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Bad Habits

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BAD HABITS IN CHESS

by GM Kevin Spraggett

 

‘’HABIT IS SECOND NATURE.’’----MONTAIGNE

There is an ageless axiom in chess which states that one should avoid playing weaker players .

Lucena knew it. So did Rui Lopez. And Damiano felt it important enough that he included it in his famous book –Libro de Imparare Giocare a Scachi I de Partiti-- even though paper was expensive and very scarce in those times.

Apparently ‘a word to the wise’ was not quite sufficient, for nearly 400 years later we see the great Steinitz still feeling the need to continue the crusade : in his writings he never tired of pointing out that constantly playing with weaker players is the breeding ground of bad habits.

But today, one hundred years after Steinitz, in a ‘better informed’ world and where the weekend Swiss tournament is king, this problem has taken on a whole new dimension: for while most everyone now is aware of the old axiom , nobody (except those ‘damn’ weaker players) can faithfully follow it!

And so this is the dilemma that every chessplayer who wants to improve (and whose main chess ‘diet’ consists of weekend chess) faces : while not being unappreciative of a few easy points in each tournament (and a few more rating points...), how does one go about dealing with that nasty side effect—the bad habit?

This little blurb is dedicated to discussing some of those bad habits, and their origin, with the hope that pointing them out and making players aware of them is the first step in the ‘cure’.

But let me make two observations before I continue. First, that getting rid of your bad habits will not make chess any more fun for you than it already is (in fact, a lot more work will be required of you). Second, that once the whole ‘exorcising ' process is completed you are not likely to win more games than you do presently. (However, as way of compensation, you will very likely lose less games than you do presently!)

 

PRELIMINARY IDEAS

Our bad habits in chess , ironically, are the result of us being reasonably intelligent creatures living in a complex and demanding world. Daily life consists of us accomplishing many tasks simultaneously. We have a very limited amount of time to learn (or train for) these tasks, and so our focus –when learning anything new—is to be able to almost immediately apply that new ‘skill’. And we measure our success in this by being able to achieve the desired results.

So it is in chess, for example. We determine success through our ability to win as many games as we can.

The problem here, of course, is that when the task involves something very complex (like chess) the learning model (described above) is too simplistic, and there really is no positive correlation between the quality of the learning process and the results obtained by applying the ‘lessons’.

In chess a player can make more mistakes than his opponent and still win ! (Very often only the last mistake is relevant and decisive!) In fact, if he is always playing players weaker than himself, then he can keep winning game after game and have absolutely no reason to even suspect that he is doing something very wrong!

 

And what is more, why should he change something that works? Isn’t there a famous line that goes something like ‘Nothing quite succeeds like success,’ ? This is how bad habits begin, settle in, and then become an ‘invisible’ part of each player. Invisible because the player doesn’t even realize it.

Very often, when that chessplayer does finally meet up with some player stronger than himself—and who gives him the well deserved thrashing that he so deserves—the player will have by then developed such an over sized ego that he will seek the reason for his defeat in individual moves rather than in questioning the underlying foundation of his false chess attitudes.

This is why the axiom is so important.

 

During the golden age of chess, it was thought that the fundamental ability of a master player consisted in his capacity for inspiration. Some thought that even in the most hopelessly lost position a great player could '‘discover’ some brilliant move and turn the table on his opponent.

Today we know better...even though we still have our little‘myths’...

One of the most fundamental truths in chess is that BEFORE one can win our opponent must FIRST lose!

This seems a little dramatic at first. But it is very true.

For example, it doesn’t matter if little, timid and very nervous Joey Patzer sits down to confront a super confident and radiantly smiling Garry Kasparov ...one thing is absolutely clear: Kasparov will NOT win the game UNLESS little Joey makes a mistake big enough to give Kasparov the chance to use his tremendous skills and techniques to exploit that very error!

