Dwelling on Lost Games

“Don’t dwell on the game you lost last week. Focus on the game you’re playing now!” Those were my words to one of my students before he started playing a game against an opponent he lost to the previous week. While we improve by learning from our losses, we can do more harm than good (to our game) if we dwell upon loss in the wrong way. Embrace a lost game as a chance to learn from your mistakes but remember not to overstay your welcome by simply dwelling on the loss. Otherwise, you may become slowly paralyzed by fear.

One of the hurdles that beginners face, both young and old, is surviving long enough to win a few games as a novice player. The human ego is fragile, especially in the young. Humans, again both young and old, have a habit of letting their egos do the talking when they excel at something. In junior chess you’ll often see a bit of bragging and gloating from the winner and a potential outpouring of tears from the loser (tears being proportional to the level of gloating and bragging). Simply put, kids don’t like to lose but often don’t understand the concept of having to put work into their game to avoid losing. One form of “work” that can have the greatest results is game analysis.

I teach students to use their losses as an opportunity to learn! When you lose a game its because something went wrong. Finding out where you went wrong can go a long way towards improving your game. For beginners, a single weak move can lead to disaster. The reason for this is because bad moves have a cumulative effect. Its the domino effect. If you make a bad move that weakens your position and your opponent makes a good move that strengthens their position, things will get worse before they get better (for you). Like history, if you fail to learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them. With that said, how does the beginner determine where they went wrong?

Game analysis is something players of all skill levels can do. Obviously, a highly rated player will be able to do some serious in-depth analysis that is beyond the technical scope of the beginner. However, the novice player can do some basic analysis that will help them determine where they went wrong. All they have to do is to ask a simple question after examining each move. That questions is “does this move adhere to sound game principles?”

Beginners have a terrible time with opening play. Therefore, when going through your opening moves, you should examine each move and see whether or not it adheres to the opening principles. Beginners should keep their checklist simple. The opening principles that should be applied are central pawn development, minor piece development to active squares and King safety. If the beginner is playing the white (or black) pieces and, on move one develops a flank pawn, such as those found on the “a” or “h” files, they’re not addressing control of the center and that’s where the problem starts. If minor pieces are being developed away from the board’s center, the problem is there, etc.

For the middle game, beginners should be looking at piece activity. Are your pieces on their most active squares? Hanging pieces are another problem beginners have. If you hang a piece, go back and play through the moves made prior to the loss of that piece. By going back a few moves you’ll often see that you got distracted doing something else, such as launching a premature attack or not looking at the entire board. If an exchange has left you down material, go back three moves and play it through. You’ll see things more clearly. The point is simple: Studying your games, using basic game principles as a guide, will lead to improvement!

Endgame questions should revolve around pawn structure and King activity. Can you get a pawn to its promotion square? Can your King stop the promotion of an opposition pawn. Keep the questions you ask yourself simple. As a beginner, you’re not going to be able to analyze games like Karpov so don’t even try.

Even using game analysis and the idea of learning from your losses, some players will still become paralyzed by loss. Sometimes we face losing streaks that leave us stuck in “fear mode.” The fear of losing overwhelms us, spreading the seeds of doubt within our minds. Here’s my advice:

If you’ve gone back, played through your lost games, discovered where you went wrong and worked at correcting the problem, you’re half way to playing winning chess. You’ve found the problem and addressed it. Does that mean you’ll win your next game? In a word, no. However, it does mean that you’ll play better chess. For example, let’s say that you’ve analyzed your last lost game and sit down to play another. You know where you went wrong in that previous game and should be able to avoid that initial problem this time around. Let’s say you lose this current game. While it may be a loss, you’ve made progress because of your previous game analysis. When you analyze this current game, you’ll notice that you did better this time around, not getting into the same trouble you got into before. This is progress in small steps. Small steps leads to solid improvement.

Eventually, you’ll start winning more games than you lose. However, you have to exercise patience. Chess requires work. If you put work into your game you’ll get better. Just remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take your time and celebrate the small improvements in your game. The overall war is won only by winning a series of smaller battles. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).