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The United States Chess Federation - Is Your EGO Costing You Your ELO?

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Is Your EGO Costing You Your ELO?


By Michael Jeffreys
September 17, 2008

In a sport that relies on brain instead of brawn, ego is a powerful motivator. Don’t let your
preoccupation with self affect your rating points.

“A game is only serious when you forget it’s a game.”


–Jeff Foster

We’ve all seen it. A chess player loses a game and then lectures their opponent on how “badly” they
played and how lucky they were to win: “You were so busted ... I had you crushed!” And then under their
breath they add, “How could I lose to this fish!?” while shaking their head in disgust.

What’s going on here? Why is this player venting his frustration at the other player, rather than where it
belongs: on himself. The answer can be summed up in one word: EGO. We all have one; and we all know
that our ego loves to win. “Man, I’m good!” it crows with delight when we take down the full-point in a
rated tournament game. And, of course, we can’t wait to run and show our friends our latest “brilliancy.”

However, what happens when we lose a game? After all, the reality is that nobody wins all the time. Even
the games best: Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, etc. have had to deal with
losing to “weaker” players (since pretty much they were considered the favorite in any game they played
during their prime). Yes, the reality is that we all lose some of the time.

To see how often even a very good player can expect to lose, I looked up 2007 U.S. women’s champion IM
Irina Krush’s win/loss/draw ratio from Megabase 2007. The database contains 716 of her games, of which
277 are wins, 228 are losses, and 211 are draws. This breaks down to: 38.6% wins, 31.8% losses, and
29.4% draws. So, even a strong player can “expect” (and I don’t mean this in a negative way, but in a
statistical one) to lose roughly 1/3 of their games (unless of course your name is Kasparov, who out of
3,004 games entered in Megabase 2007, has a mind-blowing losing percentage of only 8.8%!).

My point is that everyone who plays chess can expect to lose a certain percentage of their games. The
question is, how do you deal with these losses when they come? Are you one of those individuals who
absolutely cannot stand to lose? Indeed, does just my mere suggestion of you losing a chess game cause
your temperature to begin to go up? Well, if so, I can assure you that you are setting yourself up for a
boatload of future disappointments and unhappiness, a.k.a. PAIN. Especially if you are one of those players
who go into a deep funk after a loss. I know one player that entered a six-round tournament but was so
disgusted after having lost his first game that he dropped out.

Now, you may argue that not wanting to lose is a good thing; it’s what drives you to want to improve. And
to a degree, I would agree with you. But there comes a point where letting losses deeply affect you is
simply counterproductive. Being upset for a few minutes immediately following a game where you made a
blunder is completely normal. But if you’re still beating yourself up over it three days later, than you might
want to work on improving your “losing skills.”

Yes, just like learning how to win is a skill, so is learning how to lose. And while every chess player thinks
about winning, most have given virtually no thought as to how they will handle losing. I have to confess
that I speak from experience here. I used to get so worked-up over my tournament losses that even days
later they still bothered me. However, by following the advice I am sharing with you in this article, by
working on my “losing skills,” I have learned to see chess in its proper perspective: as a game to be
enjoyed and to grow and learn from. As a result of my change in attitude, I have more fun playing, worry
less about my results, and yet have seen my rating go up. Note that the increase in rating is a “by-product”
of this new attitude, and not a conscious goal.

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Of course, some players’ egos are so fragile that they cannot take responsibility for their own
mistakes/blunders. Instead, they have a built-in defense mechanism that kicks in whenever they lose a
game. Israeli FM Amatzia Avni talks about this in his book, Practical Chess Psychology (Batsford, 2001). In
chapter 9, “Encounters with Failure,” he writes under the heading, Confronting a loss:

What do chess players do to keep their balance, to ease their agony? As in other stress-situations, good
old defence-mechanisms come to the rescue. As making excuses may appear childish (not that it’s an
obstacle for making them: “the game was scheduled too early” and “I was irritated by my opponent’s
behavior” are all too familiar), players have been known to come up with:

My mind was paralyzed (that is, I was OK—it’s my bloody mind that inflicted the damage).

I suppose I didn’t really want to win (again, it’s not me. This time the problem lies within that elusive factor
called motivation).

You cannot fight against youth (here, my ageing is the deciding factor).

