Chess Psychology

Special lecture by Ish Ramdewar

Chess Psychology- It's all in the mind! 


How Not To Play Chess

by Ish

I did an analysis on all my games this season, and I found that when I lost, it was mostly because of something wrong in my thought processes. Usually, I just got lazy! This is the number one reason I dropped points or half points! I trusted to instinct what I could have worked out. In no game did I drop below 5 minutes on the clock at any point, and only once below 10 minutes.

I concluded that work on my thought processes and approach to the game would improve my chess as much as technical work.

I hope what I've learned will be of value to you. If not, perhaps you'll be entertained by some of my most humiliating defeats!

Know Thyself!

  • Are you good in open/semi-open/closed positions?
  • Do you like tactics, or positional play more?
  • Do you have certain positions to avoid? (e.g. Closed positions with a lot of manoeuvring)
  • Do you have certain positions to aim for? (e.g. Isolated Queen's Pawn)
  • Consider doing a self-analysis. Look through as many of your games as possible, and root out the weak points and make note of what you do well.

Know Thy Opponent!

  • Ask the same questions of your opponent! Try to make life as uncomfortable as possible!
Of course, there are times when you don't know anything about your opponent. In this case:
  • Ask someone else who has played them for advice.
  • Consider their age! Usually young opponents are tactically on the ball, and are weaker in closed positions the endgame. Older opponents can be a bit slow tactically and tire more easily, so try all else being equal, go for a more unclear position! This tip will work for most opponents, not all: be careful!
  • Look at their choice of opening. If they are playing Caro-Kahn or the French, they're probably solid. Choose a variation that they probably won't like as much (e.g. Panov-Botvinnik in Caro-Kahn)
Ramdewar-Gillard 1-0 In this game, I was playing the in-form Lee Gillard who was ungraded but won the first 6 games of the season (this was his seventh), from the Met office. I played sensibly and got my opponent out of book very early (3. c4 was the extent of his knowledge). I improved my position and eventually my opponent cracked and blundered a piece. The endgame is a good example of taking the easy path to a win (see later).
  • If they play something really aggressive like the Grob (1.g4) or the King's Gambit, consider playing solidly, and giving back any gambited material in order to obtain an equal(ish) quiet position that they probably won't want.
Ramdewar-Daley 0-1
In this game, I was playing an England junior with a bogus grade of 81. I knew him to play the Sicilian Dragon, and saw him play excellently in similar positions to what we had in the game. So what did I do? You guessed it! I gave him his ideal kind of position! He uncorked a novelty on move 10 and I was out of book (this must be the longest line I know!) and he out played me whilst still in book. I sacrificed the exchange and gave myself some chances (though he was objectively winning). I then relaxed and proceeded to blunder the game away in fine style!

Taking on 'Weaker' Opponents (Rabbits)

Meaton-Ramdewar 1-0
In this game, I was playing Arthur Meaton, a senior who I've seen play often, and had beaten in rapidplay. I outplayed him from the outset, then relaxed and didn't look for his threats (in fact, I had seen the threat much earlier and forgot, and played an instant move in a game which was Fischer timed and I was getting 30 sec/move added to my clock! The resulting postion was drawn by perpetual check, but I pig headedly tried to escape, and was duly punished!
  • Know thyself and thy opponent and play according to strengths/weaknesses as shown above. A weaker player by grade will often still have some pronounced strengths! Don't dismiss them (seeing them as a 'rabbit' can be dangerous!)
  • Everything else being equal, most stronger players will outplay a weaker player positionally, especially in the endgame.
  •   Consider playing a more quiet opening than you may be used to (1. c4, 1.g3, 1.d4, 1.b3 come to mind.) Often something like 1. b3 will knock a weaker player, at least psychologically. They may think you are very strong in this line, and unfamiliarity can make them that little bit more uncomfortable.
  • Don't set a trap and assume a weaker opponent will fall into it because they are 'weak'. Only set a trap if it improves your position by doing so. Assume your opponent will see your trap, and ask yourself whether it's still a good move! The one exception is completely lost positions.
  • Remember that all of our opponents have ideas. Always ask yourself what the threats are, what pitfalls you can fall into and take your time.
Foley-Ramdewar 0-1
In this game, I kept it simple against Phil Foley, a slightly weaker player than myself who I didn't know much about. Even though I didn't play my best, the simpler nature of the position suited me more than it did him, and the win was eventually assured.

Taking on 'Stronger' Opponents (Heffalumps)

Regis-Ramdewar 1-0
In this game, I was taking on Dave Regis, the current club champion, and a man graded more than 50 points above me, so I knew I had nothing to lose! I went in to try and produce an upset. I was marginally outplayed for the opening, but in another IQP position managed to outplay my mighty opponent for a short period and obtain a better middlegame with black. I was then offered an endgame and saw it as better for black (wrongly) and went for it, but didn't even consider keeping the middlegame! I blundered in an even endgame and that was that.
  • Believe you can win, and play for it!
  • Don't go for the draw from the off- make them beg you for it!
  • Know thyself and thy opponent (as usual)!
  • All else being equal, make the position strange and tactical. Most of the time, by definition, you will lose to a better opponent. However, a very tactical position greatly increases the chance they have to mess up!
  • Stronger players are likely to beat you in positional play, and often are stronger endgame players. Try and keep a complicated middlegame position.
  • Don't give up! Strong players make mistakes!
Ramdewar-Pope 1/2-1/2
Sean Pope is known as a very solid (if occasionally boring) player. His style really is not suited to me, and I tend to struggle against Sean more than the stronger (at least by grade) Simon Waters or even Dave! In any case, I managed to keep setting my opponent problems in a very difficult endgame, and was simply enjoying watching him squirm! I was just trying to make his win as tough as possible. He avoided one draw pitfall, but missed the triangulation  (probably due to tiredness) he needed for the full point, and I walked away with a juicy half-point!

