Ego is the Enemy
In Ryan Holliday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, he discusses ways that our ego hinders our development in several ways. I think this truth applies to chess as well. In my own journey of chess improvement and many other players I have spoken to and observed, ego limits us. Unless one can put his ego in check (or perhaps one must checkmate one’s ego), our own chess skill will reach a ceiling of our own construction.
In this article, I will discuss a few of the ways ego limits our chess improvement and what we can do about it.
Getting Ahead of Yourself
When I was rated around USCF 1600, I remember talking to a player I had just beaten in a tournament. We had a nice conversation about chess books and studying chess. I said I was working on tactics and middlegame planning.
He replied, “Yeah, I’m done studying the basics…I’m focusing on openings now.” The thing was that I had won our game because he lost a piece due to a basic tactic. Perhaps he should revisit his tactical training.
Sometimes amateur players, once they get a grasp of the basics, want to feel like they have some understanding of the game. Thus, they study things that are over their head and skip over fundamental elements that are necessary to understand the more complicated stuff.
In my article What Chess Books Should I Study, I recommend Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess: Move by Move. When discussing this book with players under 1500, many respond that it is too simple for them and that the openings are outdated. However, these are the same players who make fundamental opening mistakes such as failing to develop their pieces or keeping their king in the center of the board (and subsequently getting it stuck there for the rest of the game).
When selecting what to study in chess, make sure that you have built a solid foundation. This would include general opening principles, basic tactical and checkmate motifs, pawn structure, strategy, and endgames.
Although I have observed that people tend to study “above” their ability, the opposite problem is also possible and also due to our egos. Sometimes, players will focus on chess material that is too easy for them or that they understand. For example, they may focus on solving simple tactics over and over without ever challenging themselves with more difficult problems. Note: My criticism is not with solving simple problems, as pattern recognition of these basics is important. Instead, my emphasis is in the lack of challenging oneself.
So there are two aspects to this. First, we need to make sure we are studying material that is appropriate for our level. Like Goldilocks, it shouldn’t be too difficult or too easy.
The second aspect is that we need to find ways to test our knowledge so we know whether we should move on to more difficult or more complex concepts. One way to do this is Solitaire Chess – the moves you get incorrect may indicate areas where you need to improve your understanding. Another great way is with the help of a chess coach who could help suggest appropriate books based on analyzing your games.
Before you can get really good, you have to be comfortable being bad. This means not being afraid of mistakes. This also means not only slowing down when you need to, but moving forward when the time is right as well.
Your Opening Selection
My first chess hero was Bobby Fischer. My second chess hero was Garry Kasparov. So naturally, as soon as I started studying openings, I decided I would play the Sicilian Defense and the King’s Indian Defense. I found a book by Drazon Marovic (which actually is quite a good book looking at it nearly 20 years later). However, with a rating of USCF 1300 or so it was definitely over my head.
I remember playing in a tournament in Cleveland, Ohio about 15 years ago and my opponent and I got about 15 moves deep in theory in a Sicilian Najdorf. However, as soon as we left our theoretical knowledge our chess looked like the 1300 players that we were at the time. I won a piece due to a tactical blunder and another tactical blunder on my part gave back the piece several moves later. I admit I might have burned my scoresheet after losing the game after yet another blunder of a piece in the endgame – otherwise I would show it to you here.
There is a thrill in playing the openings of the best players in the world. In fact, I am not going to tell you not to play these openings. What I am going to ask you to consider is whether your opening choice is hindering or helping your chess development.
For example, in the above-mentioned game, although I lost the game due to tactical blunders, the other problem is that I had no idea what to do strategically in the game. My opponent and I had memorized the theoretical moves but really didn’t have much of an idea of positional play, which probably made us even more susceptible to tactical errors.
When it comes to your openings, there are several options. I write about this in more detail in my article Opening Repertoire Strategies, but I will discuss two of them here. One view is to use openings that you plan to play for a while based on your ambitions in chess. This is a view I discussed with IM Greg Shahade in an article on developing your opening repertoire. This method can be very effective for higher rated players who already have a good grasp of the basics mentioned above – the types of students that IM Shahade works with.
Another view is to choose openings that allow you to practice specific structures and plans. This is a view taken by GM Nigel Davies in his Tiger Chess program. This may involve playing less complicated openings, which can be difficult if your ego tells you that you need to be playing the “best” openings.
They’re “Just” Mistakes
Another way your ego prevents you from improving is that it keeps us from facing our mistakes. How many times have you heard (or thought) the following:
“Oh, I was totally crushing him. I just blundered is all.”
The key word here is the “just.” This tells me that this person is downplaying his mistakes. Our ego keeps us from wanting to admit (or realize) that maybe we need to work a little harder in our tactics. So we “just” had a little oversight, but we totally outplayed them…now stop wasting our time so we can get back to studying the Najdorf Sicilian.
What are your “just” mistakes?
- I just let him draw me in an endgame where I was a pawn ahead.
- I just misplayed the opening. If I knew more theory in this variation, I would have won.
- I was just tired. I would have won the game if I was rested.
All of these “just” mistakes may be valid. However, what are you going to do about it?
If your “just” mistakes, consider the following questions?
- Does this mistake indicate a chess pattern or structure that you don’t understand? What can you do to fill this gap?
- Is your mistake due to a lack of attention or focus? Is it fatigue or distraction?
- Do you have a consistent thought process that helps you avoid making systematic mistakes such as missing your opponent’s checks?
If you notice yourself making “just” mistakes, take it as a cue to study those particular positions carefully for future training and study.
Our Losses and a Personal Example
About 15 years ago, I played in the World Open in Philadelphia. Between the rounds, Grandmaster Pal Benko generously analyzed players’ games in front in one of the skittles rooms. I remember one of the players – rated around USCF 2100 – coming up and I will summarize the essense of what he said after GM Benko asked him to give a little background to the game:
“Here I played the [insert “fancy” opening variation here]. BAM! My opponent deviated from the book at move 12 and then I capitalized by moving my queen here. BOOM! Then he unwittingly fell for my trap and I redeployed my bishop here. POW! Finally, I sacrificed my bishop and it was mate in three. KA-CHOW!”
He then shook Pal Benko’s hand and walked off triumphantly. GM Benko smiled, shook his head an asked for the next game.
The fact is we don’t like to show other people our losses. Our ego keeps us from publicly showing our weaknesses. Besides, our losses are usually caused by our “just” mistakes, which means that they are not truly representative of our true strength anyway. At least that’s what your ego wants you to believe.
If we really want to improve, we need to checkmate (or at least stalemate) our ego – sorry, couldn’t resist. We can’t be afraid of our fellow players knowing we are human and make mistakes. Posting your wins against players 200 ratings points below you won’t really help you. By the way, there’s nothing wrong with posting those victories, but they probably aren’t the most instructive.
Progress comes from learning from the painful losses. It comes from the games where you really didn’t have a clue what was going on at certain points. The games where you were trying your best and fell short. If you have the courage to study these games and perhaps show them to other players or your coach – then you have a chance at really getting good.
With that in mind, I’ll be concluding the article with one of my painful losses. I’ve annotated it with a few of my thoughts as well as some of the lessons that I came away with. If you’re not sure how to analyze your games, check out Seven Questions to Ask Yourself After Each Game. That article illustrates the method I used to analyzed the following game. I’ve adjusted my annotations and cut out some of the analyzed variations for clarity and enjoyment.