If little Joey has a lucky day and doesn’t mess up, then Garry will be one surprised (and disappointed) fellow! The clever wolf can ‘huff and puff’ all he wants, but if Joey doesn’t get frightened and refuses to make that mistake then the house will remain intact!

Of course, such an event is not likely to occur with little Joey. (Making bad moves seems easier to do than making good moves.) But it does serve well to stress that , in a chess game, it is the mistakes that decide the outcome, and not the level of skill of either player! All that Garry Kasparov can do against little Joey is DEMONSTRATE his skills at exploiting errors.

It is this simple truth about our noble game that makes it even more attractive. The chessplayer who appreciates this truth has much less reason to develop an ego! And it goes a long way to help develop an objective , realistic attitude that is a pre-condition for self-improvement in chess (or any other human activity for that matter).

Keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground (while making sure that the head stays where it belongs) can help make you a much better chessplayer.

Another important observation, more obvious than the last, is that the game of chess has three (3) perfectly legal and respectable results: 1. you win

2. you lose or 3. you draw. The likelihood of any of those results in any game is identical.

Chess players sometimes get carried away with the intensity of the struggle and the colour of their emotions associated with the often unpredictable nature of the game and feel that a draw is too little reward for so much torment and anxiety!

This of course, is ridiculous. Some of the hardest fought, most complex and uncompromising struggles in chess history have ended in draws. Besides, what does one have to complain about when neither you nor your opponent make no serious errors at all? (Remember, someone has to make a serious mistake in order for winning chances to occur.)

Throughout chess history the ‘draw’ has been given a pretty hard time, and often has been the victim of abuse and misunderstanding. This is in large part due to the fact that most organizers are not chess players. Some undoubtedly feel that the spectator should not be burdened anymore than necessary by having to fathom what a draw signifies...others simply refuse to admit (in principle) that there are anything other than WINNERS (note the capitals ) and losers (note the lack of capitals) in chess!

There was a comical example of such ‘abuse’ in a recent (’97) super-tournament in Spain, organized by the ‘world champion of organizers’ Luis Rentero of Linares. (Sr. Rentero is a notoriously weak player who has often tried to give advice to the world’s best players-including Garry Kasparov himself!)

Sr. Rentero, whenever he invites a player to participate in one of his ‘super-tournaments’,would make it very clear that he would not tolerate any ‘unsporting’ draws. In fact, once when he invited former world champion Boris Spassky he insisted that Spassky sign a contract promising not to make any draws in less than 40 moves! Being a man of his word, and not wishing to let the opportunity slip to ‘teach’ Sr. Rentero the error of his ways, Spassky made sure that each of his many draws was EXACTLY 40 moves long! (As a side to this, it must be noted that Boris Spassky has never since been invited back...)

Anyway, back to the example under discussion (97), in one of the games was revealed one of the most important theoretical opening novelties of the 90’s in a very topical line of the popular Slav Defence.

(For those interested, it was Khalifman-Bareev)

After some amazing tactical fireworks-- where both players’ skills were tested to the extreme--the game ended in a draw (around move 25). The position left on the board was so lifeless that I am certain that not even Sr. Rentero could lose it from either side!

Upon agreeing to the draw, the two players--obviously quite satisfied with the creative aspect of the game and very much aware that one of the most important theoretical games of the decade had just been played—ran off to the analysis room followed by a keen crowd of chess enthusiasts.

While they were analysing some of the intricate consequences of the novelty, someone came in and interrupted them to inform them that Sr. Rentero—upon hearing of the draw—had decided to fine both players 50000 pts (about 500 canadian dollars) for not displaying enough fighting spirit!!

Of what great importance is this ‘realization’ that a draw is a valid and respectable result? Well, many players ‘ignore’ this little detail ! Some players get so focused on winning and trying to avoid ‘the draw’ that they make it easy for their opponents and take great (and often unjustifiable) risks that end up losing.

