Peter Zhdanov
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10 November 2021

How to Overcome Your Chess Fears - Part I

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

Nelson Mandela

Even though few people admit it openly, most chess players are haunted by all sorts of fears before and during the game.

Let's go through a list of the most common issues together. Are any of them familiar to you?

·       Fear of the opponent. "He is much higher-rated than me." "He is much stronger than his rating suggests." "He is a titled player, while I am not." "He is much more experienced." "He is way better prepared and has a great coach." "He has always crushed me before and will probably do it again."

·       Fear that something will go wrong during the game. "What if I blunder a piece for no apparent reason like I did in the previous round?". "What am I going to do if I forget my preparation?". "What if I run right into his opening trap?". "I've had these heart attacks lately. What if they strike again?". "What if I get into time trouble and self-destruct?"

·       Fear of not achieving the desired result. "What if I miss out on my GM norm?". "My rating is going to suffer if I lose." "If I don't win, I might not earn a prize." "This game could cost me a place on the podium."

Such gloomy expectations often become self-fulfilling prophecies. I recall an old man telling me after the game: "I am such a blunderer! Today in the morning, I was afraid of blundering at some moment of the game, and there it goes..." Needless to be said, he did blunder rather terribly at some point. Of course, one might claim that he was not a particularly strong player, so mistakes were the norm for him rather than something exceptional. Still, such negative self-programming should definitely be avoided since it increases the chances of failure.

If you have never encountered such problems in your life, then you may as well shake your head, forget all this gibberish, and move on. However, for most of us, it makes sense to employ specific techniques that could help us let go of our fears before and during the game.

The Guardian Method

Having a strong fighting spirit is quite helpful when it comes to competitive chess. For example, my friend and former colleague GM Arkadij Naiditsch is a true fighter – a berserk who goes all out regardless of who he is facing. I believe that one of the factors behind his mindset was his experience in karate. He has the 5th kyū (blue belt) in it.

To give you a sense of how calm and confident he is, I recall discussing complicated business matters with him. Then at some point, he casually remarks: "Sorry, Peter, I have to leave for my game against Vladimir Kramnik. Will talk to you later in the evening". Then he beats one of the greatest chess players of all time with Black and gets back to work, even though he has an upcoming game against another legend the next day.  

In the 2015 edition of the Grenke Chess Classic, Magnus Carlsen and Arkadij Naiditsch shared first after the classical portion and had to compete in a playoff to determine the winner. This is one of the most nail-biting tie-breaks that I have ever witnessed. You are in for a treat if you have never watched it before!

Wondering how strong Carlsen was back then? You can always challenge 24-year old Magnus in the Play Magnus app. Spoiler alert: he was rated 2862, so don't be too hard on yourself if you lose!

Non-martial art experts can also try the "guardian" method. You can either imagine yourself as some sort of hero or pretend that a certain guardian is standing next to you during the game.

I like picturing myself as a samurai who follows the Hagakure philosophy in the sense of considering bushido to be a "Way of Dying" and being prepared to die at any moment. When you have that sort of cold-bloodedness, fear lets go of you. Miyamoto Musashi's "The Book of Five Rings" has also contributed largely to my development as a chess warrior.

IM Willy Hendriks recalls a funny story in his excellent book "Move first, think later". An opponent of his found a strong move and admitted after the game that it was due to asking himself what move Kasparov would play in the position. However, Willy has later checked the database and found out that Kasparov had made a different move in that exact situation! Still, this is an interesting example of someone improving his play based on envisioning himself as Garry Kasparov.

Another famous anecdote that comes to mind is a story told by Mikhail Tal. He played against an amateur who was hypnotized to believe that he was Paul Morphy. According to Tal, the guy was quite confident and played very well for his level in "Morphy form", whereas when they played a normal game (no hypnosis), the amateur quickly fell apart.

The second approach is also quite simple. If you don't want to turn into a different character for some time, you can instead imagine an imaginary guardian standing next to you and offering support. Just make sure not to start talking to him, or the people around you will be shocked!

There is no need for mascots and psychoanalysts when the likes of Yoda or Gandalf can come to the rescue when you desperately need aid! It's all in your head.

Overcoming one's chess fears is a rich subject. We will discuss it in more detail in the episodes to come.

We featured one of the games from the tie-break mentioned above in the Magnus Trainer lesson called "Trapping a Piece 3 - Naiditsch Traps Carlsen's Knight?".  Now guess what? We have 600+ more lessons there, as well as a few entertaining minigames! Make sure to try the app out if you haven't done so before.