything has gone swimmingly for White. My opponent has more space and better piece coordination, so it’s clear that he has won the opening battle. He continued with a strong exchange sacrifice after 21…Rab8 22. exd5 Bxd5 23. Nxd5 cxd5 24. Bxd5 Nb2 25. Bg2 Nxd1 26. Rxd1

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 26. Rxd1

White has given up the exchange for two central passers, and Black’s chances of surviving look rather bleak. I could have chosen a more stubborn defense with 26…Rbc8 and held my ground, but feeling like I needed to do something, I played 26…Rb4? -+ to which not only can I not sufficiently explain why I played this move. Play continued 28. d5 Qb5 29. c6 Rc4 30. Bf1? Rxc2 31. Bxb5

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Bachlechner–Steincamp, position after 31. Bxb5

If I gave myself this position without exposing myself to the prior frustrations the game brought, I would almost instantly find the blockade, 31…Rd6!= to which White can never hope to make progress. After 32. Re1 g6, White realizes he doesn’t have enough dark square control to promote his pawns, and would have to settle for a draw. But frustrated, and more or less convinced I already lost, I capitulated with 31…Kf8?? and after 32. d6 Rc5 33. a4, I resigned as I can never stop White’s passed pawns.

Negative trends are strong because they constantly force the defender to constantly keep the position secure under extreme duress. If you have analyzed your own game with an engine and realized you missed a simple tactical/positional resource to get out of a worse position and asked “how did I miss that?“, there’s a good chance that it was influenced by some sort of negative trend. We are human after all.

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

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Wesley had quite the roller coaster finish in Leuven! photo: Lennart Ootes

While trends occur at the micro-level in our games, they occur at the macro-level too, as our relative success in a tournament can also effect how we play. For lack of a better word, I think this can best be described as momentum. So let’s revisit the original question I posed. Why the gap of quality in play after a loss? Why do the consequences of a game “carry over” into the next round? After some introspection and a bit of research, I think the best way to explain this is that after a loss, there seem to be two common approaches: locking down and going for the win – and they both have their problems.

By “locking down”, we cramp our creativity – the emphasis is more on not making a mistake than playing our best chess. While this is an effective strategy to stop the bleeding, I’ve noticed that in my own games that the actual game play can seem rigid and unenterprising. In going all out for a win, we lose a lot objectivity in our emotional approach to the game, as chess is deemed equal from the start. Both approaches have their own form of blindness, which can prove to be detrimental in the long run.

Unlike trends, I think momentum is harder to see with over-the-board moves, and is best explained as an emotional approach to each round. Finding a strong idea or tactic in a worse position shouldn’t be attributed to momentum or confidence, but a string of results can be better understood in this light. Let’s take a look at Wesley So’s performance in the recent leg of the Grand Chess Tour in Leuven:

Rapid Results: W   W   D   W  W  D  W  D  D

Finishing +5 against GCT competition is quite the feat – even in rapid! In this stretch, it was clear that Wesley’s preparation was working, and his games had a natural flow to them. I was really impressed with his fourth round win against Anish Giri – Wesley was in second gear, and had established a significant lead over the competition.

Sure, you could argue in some of these wins (like his 2nd round win against Mamedyarov) Wesley shouldn’t have won, but he pressed as much as he could and his opponents collapsed. Sometimes to win, you have to create your own luck.

Blitz Results: D   D   D   D   W   D   D   L   L   L   D   D   D   W   D   W   L   L

Wesley’s blitz results will probably force him to ask what changed between formats. Is Wesley’s rapid genuinely better than his blitz? or Was Wesley trying to play more solidly to secure his lead in the tournament? or Did fatigue become a problem late in the tournament? I can’t speak for Wesley, but just by looking at his results some form of momentum was lost in the transition to blitz.

Admittedly, I missed much of this leg of the Grand Chess Tour because of my own tournament this past weekend, but I did catch his loss against Nakamura, where nothing seemed to go right, and then on top of that, he blundered in a theoretically drawn endgame:

After losing his first game of the tournament to Mamedyarov a round before, I think Wesley’s focus was to draw and enter the next day with a three point lead. As a result, Wesley didn’t do much with White and let Nakamura get an active position, got outplayed for a little, and then after saving the game, blundered.

So we now have some general sense of how momentum works, but how do we influence it without having to wait for our opponents mistakes? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I couldn’t speak from personal success here. But I think it can be done – just take a look at Fabiano Caruana’s recent stretch of good results:

Candidates (1st place): Won two consecutive games after loss to Karjakin in round 12

US Championships (2nd place): Finished +5 despite early loss to Izoria with White

Norway Chess (1st place): Won tournament after 1st round loss to Magnus

Caruana’s ability to bounce back from losses is admirable and should be studied further as it shows great emotional discipline in critical moments. Again, since I don’t know Fabiano personally, I can’t speak for his approach to handling losses, but in preparation for this article I looked over a lot of my games after losses and thought of ways to curb their effects:

  1. 23-round6-Candidates-DSC07020-Emelianova
    Comeback King and World Championship Challenger. photo: Maria Emelianova

    Losses happen. Though obvious, I feel like this is a good starting point. Don’t beat yourself up for being human. Instead it might be more constructive to figure out why you made that mistake immediately after the game finishes. This way you enter the next game with a concrete reason of why you lost rather than the self-deprecating “I suck at chess” line.

  2. Treat all games equally. Not easy to do since tournament situations can dictate what results we need. But if you’re winning most of your games and you need a result to win a prize, why play for a draw when what you are currently playing seems to be working? If you’re struggling, maybe it would help to change openings for a game. I played 1. e4 in my final game of the 2017 Reykjavik Open without knowing any theory, and admittedly I was much more excited to play because of this switch – and I won! Different things work for different people, but make it fun!
  3. Take away positives from your games. I think with engines, it’s really easy to see where we went wrong more than right. Give yourself credit for the things you do right too! Maybe if you see that you are bringing good ideas to games, it will be easier to put aside a loss and mentally prepare for the next round.

It’s important to understand that I am not expert in chess psychology (or psychology alone for that matter), and that I’m struggling with this as much as you are as I write this – this stuff his hard. However, I think it is important to discuss how we approach games, especially if we want to hold ourselves accountable to a certain standard of play. If sports psychology is important for the development of athletes, why don’t we talk about it as much for chess? Let’s not forget that a lot of the beauty of chess is in its humanity, not what the engine thinks.

I’m curious to hear what you all think. Do trends play a factor in your results? Are your results what dictate your approach to a game? Any good anecdotes? Let me know in the comments!

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