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Smart Dolphins Chess
All of us in tournaments of all kinds have encountered with players of all levels. This doesn’t just apply to chess, it ranges all the way from sports to martial arts to debating =D, although chess will be my main example. Of course we all are very careful and prepared against strong players, because, well, we know they are good right? We double check our openings, sharpen up our tactics, remind ourselves to blunder check every move, and usually we play alot better as a result of our attentiveness and preparation. Well, what’s so different about us and our play when we are facing players weaker than us? How does a lower rating, or seemingly less skilful appearance/record affect our play? What emotions do we feel in this process?
Before the Game
Before I delve into anything, and before you implement any advanced strategy to bring about defeat to your weaker opponent, fill your stomach.
That was really obvious right? Especially in sports, but chess also requires physical energy, and for that you need something to eat. Trying to play a game of chess without eating is like playing sport without warming up, you won’t last and you’ll injure yourself (in chess, you’ll make blunders).
When our eyes first glance at the draws/pool, if we do not know who the opponent is, we almost always use their rating as an indication.
There are two main reactions towards this. The first one involves the enthusiastic player pumping their fist in the air, full of joy, exclaiming “free point!” The second one is a reminiscent of depression, your face frowns, your back slumped in the chair, “oh man!” You think. Whatever your initial response is, you will certainly experience some form of pressure, and in most cases impatience and agitation. We don’t want a bad start to the tournament, can’t afford our rating, or just want to beat our lower rated players quickly and get lunch. Whatever the host of reasons you have at your disposal, the important thing is to remove the negative feelings that can immensely affect your play. Ultimately you want to achieve ‘de-emotionalisation’ and just be a perfect machine, playing every shot as if nothing could ever affect you.
Alright let’s clear our heads up and relax. Take a sip of water if you haven’t yet had any, leave your venue to find a quiet place with a few frees and flowers to get some fresh air. Leave your venue EVEN if it’s an outdoor one, because you want to be clear of any distractions that you can encounter whilst relaxing and calming yourself down. During physical competitions, this is actually the no. 1 most important thing after eating. During a chess game we have a whole 90 minutes ahead of us, free time to spending doing whatever we please (apart from cheating of course!) So if your opponent brings a surprise into the game you have plenty of time to eliminate the emotions of surprise, agitation etc. And refocus yourself onto the game. In a badminton game, it’s a different story. Every point, your opponent can potentially serve high or serve low. You don’t get 2 minutes to respond. You get 0.2 seconds.
Now, back to calming yourself down. When the coast is quiet, stand shoulder width apart and take a deep breath, and depending on how fatigued you are and how heavily you are breathing, make your inhales and exhales range from 4 to 10 counts. Make sure your inhales and exhales do not stop before you are up to the designated count. Start from 4 counts if you are extremely fatigued from just finishing a game etc. and increase the time for exhale and inhale until you can regain some control over your breathing, or increase your control over your breathing.
Each count must be evenly spaced, try to control your breathing so that when you are fully inhaled you have counted up to your desired number and likewise for the reverse. It is hard, and it takes practise, but it ends up helping you alot when you need a weapon in your arsenal to calm you down. Don’t stop until you have regained some control of your breathing, otherwise you would still be unbalanced and out of puff.
In Taekwondo I was taught that breathing helps clear the mind, and during the execution of a technique a ki-hap (a shout as it is defined, but is actually human controlled force of you exhaling your breath) increases your power by up to 20%. In drama, I was taught that breathing, clears the mind, and ultimately opens a pathway for the actor to get into the character, an important aspect that any drama student would know. The point of what I just said?
Breathing is powerful, it gives life to the body, and it controls the body. Mastering your breathing is the equivalent of mastering life. So practise breathing! It helps alot!
Now let me share with you a secret…
If this is chess, don’t worry about turning up 10 seconds late. The world won’t explode! In a chess tournament this only means you lose 10 seconds on the clock. It’s better to be down 10 seconds than to reel 10 moves and only then realise you’ve either blundered along the way or gotten into unpleasant and unfamiliar territory. Unfortunately, you can’t start the game again, and it’s unpleasant to deal with.
