Courage Versus Caution
Success or failure in competitive chess is to a large extent due to one’s ability to balance several polar opposites –
bravery versus caution;
responsibility versus apathy,
and consistency versus flexibility.
I will discuss these topics in my last few articles on the Psychology of Chess. We will see examples of what I mean by them, and also how to successfully balance them. After that I will begin covering a new topic in my column – Attack and Defense.
The reasons I decided to change my column are a couple. First of all, I noticed that the topic of my column is very close to that of Natalia Pogonina’s. Thus we are covering some of the same material, which isn’t necessary. In the future you will be able to read more about the psychology of chess in Natalia’s column. Second, I wanted to cover a more pure “chess” subject, which is easier for me to write about. It is a strange phenomenon that some chessplayer-authors have tended to cover a topic that they themselves have difficulty with – i.e. a tactician writing about positional chess. I think the reason is that they themselves know about their weakness, and hope to deal with it by writing about it. I have often had a lot of trouble of my own with psychology in chess, and think I could make much better results if I could manage my own psychology better and avoid allowing my opponents to disturb me by psychological attacks. Nevertheless, this does not make writing the column any easier!
With “courage versus caution” it should be pretty evident what I mean. In chess (and life as well) both extremes of these qualities (recklessness and cowardice) have negative consequences. If you fail to take any risks in chess, not only will you not win, you will also probably not draw. A passive attitude will not help you when it becomes simply necessary to find counterplay. On the other extreme, recklessness can easily lead you to ruin your position, or (as is often the case) throw away a sure draw in pursuit of a chimerical win.
What I want you to do now is think about yourself and your chess for a moment. Try to decide if you tend to err on the side of caution, or bravery. It should be possible to determine – and try to differentiate between what you want to err on, and what you actually do.
It is important to know your own tendencies, as this is the only way to fix them. I know that I quite often err by being too reckless, and have thrown away many games that way. I often overpress in slightly better endgames or make risky decisions to avoid a draw. Others with a different mindset might tend to agree to draws in better positions, or avoid critical lines, worsening their position as a result. I do not think anyone is perfectly balanced in this regard. Nor is it somehow better to err in one direction than the other – it is no better to be hot-headed than to be a wimp! Society prizes bravery, but in chess a healthy dose of pessimism and caution tends to lead to better results.
Here is an example of one of my games where recklessness got the better of me. It was played in an unique tournament situation, which I believe affected how I played.
The game took place in the Limpedea Cup in Romania, which – up to this point – was clearly the best tournament I had played. This was the second-to-last game, so after 8 rounds I had a performance rating of 2780, and had already clinched first place and a GM norm, even if I lost the last two games. Naturally, though I did not want to lose the last two games. I am not a kid – I am a professional chess player, so while I love the game, I am not the type of person who would play for a win in such a situation. I would prefer to just make draws, save my energy and nerves, and go home happy. A loss, on the other hand, would put a cloud over my tournament. In this game I played white against the Swedish IM Daniel Semcesen. I was sure he would want a draw, but since there was a Sophia rule in force during the tournament (no draws before move thirty), I figured I would just play normally and offer a draw after move thirty. Nevertheless, at move thirty his position was already very bad and I could play for a win with “no risk”. I decided to try to make my performance over 2800…
Ironically I overpressed in a situation where I had absolutely no need to win, and would have preferred to just make a quick draw. Once I decided to play for a win, I had a hard time changing my mind, and this caused me to act recklessly. At the same time, I would say that Semecesen erred on the side of caution too much during the game. He played very passively and avoided any attempts to get counterplay. It worked out in this game, but I think if the game had taken place a round earlier (when the game was very important) I would have been much more alert and concentrated. Most likely in such a situation I would not have played 28.f5, which made it much harder for me to break through.
It is hard for me to find examples in my games where I played too cautiously. Nevertheless, I can exhibit that tendency as well (everyone can). In my case, I noticed a certain weakness where I was unwilling to go into critical variations which call for me to accept material sacrifices. In this way I threw away a simple win as black against the 2700+ GM Vadim Milov:
How to restore the balance in your bravery/caution dial? First you should know the diagnosis. Are you a hot-head or are you a wimp? If you are a hot-head, you should remind yourself that a draw is not such a bad result. Remember that if you are having trouble finding a “sure win” that could very well be because there is none. If you see yourself about to make a move that feels intuitively very dangerous, remember how you will feel when you tip over your king…
If, on the other hand, you are a wimp, then you should be aware of this as well, and try to fix it. Caution, and some pessimism, are good in chess, but only in a limited amount. If a study of your games shows that you tend to avoid critical lines (i.e. your opponent makes an unclear sacrifice and you decline it despite knowing that the resulting position will be worse for you) then keep in mind that you can never avoid all risk in chess. Either take a risk when it is right, or it will become “risky” later when the odds are against you. Also, if you notice that you often make draws in better positions, or take the safest line and later see that the more risky-seeming one was actually good – then remind yourself that chess is only a game and losing isn’t the end of the world.
Naturally a perfect chess intuition or computer-like calculation would allow you to determine exactly when a continuation is too risky, but since we humans don’t have that, your psychology affects your judgment. So, besides working to improve your intuition by studying many games, you should also try to regulate your own psychology, and hopefully come to a good balance.