I misplayed the opening, and didn’t really get a chance to enter the battle (hence, my failure stems from a
gap in knowledge, not in talent.)

These are just a few of the many excuses that some players use. The question is, WHY do they do this?
The answer is because to admit that the loss was 100% of their own making is simply too painful. A person
with a shaky self-esteem thinks, “Great ... one more thing I suck at.” And this adds another log to the fire
of that person’s already poor self-image. Pretty soon, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They expect to
lose (although not consciously), and so sooner or later they sabotage themselves so that their brain gets to
be right: “See, I told you you’re no good at this game!” it says immediately following another frustrating
loss.

Of course, it’s not just after the game that “poor adversity skills” can be a problem. It can also be a
problem during a game if something bad or unexpected happens and you suddenly find yourself in trouble.
If your mind starts to criticize, complain and bemoan the fact that you overlooked a shot by your opponent,
or that you have misplayed things and are suddenly worse, this negative thinking could be just enough to
make you go on “Tilt.”

Going on Tilt

This is a term which originally came from the world of pinball machines. A player who shook the machine
too hard in order to get the little steel ball to go where he wanted it would suddenly feel the machine
freeze and see the word “TILT” light up. The round would be over and that ball dead. Obviously tilting is
something good players try to avoid, as doing so makes it impossible to top the current high score.

The poker world has adopted the term “being on tilt” to indicate when a player is still upset about a
previous hand, and is currently not playing his “A” game. His focus is gone, his mind is divided, and
suddenly he starts making impulsive, risky, and sometimes just downright poor decisions. Most often going
on tilt is caused when a player experiences what is called a “bad beat.” This is a situation where he is the
heavy statistical favorite to win the hand (say 90% or more), yet when the dealer turns over the river card
his opponent miraculously hits one of his two “outs.”

The fact that the most unpleasant thing that could possibly happen happened, when it was a long shot at
best, can suddenly send the mind reeling. And in poker, this can cost you money. When you are on tilt, you
are far more likely to lash out, make a play to try to recover your lost chips, or simply stay in a hand that is
statistically a dog and that you would normally never play. However, because you are on tilt and not
thinking properly, you let your ego/emotions get the best of you. And so you end up playing weak poker;
and weak poker is, in the long run, losing poker.

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Going on Tilt in Chess

The difference between poker and chess is that in poker you can blame something bad that happens to you
on your opponent making a poor call or the bad luck of the cards. But in chess, there is no one to “blame”
except yourself. YOU hung the piece and so for many this gives their mind the green light to begin the self-
flagellation: “What is wrong with me!? I did it again! Man, how stupid can I be!? Arrrrrrgh!!!”

Sometimes, the brain is so anxious to be right that it doesn’t even wait until the game is over. As soon as
the player gets into some trouble, such as dropping a pawn, the negative self-talk starts right up: “Oh,
no! ... I can’t believe I dropped a friggin pawn ... unbelievable!” And for the next five minutes the brain
continues to berate itself.

This kind of self-talk is pure poison. The main reason is because the moment you do this you are no longer
devoting 100% of your resources—all of your brain power—to finding the best moves. Suddenly, you are
utilizing perhaps only 70% (or less!) of your mind, because the other 30% is being spent on negative self-
talk. Do you really think you can give 70% effort when your opponent is giving 100%, and still expect to
win?

When I mentioned to a friend of mine, expert Danny Berman, that I was writing this article, he said he
recently saw an example in a movie of not letting negative events affect your thinking. He told me that in
Shoot ‘Em Up, Paul Giamatti’s character had just lost half his men and someone said to him, “Hey, you lost
half your men, aren’t you angry? Giamatti replied, “I can’t afford to be angry ... anger lowers your I.Q.,
and right now I need to think!” I don’t know how good the movie is, but this is definitely good advice for
chess players.

So, what can you do when you suddenly find that something has gone wrong and your position is bad?
Instead of becoming upset, try the following three tips:

1. Stay Calm.

While dropping a piece or throwing away a win can often be a shock to the system, it is important that you
do not panic. If you panic then you are not going to be thinking rationally and you are more likely to
commit a second blunder.

