The Psychology Of Losing A Drawn Game

Last week, I wrote about the psychology of not winning the won game: I gave an example from round 3 in my current tournament in progress, in which I accepted a draw offer after realizing that I had squandered a won game.

This week, I write about the round 4 in the tournament, in which I ended up losing a drawn game (that started off being a won game). I wish I had the presence of mind not to continue having this kind of experience, but it seems that as long as we are human beings, we all repeatedly have this experience sometimes, regardless of what level of player we are.

My opponent in this game was someone I’d never played before (rated USCF 2083). I obtained a huge advantage out of the opening, and reached a won position in which I could force the win of the exchange.

Then things got weird. First of all, I played an inexplicable move after my Queen was attacked that immediately allowed my opponent to neutralize my threats. I still had some advantage, but my win was gone.

Next, my opponent played aggressively, trying for action against my King side. I was happy to see this, because I knew it was not actually going to be fruitful and just diverted attention away from the Queen side. But at a critical moment, I fell into a move order mistake and instead of taking control of the c file, I allowed his Queen to penetrate on the Queen side instead.

In geometry, two points determine a line. Unfortunately, this is often true also in human psychology. Having slipped twice, I slipped further. The position was rapidly getting drawish, and I continued with inaccuracies that led to an obviously drawn, simplified endgame, in which my remaining Bishop was worse than his remaining Knight.

In an attempt to provoke some play, I made a very committal Pawn advance on the Queen side to a square opposite to that of my Bishop. The hope was to somehow bring the Bishop around to attack Black’s Pawn on b7. Notice I said “hope”. My mental state was clearly deteriorating: we cannot play good chess based on hope. The position was still a draw, but I was operating more and more strangely, and while getting very low on time as well.

Finally, I realized that it was time to accept the draw before making my position worse. I offered to trade my Bishop for his Knight. To my surprise, he refused to play for the draw, and began a Knight maneuver to try to win my stranded Pawn on b6. But this is where my “hope” came back: this move allowed me in fact try to win his b7 Pawn. And I did, but at great cost: he simply won my b6 Pawn and my Bishop was stranded and for the first time in the game, Black had some advantage.

In time pressure, I could not defend a still defensible position, and I fell apart. And so I lost the drawn game. It was quite disappointing to me. I respect my opponent’s provocative and resourceful play from the moment after I showed my weakness by not winning the exchange.

In this game, my fatal error really was that moment of “hope” that I could win on the Queen side. If I had not pushed the Pawn to b6, the position would have been a dead draw, with no progress being possible on either side. It is an embarrassing error to make, and one I’ve made before. I was unable to mentally let go of the fact that I knew I had missed any number of ways to win early in the game. This was in sharp contrast to my draw in the previous round, in which I accepted that I was not playing well and had missed my opportunities, and settled for the draw. So it is not the case that I always enter “hope” mode. I would like, as part of my continued chess improvement, to squash the silly “hope” mentality that can creep up during a long 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.