Who Are You?

“Who are you?” is the name of a great pop song by The Who, and it’s also a question worth asking yourself as a chessplayer. The first few lines of the song are classic:

I woke up in a Soho doorway,

The policeman knew my name.

He said, “You can go sleep at home tonight

If you can get up and walk away.”

The author of these lines, Pete Townshend, struggled with alcoholism. He claims he really did wake up in a Soho doorway, and a policeman recognized him and advised him to go home.

I can think of at least two reasons for a chessplayer to step back now and then, and ask himself, “Who are you?” The first reason is, it’s important to know what you want out of chess—how you see yourself fitting into the chess world. Are you a casual player with no ambition to improve? Would you be happy to raise your rating one or two classes? Is it your goal to become a national master? Do you burn to earn international titles? On the other hand, would you be happiest as a chess organizer? Or as a chess coach, or chess teacher? All of these approaches to the game are fine, and equally valid. The chess world needs all these types of people in order to turn on its axis properly.

There is another sense in which you should ask yourself, “Who are you?” It is useful to know what type of player you are. Are you a tactician who wins with bold and open aggression, a swindler who likes to confuse and bamboozle his opponent, or a positional player who likes a calm, rational approach of accruing small advantages? Are you an opening specialist, or perhaps an endgame expert? If you know what type of player you are—and you can only determine this by looking at your own games carefully—you can better choose the right openings for your style, and the right approach to the positions you find yourself in.

For many years I fancied myself a dashing tactical player. I chose old-fashioned 1 e4 openings such as the Max Lange as White, and aggressive defenses such as the Dragon and King’s Indian as Black. To some extent, I think I was correct in my self-assessment: I played many successful sacrifices and combinations, and certainly enjoyed winning games that way when my schemes were successful. But my self-assessment also blinded me to the lessons of my own results. For instance, I lost game after game with the King’s Indian. Game after game, sometimes to much lower-rated players. I have to confess now, I never really understood that hypermodern opening. Bobby Fischer played it, and Garry Kasparov played it, and they were my heroes, so I wanted to play it, too. But it just didn’t work for me. I kept getting cramped positions, with no place to put my pieces, and White would roll me up on the queenside.

This month I played in my first weekend tournament in a couple of years. (I have played a few local club games in the interim.) Every serious tournament, especially after a long break, is an opportunity for a fresh self-assessment. My overall score was +1-2=3. I was paired up every round but one, so I lost only five rating points.

The two games I lost were similar: I was worse out of the opening, then tried to play tactically, but got nothing. My opponents saw more than I did and foiled all my schemes.

The four games I didn’t lose were similar in a different way: they were all long games, played over five to six hours. They averaged about 60 moves and were all decided in the endgame. In all four games, I was worse in the early part of the endgame. In two games I was actually down a pawn entering the endgame; in the other two games I was equal in material but defending a clearly worse position. Yet in these four games I scored +1=3 (almost +2=2!). I didn’t offer any draws: my opponents finally did, when it became clear they couldn’t win. (It’s not good etiquette to offer a draw when you are worse, so I had to wait for them to speak.)

On the evidence of my latest tournament, my tactical play these days is not very impressive—but I am tough to beat in the endgame. I’m not sure yet what type of player I am now—more data is needed—but clearly I am a different type of player than I used to be.

So you may want to ask yourself now and then: “Who are you?” If you don’t, you may wake up in the chessic equivalent of a Soho doorway, and wonder how you got there.