Also, remember to breathe. Focusing on your breathing will help you stay calm; breath in, breath out,
relax. Perhaps the time it will take your opponent to trap your piece allows you an opportunity to start an
attack on his king? Have new lines suddenly opened up that you can take advantage of? You will only see
this possibility (or others that may be hidden within the position) if you stay calm and focused. If need be,
get up and go to the bathroom and splash some water on your face. The five minutes you leave the board
may be just what you need to clear your head and come back in a better frame of mind.

Danny told me that he saw a good example of this several years ago at a chess tournament. He was
watching master Sharon Burtman and her opponent in a mad time scramble. Both players were moving
very quickly. After her opponent had made yet another quick move, he saw Sharon reach for a piece and
then suddenly freeze! She then looked at her score sheet and saw they were on move 41—both had made
time control. She then took her other hand and used it to slowly retract her hand that was hovering over
the piece she was about to move. She then stood up and walked away from the board. This was a great
move on her part and one that I recommend you also do. Once you have made time control get up for a
few minutes and walk around to give your head a chance to clear. Many players fail to do this and end up
blundering on move 41 or 42 because they are still caught up in the rhythm of moving fast even when they
no longer need to. Discipline yourself not to make this costly mistake.

2. Compartmentalize the mistake.

If you hung a pawn, then you hung a pawn. Don’t blow it up into something more than it is. In other words,
don’t let one mistake bleed over and affect your entire game. You missed a knight fork means you missed
a knight fork and not that you’re a bad player; don’t make it into more than what it is. I have seen players
that as soon as they make one mistake, their entire game falls apart. They start shaking their heads and
bemoaning their blunder, both verbally and with their body language. They have become discouraged and

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lost their fighting spirit, all because of one mistake. And you can be sure that if this happens to you, your
opponent will notice! And once they sense weakness coming from your side of the board, like a shark that
smells blood, it only gives them more confidence that you are theirs for the taking. You can avoid this by
staying calm and not making a big deal about your mistake; simply note it and move on. Say to yourself,
“There is still a lot of chess to be played. I’m going to fight on and who knows, he may even blunder back!”

3. Get in the habit of putting up maximum resistance.

The idea of fighting hard in a “lost” position is something I learned by watching a friend of mine named Carl
Hyne. Known as “the Great Carlini,” he can be found most weekends at Santa Monica Chess Park playing
blitz while kibitzing to his opponent and the surrounding crowd. I cannot tell you how many times I have
seen him pull out games where he was completely busted. I’ve seen him find a way to win in games where
he was down a queen. He would simply continue to make threats with his remaining forces thus keeping his
opponent under pressure. Often they would become flustered and either blunder a piece back or lose on
time. I’ve seen him do this so often that I knew there had to be something different in his approach to the
game.

When I asked him why he doesn’t get rattled or discouraged like most players when he drops a piece he
replied, “It’s a fatalistic philosophy that OK, you lost the piece. You accept it and move on.” And if you
watch Carl play blitz, if he does drop a piece, he just continues playing as if nothing happened. This does
two things: It reinforces his own belief that he is still going to win, and secondly, it confounds his opponent
who is wondering why Carl is not more upset about hanging the piece! They think, “Doesn’t this guy realize
he just hung a knight ... why is he still playing on??” And so they tend to relax thinking the game will win
itself. Needless to say, this feeling of overconfidence often leads them to making casual moves thus
allowing Carl to set-up one of his infamous swindles. These crowd- pleasing comebacks are often
accompanied by him exclaiming, “Never give up, never surrender!”

The only way to develop this “fighting spirit” is to practice playing on when down material. The more you
do it the better you will get at putting up maximum resistance. Having incorporated this philosophy into my
own game, I can tell you that it is indeed a sweet feeling to come back from a losing position and pull out
the win or a draw. It not only shocks your opponent, it also gives you confidence knowing that you didn’t
crack under pressure, but rather stayed tough mentally and fought hard, i.e. had a warrior’s spirit.

Here is an example from my fifth-round game at the 2006 Los Angeles Open:

Staying tough
Michael Bynum (1534)
Michael Jeffreys (1719)
Los Angeles Open (5), 10.08.2006

Black to play

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In the above position I’m black and my lower-rated opponent has completely outplayed me. White is not
only up the Exchange, but has a winning position. After White’s last move 29. Qe6+, Junior 10 has White
up +3.66.

29. ... Kh8 30. Rf7 Rg8 31. d6 Bd4

All my hopes lie in activating my bishop. But would my opponent allow it?