Nobody likes drawing (compared to winning), and perhaps this is quite understandable (though many sports also have their ‘draws’), but this is not a reason to lose one’s head! If your opponent knew that you considered a drawn result to be equivalent (at least morally) to a loss, then think what an advantage that would make during the game, both from the point of view of choosing plans and moves, and from the psychological stand point.

A draw result has every right to exist and to be accepted as a perfectly valid sporting conclusion.

Like the previous point I emphasized, it is important for the chessplayer to not lose sight of just what kind of game chess is. If you go into the game with a false (though romantic) idea of what kind of game you are playing then you are setting yourself up for certain disappointment.

I can assure the reader that I have lost many a game precisely because I got so ‘used to’ winning game after game (as does happen in the Swiss weekend tournament) that, regardless of the consequences, I wanted to continue to do so when I started to play in round-robins. It is all very heroic, but it failed more often than it worked!

 

I am all for taking calculated risks—this is all part of the game also—but to take any risk just to avoid a draw is pure stupidity.

Accept that chess has three plausible results! The rules have!

CONCENTRATION AND ENERGY

I sometimes think of my own chess development as consisting of two distinct stages : stage one—becoming one of the very best players in Canada (72-83); stage two—becoming one of the three best players in North America (83-88)

While there may not have been such a big chess difference (on the outside) between these two stages, on the inside the difference was enormous! Especially with respect to how I dealt with my concentration during the game.

Years of playing in weekend tournaments, almost always against much weaker opposition, led me to develop poor concentration habits—simply because I didn’t need to concentrate very much in order to win!

I would almost never think during my opponent’s time. I would get up and walk around during the game, often chatting and joking with the other players and spectators. If my opponent thought ten minutes or even half an hour then there I would be chatting or watching some of the other games. But once my opponent made a move I would be back at the board, deep in thought! The problem was that after I would make my move I would then jump up and walk about again!

I could hardly blame myself, because playing two or even three games a day is a very draining routine, and it is very difficult to remain disciplined for long periods of time, especially when it is unnecessary.

I had this habit for years without realizing it. My results were good, certainly enough to qualify for the Olympic team and always good enough to finish in the top 2 or 3 places in the Canadian Championship.

But I had some problems against stronger players. Not that I didn’t give as well as I received, but I noticed that my game revealed more ‘cracks’ in it than I would have liked.

During this time I was constantly working on the chess aspect of my game, paying little attention to my attitudes during the game.

Then one day I changed.

What caused me to change was meeting a certain Simon Finn. He was a local Montreal chess enthusiast who wanted to take some private chess courses with me. In exchange, instead of paying me money, he would give me Aikido lessons (Simon being a martial art specialist). Once a week we would get together for an hour or two of chess, followed by an hour or two of Aikido training.

What Simon showed me in Aikido I was able to apply to my chess! Essentially, I learned that each of us has a finite amount of energy at any given moment, and how one focuses (or concentrates) that energy—and especially where---determines our potential to react in any given situation.

I began to realize that what was missing in my chess was a certain consistent focus or steady concentration. I would normally only be focused for my moves, and at other times I would be dispersing my energy. After a few hours I would become tired and inefficient. In fact, I would not be far from the truth in stating that most of my energy was used in the subsequent re-focusing at every move.

From that time on I started to use some of my opponent’s time for thinking. I gave up all chatting and joking during the game as this not only causes distractions but uses up a great deal of energy. I still walked a number of times during the game, but only to relax and stretch my legs.

Plus, I became more aware of proper breathing techniques to help cut down stress and anxiety, and to moderate my energy needs.

I certainly wouldn’t describe my new focus as being very intense. In fact, it was a very natural, comfortable focus that required little effort. (However, it did require being awareness!) And my concentration had almost always the same level of intensity, regardless of whose move it was (mine, or my opponent’s). Since I had eliminated many of the previous distractions I had previously engaged in, I found that I had more energy when I needed it most; I was rarely tired at the end of the game.

