Working on Play
Can you teach yourself to have more fun playing chess?
In chess the postmortem is the traditional post-game analysis of a tournament game. There’s a particular postmortem I remember from a game I played as a kid against a strong master. He played a dubious opening, but soon started outplaying me in the middlegame. I got doubled, isolated pawns and lost without much of a fight. But in the postmortem he showed how I could have established my knight in the center of the board.
“See, the knight compensates for the weak pawns,” he said happily. I realized he didn’t really care about winning the game, he was more interested in the knight maneuver. I was still frustrated about losing against someone who played a bad opening, but I could also sense that his way of approaching the game was the right way to do it.
These days when I play blitz, I notice that I’m really playing two games at once. The first game is played on the board and is made up of strategy, tactics, forks, pins, maneuvers, gambits, all the things we normally think of as making up a chess game. The second game is played entirely in my head. This game involves questions like, Am I good? Do I suck? Is my opponent good? Are they an idiot? These questions all revolve around ratings. Ultimately the second game is about what winning or losing will say about me as a person. I think of this game as the ego game.
What I’ve noticed is that the first game – the chess game – is much more fun, but the second game – the ego game – is terribly engrossing. Left unchecked it will gradually crowd out the chess game. But I really prefer the chess game and I’d like to get back to playing it.
Most of us believe that if we work diligently on our chess game we will eventually improve. If we drill tactics we’ll be more likely to spot them in games; if we prepare an opening we’ll be able to use it effectively on the board; and so on. But I had always thought of enjoying chess as something innate: either you have it or you don’t. But why couldn’t I work on enjoying chess the same way I work on tactics, openings, endgames, or anything else?
There’s some scientific evidence to support the idea that this could work. The neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says that the more you experience an emotion, the easier it becomes for your brain to access that emotion. She recommends practicing feeling emotions like awe and gratitude as a way to counteract anger. The more you practice those emotions, the more likely your brain is to reach for them in a new situation.
My wife, who is also a neuroscientist (yes, that’s correct: I’m married to a brain scientist and I tweet about chess for a living), says “neurons that fire together wire together.” Neuroscientists love to say this. The neurons responsible for producing this saying must be full-on welded together by now. The point is that the neural pathways you use become reinforced. In practical terms, this means you’re always practicing something.
If after losing a blitz game I frantically check my rating to see how many points I lost, I’m practicing being obsessed with ratings. If I go to my opponent’s profile and look at their recent games to see how many had no mistakes, I’m practicing being suspicious. But if I review the game and look for interesting moments I could learn from, I’m practicing being curious about chess.
In other words, just by reviewing your games with a sense of curiosity, you can teach yourself to have more fun playing chess. If you’re in the habit of tilting or chasing rating points, this will probably be very difficult initially. Your brain has gotten very used to going down that path. But the good news is that the more you practice reacting differently, the easier it will get, as you start to form new habits.
Here are some concrete strategies I’ve been using to work on this:
Turn off ratings. Lichess has an option to hide all ratings on the whole website. If I’m not always staring at ratings by default, there are less chances to get caught up in them.
Decide in advance how many blitz games to play in a session and stick to it. This helps prevent tilt and gives me a small win even if I lose my games: I succeeded in sticking to my plan.
Review every game with a particular focus towards the most interesting moment in the game from a chess perspective. I wrote a post about how I review blitz games.
One of the benefits to practicing awe, as Feldman Barrett recommends, is it helps you get outside of yourself. It feels a little strange to use the word “awe” when talking about a board game, but isn’t the incredible intricacy and beauty that can be contained in 64 squares part of what drew us to the game in the first place? Maybe the way out of the ego game is to practice appreciating the beauty of chess itself.
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