An instructive artwork comes from the 2009 Doeberl Cup Major Division (U2000 ACF and Fide), featuring the author of this blog, my coach, Brendan Norman. After a period of inactivity he has kept the rating of 1900 from years ago. So now with his rating out of proportion to his strength, and being one of the seeds, he was vastly stronger than than most of the players U1800 ACF. The question was just whether he could defeat all the lower rated players whilst also playing well against good players who will punish him for his mistakes.
Brendan was a strong endgame player and unafraid of lower rated players, taking them on confidently, whilst also being cautious to avoid blunders. His superior positional understanding and a good bucket load of patience allowed him to answer the calls of the position, but he never hesitated to attack the opponent if the position allowed him to. A nice example is his game below:
Norman,Brendan (1922) – Dickson,Ian (1528) [A24]
O2C Doeberl Cup Major Canberra (2.7), 10.04.2009
1.c4 Nf6 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.Nc3 c6 5.e4 d6 6.d3 0–0 7.Nge2 e5 8.h3 Nbd7 9.0–0 Nb6 10.Bg5 h6 11.Be3 Qe7 12.Qd2 Kh7 13.a4 Nbd7 14.b4 c5!? 15.b5
15. … a5?? This move closes up the Q-side and allows Brendan a free hand on the K-side
16.f4 b6 17.Rf2 Bb7 18.f5!
18. f5! Showing great positional understanding. Brendan knows that even after g5 there is a way to break through.
18. … g5 19.Bf3 Ng8
20. Kf1! With the position now in White’s hands, Brendan begins the patient, Petrosian like march to the Q-side with his king, and only then decisively attacking the black king.
20. … f6 21.Bh5 Rfd8 22.Ke1 Nf8 23.Kd1 Qc7 24.Kc2 Ne7 25.Raf1 Bc8
26. h4! Now with his king completely safe, Brendan now begins the decisive attack on the black king.
26. … gxh4 27.g4 Bd7 28.Rh2 Be8 29.Bxe8 Rxe8 30.Rxh4 Kg8 31.Bxh6 Nc8 32.Nd5 Qf7 33.Bxg7 Qxg7 34.g5 fxg5 35.f6 1–0
Notice he didn’t just engage in mindless hacking, and more on that in the next point.
I had played in this tournament as well, and obviously I was keen on following my coach’s progress. After a few rounds I had noticed he had been late to every game, often by over 20 minutes. When I asked him about this, he refuted “I turn up 20 minutes late, and after 10 moves they are down on time.” I quietly nodded and then asked him if he was doing preparation all that time. He smiled and said ‘no,’ explaining he walks back to his hotel (5 minute walk) and sleeps, as well as preparing.
There are two important things we can take away here:
1. Take a good break and come back ONLY when you are refreshed, especially in tournaments with 2 games on a day. In Brendan’s case, it was 20 minutes late!
2. Rather that purchasing beer followed by chitchatting away with friends, which drain your energy anyway, Brendan did the sensible thing and headed back to sleep to re-energise. Of course it depends on how serious you are about the competition. No matter what degree of seriousness, over exhaustion is definitely not the idea here.
Ok, so now that you’ve taken in a few deep breaths, calmed yourself down and had a nice nap, it’s time to get moving to the board. You’re lower rated opponent is waiting for you.
During the Game
As you approach the board with a cup/bottle of water (and yes, this is advice too!) try to not be distracted by too much, have a light conversation with a friend to release any tension and unnecessary external thoughts and whisper to your brain “I am the better chess player. I should win.” Some of us may feel a little bit cocky when saying it, but it’s ok! Because it’s most likely true, because that’s why he’s lower rated.
We can do all the preparation, but during the game, everything seems different, we have to suddenly decide how to play against this guy, and some problems come up. We succumb to the piece-tradingphobiam, we underestimate our opponents, forgetting that he can also play chess, try to finish the game quickly by throwing pieces at the king, and ignoring the position’s needs.
