The Human Problem Of Not Mentally Switching Gears During A Long Game

On a dark Tuesday evening, in the fourth round of the ongoing Pittsburgh Chess Club Championship, I played and won a four-hour game that I have to confess to being more embarrassed about than many of my losses.

Unfortunately, sometimes that happens, to all of us. I could write it off fatalistically as “it happens”, but this is supposed to be The Chess Improver, and I believe that all of us can in fact continue to improve our play, myself included!

Sometimes we fool ourselves and don’t want to take responsibility for our poor play. Yes, there is such a thing as fatigue or a random brain glitch, but what about if we are systematically falling short? I think that as in marathon running, the late stages of a chess game, precisely when we are most tired, our true weaknesses reveal themselves. When we are feeling strong, our weaknesses may be masked. So I am taking a particular interest in correcting problems that occur in a long game.

Outline of the game

The game started out with my playing reasonably well, achieving what seemed to be a slight advantage as Black, defending an attack on my King in an Open Sicilian. At move 18, I had three choices to consider to begin a counterattack. I spent considerable energy looking at the options. One of the real drawbacks of playing the Sicilian as Black, I have found, is that to avoid getting killed you really have to do a lot of calculations, and unfortunately, as in this game, that left me with diminished mental reserves later in the game.

My 18th move was actually fine, but at move 19, I panicked and decided I had enough of defending and wanted to bail out with a Queen trade. To my surprise, my opponent did not enter what would have been a favorable Queen trade for him, but tried to continue the attack! He lashed out with a series of sacrifices that were all unsound and the result was a dead lost position an exchange and Pawn down.

Here’s when I started playing really strangely. I was unable to switch gears into “winning mode”. At the very moment at which I knew I had a won game, after 29 moves, I let down my guard and somehow stayed in “defensive mode”. I started worrying about various things, like defending my unimportant f7 Pawn, and my time starting to run low on the clock. I played totally aimlessly and horribly, and quickly found myself in a lost position after move 33.

Then in a freak stroke of luck, as I kept playing anyway, my opponent walked straight into a position in which I had an obvious perpetual check if I wanted it (and I would have taken it): except he then refused to allow the perpetual check and deviated into a horrific blunder, losing the game instantly. (I should also note that my opponent had really bad luck, as at the moment when he was drifting mentally and seemed to be taking a strange amount of time on his clock, he received a phone call, being the tournament director in charge of the chess club phone, which rang at the critical moment, distracting him for a couple of seconds as he buzzed someone into the entrance of the building!)

The main lesson

Based on my observations, we human beings have a problem with switching gears when the nature of a position changes. These are the moments when we must collect ourselves and deal with the new reality (whether it is knowing that one is now winning, or one is now losing). My belated playing on even when dead lost somehow did pay off, after all. But we must strive for better. I have thought hard about ways to improve my play and will experiment with them and share my progress (or lack of it) here in the future.

Chess engines don’t have this problem: give them a won position and they will easily convert. But we humans need special discipline in order to be able to stay focused during a long game.

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.