Play As If…

Play as if your life depended on it! That’s what I tell my students before they sit down to play a casual or tournament game. Why would I say this? Because too often a player will let a winning game slip from his or her grasp. It happens more often than you might think. When I first started teaching and coaching chess, I watched my students get themselves into winning positions and much to my horror, watched them throw those almost guaranteed victories away. I’m guilty of having done the same thing as well! How could this possibly happen? After all, my students (as well as myself) were playing sound chess, otherwise they wouldn’t be so close to winning their games. I decided to take some notes in order to address the problem at hand. After some time, I came to some conclusions including the discovery of the greatest factor contributing to this problem.

The overwhelming reason why won games at a non master level are lost is overconfidence. Over confidence is an annoying human trait that tends to pave our personal road of success with the asphalt of failure. We often see it in sports. A team has an unprecedented winning streak, defying the odds, and that winning team starts to feel as if they have no competition. This leads to feeling overconfident because, after all, they’ve just set a record for the most games won consecutively. Enter the opposition, a team who is simply more hungry for a win. The game is played and our champions go down in flames, often beaten by a team with lesser record.

With my chess students, I found that many of them let victory slip away because they felt there was no way they could lose. They had a winning position and rather than keep up the pressure, fighting for a win, they slacked off. They didn’t examine the position carefully enough because, after all, victory was within their grasp. They didn’t play as if their life depended on it!

One point all chess players should take note of is this: A single bad move can start a downward spiral of quickly growing problems that you can’t recover from. It’s the snowball effect: A small, two foot ball of snow, rolling three miles down a mountain is going to gather snow on its way down until very soon it becomes an eight foot ball of snow and ice traveling along at a speed rivaling that of a car. Our little ball of snow becomes a lethal weapon. A bad move in chess is like our snowball. It starts off bad and only gets worse. This holds true in each phase of the game. Chess is a very foundation driven game. Like building a house, that house is only as good as the foundation it’s build upon. The foundation you build during the opening supports your middle-game and the middle-game serves as a foundation for your endgame. Create a weak foundation early on and your game will collapse like a house of cards on a windy day.

You should consider each move you make as one that builds the foundation supporting your next move. When you build a house (something I’ve actually done), that house isn’t complete until the last nail is driven in. You must be careful with every step to ensure your house is built correctly, able to stand the test of time. The same holds true in chess. When you’re overconfident, you’re more likely to develop tunnel vision that allows you only to see the end result, victory over your opponent. If you’re not thinking in terms of strengthening your foundation, your winning attack will collapse. This is where runaway chess snowballs are born! The game isn’t over until checkmate is declared.

Every move should be considered part of the overall foundation of your game, especially when you’re very close to winning. When you think your close to winning, make each and every move as if your life depended on it. Another problem that causes winning positions to fall apart is over-excitement, especially with players who don’t have a lot of experience.

We’ve all suffered from being so excited that the game is completely going our way that we starting seeing only what we need to do in order to win rather than what our opponent can do to turn the tables. I had a student recently tell me, after only six months of playing chess, that he could see four moves ahead. Actually, he was seeing the four moves he wanted to make, not those of his opponent. While beginners suffer from this problem, more experienced players can suffer from the same type of thinking when the smell of victory is in the air. We see a sequence of moves that delivers checkmate and victory for us. What we don’t see is that one move our opponent can make to ruin our plan.

When you start feeling excited about a winning position, take a few deep breaths, slowly (and silently) count to twenty and look at the position as if you were the one in trouble. To facilitate this, pretend you’re playing the position as your opponent. Look at the position carefully and see if there’s a way to turn the tables. Let’s say you’re playing white and you have the potential to mate in four. Before making the first of those four moves, pretend you’re the player with the black pieces and look for a way to stop or slow down the attack. Consider sacrificing a piece to stop the potential checkmate. Look for some way to damage the attack. Consider every pawn and piece. Can you create positional chaos? Now that you’ve considered your opponent’s position in greater detail, you can launch your attack. Of course, if you discovered, by pretending to be in charge of your opponent’s material, that your attack can be stopped or crippled by a sacrifice, for example, reconsider your attack.

Also be wary of your opponent playing for a draw or your creating one because, in a King and Queen versus King endgame, you got overexcited and moved your Queen to a square that created a stalemate position. During the endgame, you need to slow down and play carefully. The fewer pieces there are on the board, the slower and more thoughtfully you have to play. If you were the one with a losing position and saw a chance to draw the game rather than lose it, wouldn’t you go for the draw. With beginners, endgames are rarely reached so their knowledge of endgame technique is weak at best.

If you make each move with the idea of that move creating a foundation for the next move, taking your time and considering your opponent’s options as much as you consider yours, you’ll have fewer victories slip from your hands. If you have a great advantage, such as more material than your opponent and can’t launch a big attack immediately, create further, small advantages. A collection of small advantages can add up to one big advantage and help to nail down that win. Don’t let tunnel vision cloud the view of the entire chessboard. See the entire board! Above all, make every single move as if your life depended on it. Here’s a game in which the stakes were high. Talk about playing as if your life, actually your country, depended on it! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Editorial note: Hugh has been having some serious health issues and needs assistance to afford an operation. If you’d like to donate, please follow this link.

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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).