Anyone who has played chess properly (and by that I mean that the outcome of a game should feel like a question of life or death!) will have experienced stress during a game and an associated release of adrenaline and cortisol. Besides the danger to one’s health, they’re also not great for the kind of advanced brain function required for chess. The way to get rid of them is via physical action (fight or flight) but when playing chess we’re just sitting there.
This is a big issue for competitive players; in the last hour before the time control games can easily degenerate into blunder fests as the stress (fear) factor reaches its zenith. It also helps explain the huge number of games in which an advantage gets overturned; the player who has expectations to win will have everything to lose and be under huge pressure whereas a player whose position is bad or lost will be free to play and unsettle his opponent. So a vital part of playing competitive chess is to learn to function under high levels of stress.
What are the ways of handling this stress? Essentially I think there are six different methods:
- Avoid the situation by giving up competitive chess
- Deny its importance and play for ‘fun’
- Rely on drugs to cope, for example beta blockers or alcohol
- Acclimatise yourself to the stress over time by repeated exposure
- Learn to elicit the relaxation response
- Develop an approach to playing that minimises stress
Out of these methods I’d say that the first three are essentially negative ways of answering the stress challenge. Instead I suggest that a focus on the latter three methods will produce a more positive and worthwhile response and to cultivate these there are a few things that can be done.
With regard to the acclimatisation to stress I’ve found that writers who deal with extreme forms, for example the type associated with physical violence, to be very insightful. Rory Bremner’s Meditations on Violence explores the effect of the adrenaline dump in some detail whilst Jeff Thompson, a former bouncer, explains how someone can get used to various fears in his Fear: The Friend of Exceptional People.
There’s also no quick fix to developing the relaxation response, it requires dedication to a meditative art over a period of time. My own practice of Zhan Zhuang, a special kind of standing meditation, has certainly produced a noticeable effect over the last three years. Other forms also seem to be highly effective. I think that a good first step in this area is to investigate the hard evidence for the benefits of meditation as presented in Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response.
The final method has probably received the least attention but is one I find particularly interesting. Out of all the chess books I’ve read I can only recall an oblique comment by Lajos Portish (How to Open a Chess Game) in which he suggests that having a solid opening repertoire fosters self confidence. There’s a lot of truth in this because a lack of confidence about one’s openings starts the stress even before the game has begun. So if someone wants to play sharp, theoretical lines they really need a phlegmatic temperament.