Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chess Therapy

One of the reasons I play competitive chess is that my results actually give me a sense of how I'm doing in the most general sense: success indicates that my life is progressing more or less as it should be, while failure suggests that something is out of balance--that I have some internal conflict in need of resolution.

If this sounds overly dramatic, it honestly isn't. Certainly there are exceptions: I may play good chess and still have less-than-great results. But if I lose due psychological factors that result in a concentration lapse or poor decision-making, I take it as a sign that I have some personal work to do.

About two months ago, I had my best chess tournament result ever. I won the Under 2000 section of a weekend-long tournament: 5 wins, 0 losses, 0 draws. For my efforts, I gained an $800 prize and a great deal of confidence in my chess abilities.

My next tournament took place three weeks ago, at a similar but slightly larger six-round event with a top section prize of $1200. I was one of the top-rated players in my section, and given my recent triumph, I had very high hopes.

It started well. The first game, I not only won but did so with a certain brutal efficiency, quickly punishing a couple of inaccurate moves from my opponent. It seemed clear that I was still in the same form with which I had ended my previous tournament.

The next game, played that same evening, also began well. I had a good position in the middlegame and while I missed an opportunity to obtain a decisive advantage, I managed to reach a rook endgame in which I was a pawn up and had some winning chances.

What transpired next is even now painful to think about. I played the endgame abominably and turned a possibly winning position first into a drawn position, and then ultimately into a loss. While any chess player has had his/her share of tough losses, I had never been as angry with myself after a game as I was then. I stormed back to my hotel room and flung my chess set against the wall. I was filled with an unusual and self-directed rage. My loss has little to do with a lack of chess knowledge but instead represented a psychological breakdown: my opponent had been a rather annoying kid who squirmed around a lot in his chair, and I had let his behavior get into my head and affect my concentration. Furthermore, once the win had slipped away I had been unable to adjust. Both the game and my psychological state then fell into a downward spiral.

Unable to come to terms with the loss, I attempted to wipe it away the following morning by re-entering into the 2-day section of the tournament. Unfortunately, I found that I was still rattled from the previous night's game, and began the day with a draw and a loss. I straightened myself out somewhat with a much-needed win the next game, and then managed another draw in the fourth and final game that night.

I was no longer in contention for any prize money, and the next day I discovered that my normally irrepressible competitive drive had been completely sapped. Round 5 was a rather lackadasical and joyless draw. Afterwards, while sitting off by myself in a corner of the hotel lobby, I realized that I had no desire to play in the last round. And so I did something that I have never done before: I withdrew from the tournament before the last round, and headed home.

Now, my results weren't exactly awful: all told I had 2 wins, 2 losses, and 3 draws. Granted, I was one of the pre-tournament favorites, and so I had a right to be disappointed. But what made this tournament so painful was that none of my failures were the result of being unfamiliar with a particular opening line or being outplayed by a superior opponent. My mistakes were all psychological; I would have a lapse in concentration and after one mistake, I was often unable to re-center myself. By the end of the tournament, sadly, I had simply stopped caring.

This brings me back to the assertion I made at the beginning of this post: psychological failure at the chessboard generally indicates that something else in my life is out of balance. The truth is that over the past month and a half or so, I have been struggling with some very real depression. There have been various factors contributing to this, the most obvious one being the return to a full-time job that I don't particularly enjoy. But it's become clear to me in the last few weeks that the roots of what I'm dealing with go much, much deeper.

The point I'm trying to make here is that this abysmal chess tournament actually served as a very effective wake-up call: it forced me to see that something has not been right with myself, and I have been able to come to terms with this knowledge. Simply accepting that I have not been emotionally healthy has helped a great deal, and while things are not all better yet, I am fairly optimistic.

And if I am correct that my level of play on the chessboard reflects my psychological state, then I have some very good news. Yesterday I went to a small one-day tournament, held an hour's drive away. I almost didn't go, as I was feeling exhausted from a tough week of work and not at all sure I was ready to confront my inner chess demons.

My results: 3 wins, 0 losses, 1 draw, and clear first prize.

Castlerook's back.


  1. Damn that all-knowing universe for giving you what you needed when you needed it.

    I see lots of parallels in your chess life with my husband's golf game. It's interesting how something a person chooses as a hobby, or an outlet, or a passion, can be the vehicle used for gaining self-knowledge.

  2. Thanks for your recent comment, this is a great post and I'm linking it!