Sunday, January 30, 2011

All things be ready if our minds be so

Chess is not exactly thought of as a co-operative activity, more likely as a competitive activity. We are not exactly trying to work with our opponent to achieve a common goal. It is competitive, yet hopefully not destructive. We assume that competitiveness brings out the best in us - that competitiveness forces us to try harder to achieve our aims and keeps us on our mettle. It attracts feelings of pride in having given of our best but also the desire to be better (in some vague way) to our peers. Of course we do not really wish to develop that type of arrogance in ourselves (or do we perhaps accept it as the necessary price of progress)?

Whatever the rights and wrongs of competitiveness, our aim when playing chess is at odds with that of our opponent. But is it useful to think of your opponent solely in terms of a hated enemy who must be defeated at all costs? Do such feelings hamper our oft-expressed wish to have chess thought of as an art form - our desire to play "beautiful" moves? We are indeed often grateful to our opponent for having the courage to accept our latest, dodgy (!), sacrifice so that we can find out whether our brainwave fully stands up in the cold light of day.

If you deliberately foster completely negative feelings towards your opponent, using them to psych yourself up in some way, then there are other attendant dangers. Mayhap we begin to ascribe powers to him/her which have no foundation in reality and which might affect our game adversely. For example, the idea that your opponent can 'see everything' at the board, plays faultlessly etc. This could lead to the worst thing that can happen to you when you sit at the chessboard ie that you actually become afraid of your opponent. You know in your heart that, for any enterprise, fear is a negative emotion which will drain your energy and commitment. It is the commonest precursor to failure and, as such, is to be abhorred.

My point is to say that we really need to be clear about what our attitude is towards the game and our opponent. I might tell you to "Get your mind straight!" as the prison guard kept saying to Paul Newman in 'Cool Hand Luke'! Or, maybe a little better, "All things be ready if our minds be so" (Henry V).

If you are playing against a friend then I believe you should consider if you are not already half way inclined towards giving him/her an easy game so as not to hurt their feelings - or some such silliness! Or perhaps your opponent may have arrived with a reputation of being a strong player, much more experienced than yourself. It is perhaps natural to feel, not only intimidated, but also 'unworthy' of playing against such an august personage. You feel you do not even have the right to be seated at the same table and so on and so forth. I don't need to tell you that you should resist such thoughts with all your might! If you need to be reminded of your right to exist (!) please allow me to point you in the direction of the Desiderata prayer which has so often helped me to redirect  my thoughts in a more positive direction.

Another pitfall, for me especially, is trying to play perfect moves. It's a distraction, reallly. To believe that you will not gain ascendency over the other guy/guyess unless your play is faultless. Well, you can try this concept out when involved with correspondence chess but I doubt it will get you very far under blitz conditions. The concept of "stick to your plan" is much more important - even when you have just thrown a piece away. Your plan was to take the pawn so as to be able to pin  his Q and R ... OK, so you blundered and lost a rook. You can no longer play "perfect" chess but you can go ahead with taking his pawn, getting the pin and seeing if your plan still yields dividends. Who knows?!

Perhaps the best advice is still to "play the board and not the man". However, being made the way we are, it is still very difficult to avoid holding details about your opponent in your head subconsciously. And does this not contradict all we have heard about preparing for particular opponents in terms of careful choice of opening and so on? For example, if your opponent has the reputation of being frustrated in the face of solid, unenterprising, positional play then that might govern our choice of opening etc. Well, that's chess - we all have to find the way that suits us best as individuals. As long as we give it SOME thought beforehand.

It is helpful to retain the knowledge that, whatever your deficiencies at the game, you did at least have the courage to take on the diverse challenges and pitfalls that the game holds. That counts for something, after all. And it may also be comforting to remember that the other guy is also having to deal with the same issues as yourself - he too is being assailed by the same doubts as you are, the same knowledge of their deficiencies that you have. We are all "ships that pass in the night", we all think that other people are happier than we are, that they have a clearer idea of what they are doing than we do and so on.

There is a good side to all this soul-searching of course. It is that your human opponent, as opposed to a computer opponent, satisfies your inner need for a fight! Let's be honest, we all like a good fight. So don't hold back, mix it up and don't be afraid to try out new ideas. Be bold - not cautious! Play with confidence even if you do not feel confident - a good trick to learn! Complexities and sacrifices are what make the game interesting after all. Knowing when to attack and when to retreat is also part of the play - retreating is hardly at the top of our list of priorities but it may be the only way to make progress (or the only way to allow your opponent to jump in and make a fool of himself with a premature attack!).

To put it another way - you simply have to find the strength to fight. My example here is from Game 4 of 'Kasparov v Karpov 1986 - 1987'. This game was Kasparov's first win in the first match against Karpov in which he was playing as World Champion. It remains one of the games against Karpov of which he was most proud (more details of the game to be included here soon). After hours of home analysis, Kasparov had decided to play Ba3 as his 14th move. However, during the match he realised that this simply provided Karpov with a simplifying line. But Kasparov found the strength to look for a way out and came up with a better move, 14. O-O!

This shows how we can come up with the 'goods' when we are under pressure (or not, of course!). Under the cosh everything comes into focus and we create something we never thought we were capable of . This is, of course, one of the reasons we continue to play the game even though it often brings us to the brink of despair!

It also shows how we are able to 'stretch' ourselves in situations that we consider to be all-important. Whenever you think that a particular game is not actually that important to you then don't expect to play your best and don't expect to win either! You need to trick yourself into an "all or nothing" frame of mind before you start - even if it is just a casual unrated game. We should all endeavour to lead our lives in this way too of course - live for the moment as if it is your last and so on!

So I hope you enjoy your games and play with 'pizzaz'! . If you are not enjoying the game then you are doing something wrong of course - either take a break or take some time to think about WHY you have lost the enjoyment. "Oh, it's because you are losing all the time?". OK, join the club!

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