‘Piece-tradingphobia’ is a common one and a problem I sometimes still have, even against higher rated players (which is probably good for them). Basically it’s the fear of swapping off pieces, leading into an eventual equal endgame and thus a draw. An illustrative example of how to deal with this is
Short,Nigel D (2615) – Kasparov,Garry (2735) [B52]
London m 25′ London (4), 05.02.1987
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+ Bd7 4.Bxd7+ Qxd7 5.0–0 Nc6 6.c3 Nf6 7.Qe2 e6 8.d4 cxd4 9.cxd4 d5 10.e5 Ne4 11.Be3 Be7 12.Ne1 f6 13.f3 Ng5 14.Nd3 0–0 15.Nd2 Nf7 16.f4 b6 17.Nf3 f5 18.Rac1 Rfc8 19.Rc2 Rc7 20.Rfc1 Rac8 21.Bd2 h6 22.h3
22... a5 Since Short is going to sit around and hold a draw, Kasparov being Kasparov decides to make the most out of the position.
23.Kh2 Kh7 24.Be3 a4 25.Bd2 first Kasparov gets his pawn to 25. … a3
22. …a5 Since short is going to sit around and try to hold a draw, Kaspy being Kaspy decides to make the most out of the position.
23. Kh2 Kh7 24. Be3 a4 25. Bd2 first Kasparov gets his pawn to 25. … a3
26. b3 and now Black has a potential threat on the Q-side which was realised later in the game.
Na7 27.Be1 Rxc2 28.Rxc2 Nd8 29.Nb4 Rxc2 30.Nxc2 Qb5 31.Qxb5 Nxb5 32.Bd2 Nc6 33.Kg1 Kg6 34.Kf2 Kh5 35.Ke3 g5 36.Kd3 g4 Kasparov keeps pressing, and finally, after
37. Ng1? See if you can spot the tactic! 🙂
Yes, it’s Ncxd4 38.hxg4+ Kxg4 39.Nxd4 Nxd4 40.Be3 and here comes the point of a3 a couple moves ago….
40. … Nxb3!! A magnificent combination and Kasparov eventually went on to win with his two extra pawns.
41.Bxb6 Nc1+ 42.Kc2 Nxa2 43.Ne2 Nb4+ 44.Kb3 a2 45.Bd4 h5 46.Bc3 Nd3 47.g3 Kf3 48.Nd4+ Kxg3 49.Nxe6 Nc5+ 50.Nxc5 Bxc5 51.Kxa2 h4 52.Be1+ Kg4 53.e6 h3 54.Bf2 Be7 55.Bg1 Kg3 56.Kb3 Kg2 0–1
The game shows us that you can improve your position even if your opponent chooses to do nothing. Ultimately, Garry prevailed.
The other thing associated with piece-tradingphobia is the tendency of higher rated players unexplained desires to decide the matter in a direct attack, regardless of the position’s needs. A common symptom of impatience, because mating the king will save you the effort of winning material, consolidating your forces, and converting the endgame. Mating the king is just so much easier, right? Sadly the modern age expects us to know better. Not every position calls for the mating attack of the king. We all know it’s not a good idea, but that spark of hope, a glimpse of hope picturing him blundering into a mating attack.. NO! NO! AND NO!
ALWAYS (and I mean always, not 99.99% of the time) expect your opponent to play the best move. This rule is commonly forgotten when facing weaker players and has lead to many victories… BUT also many unnecessary defeats. You have to respect the fact that your opponent can also play chess! Yes, he may have a better chance than you do of falling for some cheap trick but I wouldn’t bet on it. Plus, playing the best moves means you are always forcing yourself to take time and think (eliminating blunders) and aside from helping you improve your play, produces a domino effect. Since you are always playing strong moves, your opponent is forced to do the same, and doing otherwise risks losing in an ugly fashion.
Underestimating your opponent is the last thing you want to do in a martial arts competition… and you probably guessed why already. You might walk out with a psychological trauma after a chess game, but there is a chance you might never walk out after a martial arts fight, you’ll probably be carried out. It’s not a good idea.
