Ten Reasons My Winning Game Turned into a Loss

Recently I had one of the most embarrassing losses in my chess life. Granted, I’ve had many losses, and many of them have been quite painful, but this one was particularly bad, because of many regrets about factors that I could have controlled but didn’t. I did not fully understand this earlier in life, but more and more I have learned that my performance in a serious chess game hinges on factors completely independent of what one might think of as the core of chess play (theoretical knowledge, tactical calculation ability). The circumstances surrounding this game have much to teach about how not to go into a game. When we talk about chess improvement, we must talk about the whole context of playing chess, not just the pieces and positions on the board.

Ten faulty thoughts and actions

  1. My first mistake was that, seeing that it was finally nice outside, after work, when I was supposed to just rest, and prepare to eat dinner after my wife came home, I instead went out for my first run in several days. I returned a bit tired. I’m not stupid: I know that it is foolhardy to waste one’s glucose stores shortly before a competitive chess game, because the brain needs a lot of glucose to think clearly, especially in a four-hour time-control game ending near midnight.
  2. Abby was confused when she saw me finally come home from my run, because the timing messed with our dinner plan, because she hadn’t known when to start cooking dinner. Having an unexpected change in routine caused unnecessary stress for everyone.
  3. We decided we had to eat leftovers from the refrigerator, but suddenly the power in our neighborhood went out. This caused a dispute in which I (starving after my run) wanted to get stuff out of the refrigerator, but she didn’t want to open it. Don’t have draining arguments before a chess game.
  4. By the time the power came back and I had to go off to my chess game, I had packed dinner to take with me but still not eaten. Do not play chess hungry.
  5. I arrived at the chess club and ate much of my dinner in the couple of minutes before the round began, but this is not optimal timing. Do not eat a lot of food right before a game. You need to be thinking, not digesting.
  6. I trash-talked before the game, saying, “We’re going to see a sacrifice in this game”, because in fact, I had prepared some Black gambits for the occasion. This was possibly the single worst mistake I made that evening. Do not trash-talk and trap yourself into some ego-driven mindset or pre-commitment.
  7. As White, my opponent surprised me on move 2, playing an opening that I don’t fear but which I have never faced as Black and did not expect. I ended up playing slightly more passively than I normally would have. Do not get “surprised” by coming to a game with too many expectations about how a familiar opponent will play. Be ready for anything.
  8. In a good position, I moved quickly and recklessly with intention of attack, even though in my last three tournament games, I played deliberately and solidly. Do not play a certain way just to back up your pre-game trash-talking. Play the position as it is.
  9. I saw an opportunity for a sacrifice and instead of calculating it all out, just immediately played it. It was unsound, but my opponent did not find the refutation, and I suddenly had an easily winning position. But then I went crazy, unsoundly aiming for a quick win. He erred again, and I had a win in sight. But then, as I concluded that in a couple of moves I might Queen my a2-Pawn, I got up and walked to the corner of the chess club to open another chess set and return with a Black Queen in hand. Do not get up and distract yourself at a critical moment in a game. Do not engage in nonverbal trash-talking by getting a Queen before it is your move and you have actually decided to playing the Pawn promotion.
  10. In a winning position with beautiful checkmates in forced variations, I completely stopped thinking and played one bad move after another, my attack was stopped, and one piece down for nothing, I lost the game. Continue careful calculation, even in a position that looks great, especially if you have sacrificed something and need to make it count.

There are certain things I did wrong that I confessed here that I plan to never do again. I have learned a truly expensive lesson. It is possible that none of you have done as many immature, stupid things as I just did, but if any of what I have confessed rings true to you and causes you to reconsider your similar behavior, I hope my loss has not been in vain.

The annotated game

Franklin Chen

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About Franklin Chen

Franklin Chen is a United States Chess Federation National Master. Outside his work as a software developer, he also teaches chess and is a member of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in Pennsylvania, USA. He began playing in chess tournaments at age 10 when his father started playing in them himself but retired after five years, taking two decades off until returning to chess as an adult at age 35 in order to continue improving where he left off. He won his first adult chess tournaments including the 2006 PA State Game/29 and Action Chess Championships, and finally achieved the US National Master title at age 45. He is dedicated to the process of continual improvement, and is fascinated by the practical psychology and philosophy of human competition and personal self-mastery. Franklin has a blog about software development, The Conscientious Programmer and a personal blog where he writes about everything else, including his recent journey as an adult improver in playing music.