How to Play 'Winning' Positions

  • If the time comes when you are winning, or significantly better, don't take a draw unless that's all you need to win a tournament or match. This applies especially against strong opponents where we feel a draw is a 'good' result. Again: make them grovel for it- make them prove they can equalise and draw.
  • A 'winning' position is only winning if you play the best moves! Stay alert!
  • Remember that all of our opponents have ideas. Always ask yourself what the threats are, what pitfalls you can fall into and take your time.
  • Don't force things. The win will come to you if you keep playing the best moves!
  • Go for the simple win. If you need to give up material to extinguish counterplay, do it!
  • When ahead, trade down, simplify. 3vs1 is much better than 12vs10!
  • Be careful of traps! Even bad positions often contain hidden resources. Play hard and focus, even when it seems easy!

How to Play 'Drawn' Positions

  • Don't assume it's drawn! Often 'drawn' positions have alot of play in them! Look closely before deciding the position is drawn.
Ramdewar-Bartlett 1/2-1/2
Having rejected a draw-offer against an opponent graded 30 grades above me on move 33 in a position with bishops of opposite colours, I felt obliged to offer a draw 7 moves later as I saw no way of making progress. In fact, the final position which looks drawish  due to bishops of opposite colours has a lot of life in it, and I could have gone for it!
  • Basically the most important thing to do in a drawn position is to look for ways for your opponent and/or yourself to go wrong, if you can avoid losing plans, the draw will be assured.
  • If your opponent makes a mistake, it's your job to prove their mistake costly.
  • Play slowly, and let small advantages accumulate. The only way to win a drawn position is for your opponent to make mistakes: several small ones or a couple of big ones!
  • Keep your eyes open, and perhaps you'll get that extra half-point. People get tired and lazy (remember Ramdewar-Pope?), the endgame is the place that strong players can really show what they're made of!

How to Play 'Lost' Positions

  • When you're losing, knuckle down! Don't lose an opportunity for a swindle!
  • Simon W is an excellent case of a good swindler. He plays very hard in lost positions, and his strength in the endgame skill wins him many points and half-points. But how?
  • At some point, the position gets so bad that it's no good to play the 'objective best move'. What you need is to set up ways for your opponent to go wrong.
  • Constantly solving problems is tiring. The more problems you can set, and the more difficult they are, the harder you make your opponent's job.
  • It may be that even though you're 'lost', your position contains a plus point, which if your opponent ignores could lead to a result other than he is expecting! Sometimes it's better to play aggressively with this than to passively defend and get ground down. An example of this could be a queenside pawn majority. Play for a break to stretch your opponent. Try to give them ways to go wrong.
  • Remember, the worst that can happen is that you lose. But even if you improve your score by ½ a point in a season, that's still a tangible improvement!

What to do When You Blunder

  • We all know that we should be avoiding blunders, but sometimes they happen. A nasty tactical fork can easily devastate your positionally principled move. If so, what to do?
  • When you make one mistake, it's very easy to be shaken. Usually, you missed your opponent's reply. Step one: stay clam!
  • Get up and have a 2-minute break. Get a drink.
  • It's usually worth spending some time completely re-evaluating the position. Be as objective as you can.
  • Sometimes you'll be losing after your blunder. If so, take the advice above on playing lost positions.
  • If you were winning, your 'winning' plan probably doesn't work anymore, so you'll need to make a new one. Be flexible. Don't continue as before, like me!

Whitfield-Ramdewar 1-0

In this game, I played a dubious move (8...Qa5) and decided to make it stick no matter what, when objectively, it's probably best to bring the queen back to d8 to defend. I played pig-headedly throughout and was obliterated, and rightly so! Sometimes we have to accept we've done something silly, play the position properly, according to a good plan, not our old poor one and fight like a devil!

When Your Opponent Blunders

  • Check whether it's a real blunder. It may be a trap!
  • If you can't see a reason not to take advantage of the blunder, do it! Even strong players make mistakes, and if we don't pounce on them, we will get crushed!
  • Don't trust your opponent's analysis! Their sacrifice may well be unsound! Analyse for yourself. Even grandmasters make terrible moves from time to time!

Tying it all Together

  • Work out your strengths and weaknesses (i.e. know thyself). Play to your strengths, and try to root out your weaknesses away from the tournament board!
  • Make life difficult for your opponent. Fischer said “Chess is like war on the chessboard. The object is to crush your opponent's mind!”
  • Aim for positions which exploit your opponent's weaknesses.
  • When winning or playing a weaker opponent, keep focused. Simplify into an easy win instead of going for a brilliancy.
  • When losing, or playing a stronger opponent, complicate things!
  • Most 'drawn' positions still have ways to lose! Keep your eye on the ball!
  • If you make a mistake, re-focus and take extra time. Get up from the board for a minute, get a drink. Look at the position as if for the first time. In short start again.
  • If your opponent blunders, make sure it's a blunder then punish him!

Good luck!

Chess Quotes

"Many players, even of a high calibre, will assert, half jokingly and half seriously, that a difficult labour of analysis can be replaced by intuition. 'I played this move in a flash - it was obvious it couldn't be bad' is the sort of thing we often hear in a post-mortem.
— ZAK, Improve your chess results.