'Doc! You have to help me! I am in a real slump and I don't know what to do to get out of it...I have recently been playing in the Toronto Closed and have been having a terrible time of it! I achieve very good positions and feel that my play is both creative and forceful. But there comes a point in each game where I can feel myself starting to fall apart and self-destruct. I get low on time and start to make horrid, idiotic moves...Help me! With all the time and work I do in chess (not only as a player) I feel that I deserve better than to suffer like this...what can I do? Bill
Bill! Stop worrying! It does no good! You are going through a phase that everyone goes through sooner or later. All sports have these so-called 'slumps'. To be precise, in sports science the term used is 'Staleness Syndrome'. The hallmark of this syndrome is a persistent plateau or worsening in performance that is not improved by either short-term rest periods or reduced training/activity. (And increased training/activity--though seemingly a natural reaction--more often than not just makes things worse.) Some of the symptoms associated with this syndrome include depression, loss of confidence, disturbances in mood and sleep, loss of appetite and weight, reduced libido, as well as muscle soreness and heaviness (for our chess-purposes we can just assume that 'headaches' are the acceptable corresponding symptom!).
It is worth pointing out that staleness is not the same thing as 'burnout'. Firstly, staleness is only associated with sporting activities, whereas burnout can be associated with non-sporting activities (such as your job). Secondly, whereas burnout does have some of the above symptoms, the chief difference is that burnout is associated with a total lack of interest and a loss of motivation. Athletes suffering from staleness do not complain of any lack of interest or loss of motivation: quite the contrary, and much to the detriment of those with the Staleness Syndrome, these athletes often make things worse by try to 'compensate' for the symptoms by doing more training!
Unfortunately, it has only been in recent years that the Staleness Syndrome has been studied in any great depth, and sports science has yet to come up with any magical solution. In fact, little relief can be expected in the short term as most of the research being done in this area is focused on 'preventive' measures! (Staleness may not be a completely preventable problem, however.) Staleness comes about due to a very intensive involvement in some sporting activity (ie training on a regular, day to day basis). Clearly too intensive--but in today's reality where most sports are professional and there is a lot of money at stake and the competitive pressures keep growing (and invariably this means increasingly intensive training schedules) over-training can not be avoided. Taking a couple of weeks off and going to the beach and just relaxing in the sun seems to be the best 'solution' that sports science has come up with so far for those suffering from the slump.
However, this doesn't offer much to those who can not take the time off. In professional sports, athletes can not afford to not honour their commitments : too much is on the line. Very often too much money and their own careers
Essentially, the situation is this: in the absence of a global solution to the Staleness Syndrome, each individual has to try to deal with it in his own way. Breaking out of these slumps can be considered, in some perspectives, a very personal 'trial and error' process. While it is definitely wrong to increase the workload or training schedule at these times, making small changes in one's performance can be considered the starting point.
Consider the case of the tennis great Stefan Edberg in'91. He was in a terrible slump and suffering from a loss of self-confidence. He was aware that he was in a slump but couldn't quite shake it. To make things worse, his professional commitments prevented him from cancelling his tour and take some time off. He had to try to 'solve' this problem 'on the road'! After some frustrating efforts, he was lucky enough to be able to narrow things down to things starting to go wrong at a specific point in each match: at this point he would let up and go downhill fast.
Recognizing this, in his match against Michael Chang, at the 'critical' point described above, he said to himself, "This is where you usually let up. Don't! Get in there and fight!'' Edberg hung on desperately, refusing to let up. He even managed to win! This proved to be sufficient to regain his besieged confidence, and even ended the whole slump. It was a change in his ATTITUDE at the critical point of his game (coupled with an awareness that he could fight back successfully against whatever was holding him back) that proved to be the turning point in his fight to break the slump.
Of course, his 'solution' may not necessarily work for someone else in the same situation. The origin of slumps is not sufficiently well understood to explain this. Breaking slumps is very individual-oriented today. Depression and loss of confidence are two of the most harmful aspects of staleness. This is especially true in chess, where competitive chess demands having a balanced, optimistic frame of mind. Competitive chess is emotionally very draining. The doubts that arise with every move can quickly devastate the player with insufficient self-confidence.
