You Don’t Have To Be Who You Think You Are

I work with a chess student who sometimes expresses discomfort at facing a particular opening or kind of position. I know this feeling all too well, because I certainly experienced it as a young chess player, and even now as a not-so-young chess player! And I know that all of us have certain preferences. The question then becomes, what should we do about these preferences? Should we avoid entire openings and positions, or just hunker down and study what we don’t like?

From a practical point of view, we have to choose a middle path. For example, suppose you really like to open with 1 e4, but you hate facing the French Defense, which follows if your opponent responds with 1…e6. It would be extreme to give up 1 e4 just because of the French Defense, if you had no other reason to switch your White opening. We never get exactly what we “want” in a real game of chess anyway, so we might as well get used to some discomfort and expand our tolerance and understanding, both for better performance and better enjoyment in the long run.

Switch sides

One interesting response to discomfort in a situation in chess is to take the other side. I’ve adopted this response sometimes, either casually or quite seriously. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” So, continuing the example above, maybe if you have a lot of trouble playing White against the French Defense, you should try playing it as Black.

There are two possible situations when switching sides.

Liking the other side

It is possible that you actually like the strategies of the Black side of the French Defense, but have never played this opening. Well, maybe this is a perfect opportunity for you to learn a new opening that intrigues you. And as you do so, you can take advantage of your prior experience as White, knowing what felt uncomfortable to you as White, and refining as Black how to cause your “White self” problems. Then you can transfer your knowledge to playing against other people.

Not liking the other side

I suspect that more likely, you may not like the other side either: you just don’t like the French Defense as either White or Black. This is the real test of your commitment to chess. In a real chess game, you will often reach a position that seems weird and confusing, such that you don’t know which side you’d rather be on. So an important skill and mindset to develop is that of making the most of a situation that is confusing.

My big switch

I find that our personal preferences are not necessarily fixed. Sometimes we like to identify as a certain kind of player and reflexively avoid openings or positions that don’t conform to our own self-image. And I find that sometimes we dislike something not because we are born to, but because we don’t understand it, and as a defense mechanism for our ego, we convince ourselves that we don’t like it.

As a personal example: for many years, I dreaded facing the English Opening when I was Black. I even convinced myself that it was a boring opening played by boring people, “cowards” who avoided a quick and sharp opening struggle. But in my mid-30s, after returning to chess and having to face my old fears about the English Opening (and losing games against it), I decided to study it, finally.

I found that the English Opening is actually quite an interesting opening. I found that the more I understood it, the more I liked it, and in fact, I liked White a lot. I abandoned my self-identity as a “tactical” player and started playing it. This resulted in a large improvement in my chess performance (both as White and facing it as Black) and fun. The English Opening is not something I play all the time as White, but learning how it works, for both sides, is something that I feel has permanently affected my understanding and confidence. The irony is that I have not actually played many games with the English per se: Black always has a choice to transpose out into a d-Pawn opening type of structure, in which case White has to transpose in turn to a main line d-Pawn opening or otherwise a Reti. So my improved performance is not a result so much of getting to play the opening, but of the improved confidence and overall chess knowledge. Just knowing that I can play either side of the English has helped me!

It’s like exploring new music or new food. We may have some innate preferences (from genes or our prenatal environment), and other preferences shaped at childhood and adolescence, but in the end, we can choose to expand our tastes, in order to enjoy a richer life. On the other hand, it can be unsatisfying to be a dilettante at many things, so if you are looking to truly expand yourself, try one new thing at a time, going into some depth, before moving to another.

And this is a lifelong process who loves learning. I am in fact right now exploring a type of opening/middlegame that has made me uncomfortable in the past.

Conclusion

To expand your understanding of chess, your enjoyment, and your performance, think about what kinds of chess positions make you uncomfortable. Consider whether you have to go to extreme lengths to avoid them; if so, it may be worth facing your discomfort and learning what you think you hate.

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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.