The result: between 83 and 84 I won every major North American tournament (The World Open twice, the New York Open, the Canadian Open, Quebec Open) except the US open—and that because I wasn’t able to play in it. (In fact, only once did I play in the US Open (77) and finished in second place.)

With respect to offering advice to the readers, I am not advocating giving up all ‘living’ during a game. Sometimes one has to talk. Everyone has to go to the washroom every now and then. What I am recommending is that you consciously reduce the number of distractions during the game to a minimum. Distractions take a lot of energy from you. Sometimes they even disturb you emotionally, and prevent you from maintaining a ‘balance’ during the game.

You have to take control of your behaviour during the game! It is not difficult, but requires some effort.

 

FALSE EXPECTATIONS

Being realistic in chess is a quality that few players fully appreciate. Important is knowing how much you can give, how much you can take, what your limits are. Your strengths. Your weaknesses. Your tastes. Your style of doing things.

And to some extent about how much you can reasonably expect from your opponent.

When we are constantly playing against weaker players our expectations can become unrealistic. We begin to think optimistically. Our realism begins to disappear...slowly at first, and then faster.

For instance, instead of objectively evaluating our chances in any given chess position based on concrete chess criteria, we become tempted to think along the lines of ‘What line gives my opponent the most chances to go wrong?’’ or ‘’What is the trickiest, most complex line? My opponent will surely fail here!’’ Pretty soon we will find ourselves making moves and playing plans that have just one purpose: to confuse our opponent and induce the ‘inevitable’: a mistake!

Soon without fully realizing it, we become chess players specializing in only one thing: how to beat weak players as quickly as possible.

Quality chess becomes forgotten. There are a lot of bad habits that can develop here.

Don’t expect your opponent to make mistakes! When you play against the stronger players you will find you spend most of your time waiting for mistakes that aren’t going to happen.

When we expect too much from our opponent we lose an opportunity to push ourselves to our limits. We feel that creative experimentation is not important if only because it is unnecessary.

When you play chess (and this is true regardless of the level of your opponent) FORGET about your opponent! Better still, play each game as if it were against Garry Kasparov! Play the board. Build your faith in strong moves—not weak opponents! Have expectations that only concern your own ability.

TIME AND DECISION MAKING

As mentioned before, there are 3 possible results to any game. That means, in a very practical way, that during any game a great deal of uncertainty exists. For who can really say at what move the game is going to be decided? And in whose favour?

For some players, this ‘uncertainty’ can cause them to ‘lock up’ at certain points in the game and use a great deal of time trying to find a move that will eliminate this doubt. They seek a clear continuation that will determine the final result now.

This is something to avoid. It rarely works, and only for great players! Instead, what we most often see is that a player forces the issue too much and ends up with too little time with which to make the rest of the moves (and usually he is on the defensive by this stage).

The outcome in chess is the result of a struggle between two human beings. Both try their best, according to their ability and knowledge.

Each game is unique, with many ups and downs, and normally the final result is due to one of the two players breaking down at some point and making a decisive mistake that allows the other the opportunity to exploit it.

The chess player should try to focus only on making decisions that involve the position in front of him on the board. Everyday decisions. Normal decisions. Rarely is one called upon to make an extra-ordinary decision that will affect the long-term course of the game.

For this reason we should try to develop the habit of making reasonable decisions quickly.

 

A lot of players are afraid of making the first mistake because they feel that others will consider them to be weak. This is the wrong type of thinking to have if you want to succeed in tournament chess. Not only because by trying to avoid making a mistake (instead of looking for a good move) you use much time on the clock, but wrong also because one little mistake will normally be insufficient to lose the game anyway! Very often a small mistake can actually give the game a sharp and unexpected turn to it.

And as pointed out before, it is not the number of mistakes you make that determines the outcome, but making the last mistake !