32. d7?!

White rushes to promote his pawn, but allows:

32. ... Be5

My first threat of the game ... mate in one!

33. Rf2 Qe3

After 33. ... Qe3

I’m trying my best to stir up trouble, but will it work?

34. Kg2?

Here my opponent missed a nice winning shot: 34. R7xf6! Taking advantage of the pinned bishop. 34. ...
gxf6 35. Qxg8+! Kxg8 36. d8=Q+ Kg7 37. Qe7+ Kg8 38. Qe6+ Kg7 39. Qd7+ Kh6 40. Qd2.

34. ... Qe4+!

With Black's head on the chopping block, he refuses to die and instead pulls out the miracle draw.

35. Kf1

White's king must stay off the dark squares otherwise a bishop check picks up his queen.

35. ... Qh1+ 36. Ke2 Qe4+ 37. Kd1 Qb1+ 38. Ke2 Qe4+, Draw agreed.

This save is a good example of the “Never give up, Never Surrender!” attitude and hopefully it will inspire
you to fight hard in your own games regardless of how bad things may look.

Finally, here are two things you can do to keep your chess fun and enjoyable rather than stressful and

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ratings driven:

1. Keep the game in perspective. Yes, it can get intense at times, and during the game it may feel like
life and death, but at the end of the day it is still just a game (although the greatest one ever invented!).
Take another look at the Jeff Foster quote at the beginning of this article. Remember why you took up the
game in the first place: to have fun, to learn, and to grow as a player; GM Maurice Ashley has reminded
Chess Life readers in the past to enjoy the journey.

This is certainly good advice regardless of your rating. Note that this advice can also be applied to how you
approach each move of every game you play. In other words, during your games you focus on making good
moves and “enjoy the journey” without worrying about the outcome of the game. This is a very “Zen-like”
approach to chess, and one that I personally find both calming and fulfilling.

2. Keep your ego out of it. How? By not taking anything that happens during the game personally.
Remember, whether you win or lose a chess game has nothing whatsoever to do with your worth as a
person… unless you make the mistake of thinking it does.

There is a guy who plays at the Starbuck’s I play at on the weekends who can never lose a blitz game
without making excuses. “Oh, I had you there, I just missed the check” or “You know you were crushed, I
just ran out of time.” When he’s not there, several of the other players talk about how obnoxious he can
be. And if you lose to him, you never hear the end of it because he keeps score of how many games he’s
beaten you this month! The sad part is he’s basically not a bad guy, but his chess results are so tied into
his self-image that he feels compelled to defend his ego at all costs. He has erroneously tied his chess
results into his value as a human being.

Don’t fall into this trap. Your worth as a human being should have nothing to do with how well you push
little plastic or wood pieces around a board. Yes you want to win, but if you do lose life goes on and
tomorrow is a new day. By the way, if you do find your ego has been triggered, i.e., you feel yourself
getting angry or defensive, such as when there is some type of dispute during your game, simply catch
yourself, begin focusing on your breathing, and slowly calm yourself down. The ego is extremely persistent
and learning to keep it in check (pun intended) does take practice.

Another advantage of learning to play “egoless” chess is that it frees you up to try new things: “Hey, this
pawn sac looks like fun; I think I’ll try it in my next game.” However, if your ego is tied into winning and
losing, you will often be too concerned about being down material to just “go for it.”

Again, I speak from experience here—for a long time I used to draw way too many games simply because I
was afraid of making a mistake and losing the game. I used to worry, “Oh, I teach chess, what will people
think if I have a low rating?” However, I finally figured out that nobody really cares what my rating is ...
except me! That’s right. In other words, being “only” a class B player has never stopped me from getting
work as a chess instructor at schools or teaching private lessons. What’s more, once I made the conscious
decision to stop worrying about my rating and decided to just “play chess,” my results improved.

After years of struggling I recently became a class A player. I attribute my breakthrough to utilizing the
very concepts I’m sharing in this article, and NOT focusing on the four little numbers above my name on
my Chess Life label. If you do the same, i.e., stay calm, compartmentalize your mistakes, always put up
maximum resistance, keep the game in perspective, keep your ego out of it, you will not only enjoy your
chess more, but may just see your rating go up naturally, as a by product of your new attitude!

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