An excellent example of the above points occurred in the NSW Open 2010, where fellow junior John P. (1900) had to face IM George Xie, who not only obtained his 3rd and final GM norm from Doeberl Cup Premier a few months ago, but back then was only 6 points off from becoming a GM. One could imagine the pressure he was up against. Any losses/draws would result in a delayed title by months, since Australia has few Fide rated tournaments. Despite this, our chess veteran had no excuses for his over aggressive and unsounds play, sacrificing pawns and then when John simply refuted the ideas he was left with just a horrible position. Had he played someone rated 400 points higher, I’m sure he would have made a different decision.
Papantoniou,John (1991) – Xie,George (2482) [A28]
NSW Open (2.2), 12.06.2010
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.d4 e4 5.Ng5 Bb4 6.d5 Ne5 7.Qd4 Qe7 8.Ngxe4 Nxe4 9.Qxe4
9. …f5?! “Speculative style!” Judging by the continuation, this pawn sacrifice is far from sound.
10.Qxf5 d6 11.Qc2 0–0 12.e4 Bc5 13.Nd1 Qh4 14.Be3 Bg4 15.Bxc5 Bxd1 16.Kxd1 dxc5 17.f3 Rae8 18.Qe2 c6 19.g3 Qf6 20.f4
20. … Ng4!? Sacrificing a piece for complications, but unfortunately after…
21.Kc2! White avoids all complications and the knight just looks silly there. Now White is completely winning.
21. …Qg6 22.Bg2 b5 23.Rhe1 bxc4 24.Bh3 Nf6 25.Be6+ Kh8 26.f5 Qg5 27.Qxc4 cxd5 28.exd5 Ng4 29.h4 Ne3+ 30.Kd3 Qxg3 31.Rxe3 Qf2 32.Qc2 c4+ 33.Qxc4 Rxf5 34.Rae1 Rf4 35.Qc3 Rd8 36.h5 h6 After 37.R1e2
37. …Qf1 Black is a piece and pawn down, White’s king is completely safe and Black’s monarch is now going to come under fire.
38.Rg3! Finally beginning the counterattack after 20 moves of consolidation!
Qb1+ 39.Kd2 Rf6? And John found a speculative combination to wrap the game in style….
40.Rxg7!! And after….
Qf1 41.Rg6 Rdf8 42.Rxh6+ Kg7 43.Rg6+ Kh7 44.Qc7+ Kh8 45.Qg7# 1–0
After Ng4 and John simply refused to take, it was obvious by the next couple of moves that George had no clear plan and was heading for 2 pawns down. John’s king was already running towards the other corner and his forces were well on the way to consolidation. In the end that’s what happened and John scored an excellent upset over the IM. The result, aside from ruining George’s mood, delaying his GM title, was that George lost about 20 fide points, and that will take a while to gain back.
This example actually demonstrates many of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned. Instead of answering the position’s needs, George simply just aimed his pieces at John’s king and went for (often) unsound complications. Kudos to John, who deserves the victory for keeping cool nerves against a strong player and brilliant attacker. Once again that not playing the best move and instead opting for a win based unsound attacking and the fact that your opponent is lower rated is not a good mindset to get into. I hope this example drives home the point and convinces you to be careful and prepared, because even IM’s fall for these kind of psychological traps!
After the game – wrapping up
Alright, now that the game is over, regardless of the result, shake hands with your opponent and offer him a few words of encouragement, it’ll do wonders unless the loss was something stupid like a one move blunder, in which case it would not have the desired affect. Even if you have won the game, still look through it, and maybe offer to do a post-mortem with your opponent.
In any competition it’s important to regain focus through breathing and relaxation techniques, and try to exterminate the negative feelings of impatience, agitation and pressure. In a battle between the World’s No.1 and World’s No.2 it’s usually not about who’s better at the actual game. There is most likely a tiny difference but’s sooo tiny that’s not noticeable. However, the decisive factor is the level of focus, the depth of preparation, and the absence of negative emotions that affect your play. The last one is most important. Not to lose patience, not to make any mistakes and just systematically having robotic-like calmness and do what you have to do.
I hope everyone took something away from this post and can apply it to their own competition, chess or otherwise.
Above all, have fun! And don’t underestimate your lower rated yet determined opponents!
Brendan’s Note: Jerry is a long time SDC student with a solid understanding of chess, his blog can be found here.