The Difference Between Accepting Reality And Making Excuses

When men lose against me, they always have a headache … or things of that kind. I have never beaten a completely healthy man! (Susan Polgar)

When something bad happens in a chess game, we ask ourselves why. Sometimes we may simply beat ourselves up with negative talk like “I’m no good at chess. I don’t understand anything.” This is not useful. But often we go to the other extreme, with protests like “I had a tough day at work” or “My stomach was hurting from that sandwich I ate for lunch”.

But what is the truth? What is the reality? The answer is often more subtle than we’d prefer. We’d prefer a simple explanation that would at least make us feel like we have clarity rather than complexity in our chess lives. But often there are many things going on, and we have to be objective about each of them and the interplay, and not focus just on one aspect of the situation.

I’ve been having a terrible Pittsburgh Chess Club Tuesday night tournament. In the last two games, I blew won positions, one resulting in a draw and the other degenerating into a drawn position and then loss.

I’ve hesitated to offer an explanation for what has been going on in my play, because the last thing I want to do is offer excuses.

But what is the difference between the truth and an excuse? We’re wading into philosophical and ethical territory here. I think the difference is one of scope and intent. I would say that an excuse isolates one thing rather than situates it in a larger context. Also, an excuse is used to reject change, to live in the illusory comfort of an alternate reality. I think the truth sometimes properly incorporates excuses, but only as a subset.

I’ve been thinking about this because of my round 5 game in the 6-round tournament, in which I won a very one-sided game that is embarrassing to show, but illustrates something disturbing about my recent play. (My opponent was rated USCF 1829.) I had won a Rook for nothing and all I had to do was consolidate, but I hallucinated and started dropping material; there really is no good explanation for what happened, other than that my mind is blanking out. The game could have ended a draw.

The fact, or excuse, is that I have not been playing well because I have not had the time or energy to perform at the level I used to years ago. I have been busy with work as well as many personal projects (which my personal blog says something about). I came back to tournament play after not having played in seven months.

If this is all I said and thought, then it would be classified as an excuse.

Because we are all busy. My opponent in this came is a doctor. He is allowed by our tournament director to keep his beeper on. Occasionally he does get paged during a tournament. We all come to the board in whatever condition we are in: a hard day at work, a cold, surviving cancer (a number of the club members fall into this category!!), a death in the family, etc. So focusing on our own lack of ideal chess-playing conditions is an excuse, because it ignores other factors that are by contrast inadvertently in our favor. We should not just complain about accidental misfortune without acknowledging accidental fortune as well.

What then, is not an excuse? Perhaps it is that of accepting that I am at a point in my life when I will simply play worse than in the past, just as when I run races, I am much slower than I was a decade ago: I have not made it a priority to put in the training and maintain top fitness. This is reality.

Now, what can I do about reality? I can simply accept it, or I can change it. If I really want to get back to playing at a higher level, I must cut something out of life in order to make more room for chess. Or, I can choose to cut chess out. It is not an easy choice. But the difference between an excuse and reality is that reality means choices, while excuses mean idly daydreaming.

After this tournament ends, I will evaluate what level of chess activity to continue engaging in. There is nothing that says I have to play tournament chess at all. I can play casually, or only in one-day weekend tournaments that do not involve starting a game at 7 PM after a day at work. And of course I can always write about chess.

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.