The debatable value of trying too hard to win

Okay, the chessplayers have spoken. But I’m also going to write “running with your belly” later.

When you try too hard to win, you lose.

If this happens to you frequently, as it does to me, the game is trying to tell you something. But most of us come up with a wrong rationalization for these results. Tell me if this sounds familiar: “Well, at least [higher rated opponent] knows I wasn’t playing for a wimpy draw.” Yes, we tell ourselves that we play like cavemen because that’s more honorable than making draws. So the ‘value’ of this style is that it makes us feel mas macho.

There’s certainly such a thing as a wimpy draw. But for most players who frequently experience these tried-too-hard losses, here’s what it should teach you:

1) Your ability to evaluate a position is poor. This reflects lack of technical skill.


2) You aren’t objective enough. This reflects emotional immaturity (in the context of competition – don’t take it personally :).

Which problem is yours, and how do you fix it?

1) Ever do a post-mortem with a good (2300+) player? Almost without fail they will frequently assess positions — it’s equal, white’s a little better, black has enough compensation. If you don’t think this way, if you never draw these conclusions explicitly DURING PLAY, lack of technical skill is indicated. Read “Reassess Your Chess” by Jeremy Silman. Follow his methodology until it develops into a habit. Working and analyzing with a strong chess coach will also help.

2) Game scenario: You have an advantage but you are now presented with a choice. The line that makes the most sense seems to let your advantage slip. This makes you unsatisfied or angry, so you sacrifice material instead to try for a knockout blow. Then you lose the endgame. If that happens to you a lot, read “The Seven Deadly Sins of Chess” by Jonathan Rowson. Stop saying “Well at least I went for it” and work on developing the habit of trying to play the objectively strongest move at all times, regardless of result. Notice that in the language under point 1 above, strong players often say “White’s a little better” rather than “I’m a little better”. It’s that objectivity thing at work.

For the record, I have both problems :) But I am making a little progress.

Anyway you can always go back to playing like a caveman, but why not try to be strong instead of trying to look strong?


6 thoughts on “The debatable value of trying too hard to win

  1. The Geico cavemen have added Reassembler to their boycott list.

    Despite their opposition, this is an excellent post. Probably all of us suffer from both problems, although to varying degrees.

    Two specific mental traps I have fallen into:

    1. Games where I’ve been clearly winning, but mess up. And because I was winning, it can be hard to accept a draw, even if that’s the best that could be hoped for.

    2. Trying too hard to defeat a lower-ranked player because I “should” beat them. One thing that’s helped is to remember the ratings system is about probability, not certainty. There will be times where that guy 200 points lower has an exceptional game. Recognizing this makes accepting a draw more palatable. (The “Even the Detroit Lions win sometimes” rule)

  2. Harvey – I look forward to your book by that title.

    Donnie – See next post – I changed planes in Houston & waved toward you from the air. Just in case you still live there and sometimes look up.

Comments are closed.