July 31, 2011

The harder you try, the worse you get

Two days ago, the Dutch Open tournament from Dieren has come to an end. And, as usual, I take some time now to analyse my games, my thoughts, trying to improve the things which clearly need to be improved or to reward myself with some nice words for the things which I did well:) But there is one moment that I experienced, one game, whose understanding might be useful to many of you: my game from the 8th round against the legendary Jan Timman.

I lost that game. And quite fast...in fact, I could have easily resigned after 12 moves, but the fighting spirit which characterizes me, made me sit down for 3 more hours. All in vain of course: my two "brilliant" moves f5 and e4 were way too bad to be able to come back in the game afterwards.

Trying to understand what happened, how could I have possibly even think about such moves, I reached the following conclusion: I cannot blame tiredness and I am also not such a bad player to take such unsound decisions...than what was the problem?!
Looking back, I realized that I was very excited when I saw the pairings for the 8th round. You don't have so often the chance to face a well known player, especially a famous one like Timman, and I was quite happy about it. I know his games, his results, and I have a deep respect for his chess understanding. But than...I have to admit that my pride and vanity played a role in the whole story: I simply wanted to impress him, my husband and anyone else who might come across that game. And my brain...freezed.

The most effective method of eliminating the drive to impress is, however, simply to be aware of its existence. Acknowledging that even a small part of you wishes to impress others is, I believe, the first step towards ridding yourself of that desire.

Remember, chess is not about proving yourself, but about expressing yourself.

There's a radical psychology observation that plays an integral role in the performance of every great sportsman: that you play your best games when you aren't "trying" to play your best.
You simply played the game you love, and the magic happened.
But when you actually "try" to succeed, however, your game gets less enjoyable. In fact, the harder you try, the worse you get. This brings us to the subject of trying too hard in the game, instead of just focusing on the game itself. This is what happened to me.

A radical alternative to trying harder is "trying softer":)

Do you ever try too hard?!
You might say: "Aren't I suppose to go out there and try hard?!", "Aren't I suppose to give 110%?!" - sounds great, but often players interpret that in a wrong way and they try soo hard that they begin to over-control their moves, they begin to not want to make mistakes.
That's what trying too hard leads to, esentially it doesn't allow you to enter into the normal flow of the game and play your normal moves.

Sounds right: I'm going to go there and give 110%, I am going to try my hardest, but often, when you want to win so badly that you can almost taste it - this is when you can get into the most trouble. Because that's when you gonna try 120%, just like me.
So, one of the things which you might try, when you go to your next round is: to play up to your capability, at maybe 95%, instead of 120%.
This way it will adjust the whole thing of giving too much. You don't want too much effort, you want just the right amount of it.

And that's individual for everyone; for some people that might feel like 75%, that's gonna allow you feel you trust your moves, your calculations, that you are in the flow. For other people it might feel like 99% is the winner ticket. Whatever that might be, you want to find the right level of intensity that's going to work for you rather than against you.

That's the feeling we are trying to avoid: you start rushing things, you give extra intensity, extra effort, you start going for too much and push so hard that you'll eventually lose.

Thought number 1:

Back it down. Since when obsessions are good?! 

Thought number 2:

Focus on small goals or objectives that you want to accomplish in the game: to reach a particular pawn structure, endgame etc, rather than focusing on: I need
this win! I have to win! Others are expecting me to win! - NO! Let's throw that out the window.
You want to have confidence that you can win, but you don't want that win so badly that you tighten up.

Last but not least:

Whom are you trying to impress? You know that nobody really cares about anyone else but himself...whatever is now the headline, it will be soon forgotten. Sooner than you might think.

Sometimes I just forget the best part of chess: the opportunity to play...


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for the insight. No doubt you have learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

    Would you comment on why you did not take with the pawn instead on moving the Kings Kt and offer to exchange Queens? Would this of increased your chances for a draw?

    Playing against legends is no doubt the ultimate challenge. In a little tournament in Houston Texas, in the last round if I won, I would finish first in my class. I was playing a much higher rated opponent who was well known at the Club. I was unknown. I think he had the game won before it started. I stayed calm enough to play memorized moves in the English Opening and suddenly I saw the winning move early in the game and played it winning a rook...! my opponent resigned immediately! He must of been in shock to lose a rook so fast and gave up. When the news hit, the club members all became my friend! After playing a lot of games in 2 days I was in outer space and to end up winning....What a day for me at the Houston Chess Club!

  2. Alina - Great thoughts...I like the line -
    "Remember, chess is not about proving yourself, but about expressing yourself"

    I did the same mistake of trying to prove myself and lost miserable results after one bad game (i missed a checkmate chance and allowed the opponet to comeback and win).....after that I wanted to win all the remaining games, but it lowered my full involvement till that point.....results were not good. I should have focused on playing my natural game that expresses the true self than trying too much to win!

    Thanks for sharing your experience with Jan Timman

    Krishna (USA)

  3. Interesting observation...i try too hard too..it results in anxiety. Looking for the win= looking at future , which causes fear.Fear is a result of unknown, future is always unknown. Being in the present is useful as you are with the reality...no imagination..easier said than done. But very possible i think. I read Buddha..he was a great scientist of mind . Modern psychology has so many limitations. Good wishes from India....


  4. Good luck to you Harsha! And a lot of strength!

  5. Thanks Alina...you too...:)

  6. You raised my mood and made my day, Alina - thank you!

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