Another common mistake for a chess player is not being able to regain one’s composure after making a mistake. It is hard to continue the fight without one’s full attention and focus. One of the biggest differences between a strong player and a weak player is that the stronger player can recover psychologically and continue to make good strong moves. The weaker players usually roll over and die.

Many players, after realizing that they made a mistake, shake their head and start to waste their time on the clock trying to find a better move than the one already played! They try to figure out what they should have done instead. This does not at all help finding a good move in the present position, and just wastes precious time.

Perhaps the readers will find the following training idea of some benefit. Play practice / training games with a sparring partner where your opponent always has to try his best (his normal best) and you consciously play the second best move at each turn! That is right! You never play the best move, but content yourself with the second best move each time. Do you think your opponent can so easily take advantage of this? I have seen some surprising results...try it sometimes just to ‘feel’ the difference.

One last point: suppose you have a bad position and 30 minutes on the clock for say 15 moves. Suppose there are no ‘good’ moves in the position for you. What do you do?

A lot of both experienced and inexperienced players tend to use up most of their time looking for something that they know doesn’t exist, (a good move ) and wait until they have virtually no time on the clock before making a move—usually the move chosen has nothing to do with what they were looking at anyway. Usually the game soon ends because the shortage of time on the clock just compounds the problems on the board.

What the master does in such a situation is keep his feet on the floor, and try to make the best of a bad deal. No good moves? No problem. Usually there are lots of good second rate moves begging to be played that may not alter the eventual result of the game but will send a strong and clear signal to your opponent that you have no intention to roll over and die.

The best thing is to move quickly and confidently in such positions. It will very likely unnerve your opponent and force him to think. If you can create a situation where your opponent has the better position but you have more time then the practical chances begin to even out.

OVERESTIMATING AND UNDERESTIMATING

When you play weaker players too often you can develop the tendency to overestimate your own position while at the same time underestimate your opponent’s position. This is easy to do because very often the result of a game between a weak player and a stronger player has nothing to do with the position anyway!

This tendency can create problems for you when you play a stronger player. You will find it difficult to ‘re-calibrate’ your objectivity in evaluating positions and waste precious time on the clock in the process. In fact, your ability to judge even relatively simple positions can be impaired because of neglect.

The bad habits you develop playing against weaker players will work against you whenever you play against stronger players. That is why it is so important to ignore your opponent and concentrate on the position at all times.

Let me make the following training suggestion: suppose you want to start preparing for a club championship where you know there are no weak players...how should you start? My idea is to spend a little time before the tournament looking only at endgames ! By focusing on positions where ‘little’ details are important you will become accustomed to thinking in a concrete and practical manner.

Another bad habit in this department has to do with underestimating your opponent. Just because his name is not Garry Kasparov doesn’t mean that he will not find the best moves!

 

Making strong moves is not the private property of Kasparov. Any master with enough will power will be able to find the same moves as Kasparov 8 out of every 10 times. The only real difference being that Kasparov will be able to find all of his moves in a two hour time period whereas the master will need several hours more!

That difference may seem large to you, but when you consider that I am arguing this in the context of just one position –the one infront of you—then 8/10 is pretty damn good.

From my own experience I can recount numerous examples of seeing little known masters playing well known positions better than either Kasparov or Karpov. Sometimes even refuting the accepted evaluation of the position!

No, a famous name is not much of an opponent against good strong moves! And one day even Kasparov will have to bow to some new player and hand over his world title simply on the strength of his opponent’s good moves.

The famous Estonian GM, Jan Ehlvest, once argued that the principal difference between masters (and this can include GMs) is not to be found so much in the ability to evaluate positions, but in the consistency of making really strong moves within a limited amount of time . He argued that some players are capable of only making 4 or 5 really strong moves in any given game, while what sets players like Kasparov and Karpov apart is that they can make 8 to 10 really strong moves in any given game without too much of an effort.

While this is only a theory, I feel that there is a lot of truth in it.

 

 

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