In '97 GM Alexei Shirov phoned and asked me to be his second/trainer for the upcoming Dos Hermanas supertournament. (I had previously worked with Alexei on a number of important occasions.) Alexei said that at Dos Hermanas he had always played poorly (the previous year he finished dead last!), and that he couldn't afford to let that happen again.
Though I had to re-arrange my own plans, I decided to accept--especially because Alexei had been showing signs of being in a slump for the previous 6 months and I felt I might be able to help.
For players of Alexei's class declining invitations to supertournaments is not something one does lightly. Firstly, because turning down invitations that come with a ten to fifteen thousand dollar US honorarium seems unnatural. Secondly, because the competition to get into these supertournaments is very tight, and there is always the chance that someone might take your place 'permanently'!
In the past I had tried to persuade Alexei that if he wanted to seriously fight for the world championship title then he would have to cut down his tournament schedule and concentrate on a very different type of training. Though he recognized that playing too much was detrimental, the money was too good to stop. I even remember Alexei telling me one evening, over some beers, that if his rating were to drop and the invitations were to dry up then he would start to train for the world championship title (and only then!)
In Dos Hermanas things didn't start very well, and soon Alexei was at minus 2. To make things worse the sense of 'deja vu' was hanging in the air...I couldn't see anything wrong with Alexei's play. Nor with his preparations for each game. Everything was of high quality, and much as it was supposed to be for a player of his class. The problem was his self-confidence. I decided to focus my efforts on trying to restore it. (I remembered the Edberg story)
Of course, how does one start? Saying 'Great game!' or 'Nice move!' wouldn't do the trick. For a serious player self-confidence and faith in oneself are synonymous. You can't build that faith just with positive thinking techniques: the player needs solid evidence in order to convince himself that his self-confidence is back.
The key to Alexei's recovery of his confidence was in the preparation for his game with Kramnik. Several days before they were scheduled to play, I mentioned to Alexei an opening system that he had never before tried (the Hedgehog). While playing a new opening system against such a dangerous player as Kramnik clearly has its risks, Alexei showed some interest as it was understood that things could hardly get worse by another loss with the black pieces!
The funny thing is that in the next couple of days Alexei's games were so difficult, time-consuming and tense, and the preparations for these so involved, that we didn't have any time to look over the line until the night before the Kramnik game! When it actually came to doing this specific preparation , we were further hampered by the fact that Alexei had to be prepared for any and all of Kramnik's opening moves: 1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4, 1.Nf3. We left the Hedgehog to the last...
We only had 30 minutes to review this opening: a big task when you consider that Alexei had never before played it! However, as I had my notes with me, and Alexei is such a quick learner, 30 minutes was sufficient time to go over the 'basics'--but not more.
Alexei went to the game, and I held my fingers crossed. A lot was at stake, more than just a game as it turned out. Alexei equalized very easily, and maybe was even more comfortable when Kramnik (visibly disappointed) offered a draw. Alexei even managed to think a few moments before finally deciding to accept!
Afterwards we out for dinner and the atmosphere was even festive! I could see that his spirits had definitely picked up...And his confidence began to return. Most important to understanding what had happened is to realize that it was not drawing with Black so easily that was the key.
The critical point is that Alexei was able to prove to himself that even with little (insufficient) preparation he could compete successfully with the best in the world! His self-doubts began to disappear, his faith in himself grew stronger.
In the last round Alexei won a nice game against Short (also in a relatively 'new' system), and so he finished with 50%--his best result ever in Dos Hermanas! It became obvious soon after this tournament that Alexei's slump had come to an end.
Again, what worked here might not work with the same efficiency with someone else. But it does give reason to believe that every player can work himself out of a slump.
Bill, in your case I don't see any particularly unusual or uncommon circumstances at play. I think that if you consider carefully the above two cases you will be able to know where to start trying to look for a way to break out of your slump.
However, you have to stop allowing yourself to run short of time! You need the extra time to calculate better so as to avoid making those 'horrid, idiotic' moves. Quite possibly you are getting into time trouble on purpose: move a little faster in the opening, try to make faster decisions, and try to leave yourself with more time. Also, try to identify the critical point in each game where you start to go down hill?
In conclusion, don't do anything drastic! Breaking out of a slump usually depends on making some small change.
Best of luck!