Are you a Risk Taker?

There are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary arithmetic and those who don’t.

There are two types of people in the world: those who enjoy putting people into two categories and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category here. One way in which you can split people is whether they’re naturally cautious or prefer to take risks.

If you have some money to invest, your financial advisor will probably give you a questionnaire to fill in. Your answers will determine whether you’re a cautious saver or a risk taker. Depending on your answers, you will be recommended a savings option which will guarantee, as far as such things are possible, a small profit on your investment, or an option which will bring potentially greater rewards at the expense of a greater risk of losing money.

Me, I’m naturally a cautious person. I want to play safe. I don’t enjoy taking risks. One thing not many people know about me is that I’ve been interested in horse racing for almost sixty years, but I’ve never once placed a bet on a horse. It’s just not for me.

You might also want to classify chess players as to whether they prefer to play cautiously or take risks. Capablanca versus Alekhine, for example, Petrosian versus Tal or Karpov versus Kasparov.

I was thinking about this the other day when someone posted on Facebook extracts from an article written by the American master John F Barry just after Alekhine had defeated Capa in the 1927 World Championship match. Barry, although acknowledging that Capa had the greater natural talent, was clearly not impressed by his style of play. Here, in part, is what he said.

“For long the writer has been amazed to see the false theory of combat which the Cuban has disclosed in his games, namely: to play the opening safely in accordance with his views of safety, and pounce on his adversary only if he should blunder, content to draw when that did not happen. Poorer players oftimes drew with him accordingly, as they were naturally glad to do against so formidable an adversary. His disposition to initiate mid-game tactics was only predicated only on the adversary’s blunder. He met with tactics only when the adversary was venturesome enough to attack unwisely, and Capablanca won, of course.

“He rarely showed initiative or enterprise to bring about a mid-game otherwise. So that in many of his games we have an opening, and presently an equal ending. The art of planning a mid-game became a lost art to him, yet its possession discloses the true chess artist. He harbored a belief that you can’t attack unless the opponent errs – a truth, but the art is to lure the error.”

Of course you’re not going to become world champion unless you excel in all aspects of the game, but it’s natural that everyone will have stylistic preferences, based in part, perhaps, on their personalities and temperaments. If you prefer quiet positional chess you’re more likely to reach an ending – and many endings require accurate calculation. (There’s another, unrelated, paradox to do with chess. The more slowly you play the more likely you are to get into time trouble and the better you need to be at blitz chess.)

As for me, by nature I’m a cautious player, but my best results have been when I’ve taken risks. I’ve tended to play unambitious openings with white, but lack both the understanding and technique to play them well, usually ending up with no advantage or even a disadvantage. Not feeling comfortable defending slightly passive positions, I’ve tended to play more aggressively with black. When I played more aggressive but slightly dubious openings I’d often do well with them, but if you take this approach sometimes things will go wrong: you’ll meet someone who knows the opening and you’ll lose horribly. When that happened, I’d give up the opening, in spite of previous good results, buy the next Batsford opening book to hit the shelves and take up something else instead.

I was never able to resolve the paradox of the clash between my temperament, which has always been one of caution, and my abilities, which may have been more tactical than positional.

If you also teach chess your own preferences may influence the way you teach. If you enjoy taking risks you might encourage your pupils to play sharp, tactical openings. If you prefer to play more cautiously you might encourage your pupils to play safe and solid openings. Truly effective teachers will identify their pupils’ personality and stylistic preferences rather than just teaching the openings they themselves play. They might also want to encourage less experienced students to try out different styles, different openings, to see which they prefer and which gives them better results. At the same time they’ll also want to think about identifying their students’ weaknesses and help them improve in aspects of chess where they are weaker so that they can become stronger all-round players.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon.