“Himmelhoch jauchzend, zum Tode betrübt” – Part I

Dear reader, you must know me a little by now. Why do I write so much about chess psychology? Because obviously I’m often faced with the issue myself. Today I want to introduce another aspect, that of physiology. The two are closely linked and it is useful to consider a chess performance in the light of both factors and take a broader approach.

I’m faced with a dilemma. For a good explanation, I must give you a little peek into my chess soul. Is that wise? Well, for the sake of the greater good that binds us chess players and the fact that I myself may learn from it, that seems a small price to pay.

How is it possible that we chess players are often better analysts if we are not playing but just kibitzing? The answer is simple: without some kind of mental pressure or physical exhaustion, our cognitive functions perform well. We see combinations quickly or reject moves on the basis of our intuition and experience. But when playing a game it is a whole different ball game. It is the General Stress Level (GSL), the sum of all our thoughts, emotions and physical conditions, which determines if and in what level our cognitive functions can be used, i.e. the extent to which we “operate” properly. The complaints you hear chess players utter so often after a game such as “I didn’t feel good”, or: “I had a headache,” or: “I really did not feel like playing tonight”, provided they are truthful, I believe are correct explanations for performances that are out if sink with a normally to be expected level.

Well, enough talk, over to the action. Nothing works better than to illustrate these statements with practical examples. I would like you to bear in mind that the comments are based on my own interpretations and not necessarily the precise thoughts of my opponents.

De Grootte, E. – Moes, W. [A03] Internal competition B.S.V., 14.10.2005
Played after a long think. My interpretation of the emotions and thoughts of Ewoud is as follows:

1. Hmm, I’m the club champ but I’ve never beaten Moes
2. Hmm, he has not been playing regularly for one year now, and I have been growing in playing strength for about 200 ELO points
3. I should start beating this guy!
4. e2-e4? No! Caution should be exercised. In the simultaneous display I gave earlier this year he played the Petroff and I did not get any advantage. It is very hard to win when playing against the Petroff. Now what?
5. An opening in which we both have to think for ourselves.
6. f2-f4 perhaps? Yes that’s possible, it is objectively a bit weaker than e4 but ok.
7. Darn, I wish I could play e2-e4, that’s my pet move!
8. OK, I’ve been thinking now for over 3 minutes, game on!
9. Phooo, the first egg has been layed!

It is clear that Ewoud’s GSL already is sub-optimal at this stage.
1 … d5 2.Nf3
Here I remembered something. Against Pascal in the same simultaneously display Ewoud also had pushed his f-pawn. Later that evening I brought to Pascal’s attention an idea of the Armenian grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian that he could have tried. Perhaps now I could put it into practice myself! In a game Blatny – Akobian, Blatny played less precise: 2.g3?! h5! 3.Nf3 h4 4.Nxh4 Rxh4!? 5.gxh4 e5 6.d3 Qxh4 + and Black had a strong initiative and went on to win the game.
2 … Nf6
Without a white pawn on g3 it makes no sense to storm with the h-pawn.
Ha, there it is!
3 … h5?!
I realized that with White having an extra move in comparison to the Blatny – Akobian game and the knight on f6 blocking access to h4, the Akobian idea is very questionable to say the least, but nevertheless decided it was worth a try, if only because of the increased likelihood of a further disruption of Ewoud’s GSL.
Here also Ewoud had a long thought. It must have been this moment that he foresaw my idea and realized that his king was going to need an escape square. Caution!
4 … h4
5.Nxh4 Rxh4!?

The consequence! Black sacrifices the exchange, but white has a severely weakened king side and is forced to defend and consolidate for a while.
6.gxh4 Ng4
6 … e5 7.fxe5 Ng4 8.Bg5 ± is probably the line Ewoud reckoned with when he considered his 4th move. So I first moved my knight out of the way. I played quickly here and Ewoud had to adjust to the new situation.
But now Black’s idea will really become viable. After the game Ewoud described my idea as “bluff” and probably thought something along the lines of:

“Now I will really win. A few accurate defensive moves, and the win can no longer escape me, entirely according to my expectations.”

However, the situation is not so easy for White and 7.h3! Nh6 would have been better. Ewoud mentioned that in that case the black knight would go to f5. but both 8.Nd2 ± as 8.e4 ±, after which the knight may never reach f5, would have put Black in a situation where he has insufficient compensation for the exchange. Is Ewoud not able to calculate deeper than 3 ply? Of course, but you have to see and correctly assess it, and your thoughts must fit in with your sense of caution and the notion of the already mentioned “1-0″. It is my strong suspicion that Ewoud already lost the game at this precise moment, to put it like that. Moreover, the text move is logical because it tries to swap an offensive piece so that ultimately White’s material superiority will prevail.
7 … e5
8.Bxg4 Qxh4 +
9.Kd2 Bxg4

Let’s chase that scary lady!
10 … Qh5
10 … Qh6 was also possible, but it seemed right to protect both pawn and bishop with regards to a possible Qg3.
11.fxe5 was better. It’s not easy to play the white side. A direct consequence of the king being in the middle.
11 … exf4
“I just love pawns” Yasser Seirawan would say. And the queen looks good on h5. She protects d5.
After this move Black should have some advantage. Better was 12.Qf2. Did Ewoud really want to prepare h2-h3? No single black player who ever think about taking on h3 with his bishop and put his neck in the noose. You see, Ewoud’s cognitive functions are abandoning him.
12 … Nc6?
I do not play the best move. Correct was: 12 … d4! 13.Ne4 f3 14.Ng3 fxe2 15.Qf4 Qa5 + 16.c3 dxc3 + 17.bxc3 Be6 = + and White still experiences problems with his king.
13.Qxf4 Bd6 14.Qe3 + Be6 still looks a bit better for white.
13 … Be6

To my idea the final turn of events. Probably Ewoud had overseen or underestimated my defense. Very understandable given his not optimal “state of mind”. 14.Qxf4 was better.
14 … Qe5 =+
Such centralization is always a feast for the eye.
Now there follows a funny, quasi forced line.
15 … d4!

16.c4 also was worth a try to direct the knight to c2.
16 … g5
17.h4 a6
18.Na3 f6

And black is on top! Everything is fine now.
19.Nc4 Bxc4
20.dxc4 0-0-0

The last troops are brought into play and Black’s position is a picture. Compare the white forces.
No doubt disappointed by the turn of events Ewoud’s GSL runs even higher. Both 21.Bd2 and 21.Qh3+ or 21.Qg2 were tougher.
21 … Na5

Four explanations:
1. Ewoud saw the trap at move 23.
2. Ewoud saw the double attack on move 25 and wanted to try it at all costs.
3. Because of his own pawn being on d3 for a long time and his threefold protection of that square, Ewoud had visually “cemented” the pawn on d4.
4. A subconscious desire to end the game.
I think it was option no. 3, although that would be less consistent with Ewoud’s 21st move.
22 … d3
Wins a piece and the game.
23.Rxd3 Rxd3+
Certainly not 23 … Qxa1? 24.Qh3 + and black can resign. The aforementioned trap.
24.exd3 Qxa1
25.Qe1 Qe5+

The human solution. Also possible was: 25 … Kd8 26.Qxa5 Ba3 27.Qd5 + (27.Qd2 gxh4) 27 … Ke7 28.hxg5 Qxc1 + 29.Ke2 Qe3 + 30.Kf1 f3
26.Qxe5 fxe5
Ewoud safely could have spared himself the rest. There was also no time trouble.
27.hxg5 Kd7
28.Ke2 Ke6
29.d4 exd4
30.Bxf4 c5
31.Bd2 Nc6
32.c3 Bg7

In summary I conclude that Ewoud had lost the game because of physiological-psychological reasons. The fact that afterwards he did not want to analyse but went outside for a stroll, indicated that his GSL had run high. GSL-regulating behavior (such as going for a stroll) is usually best in such cases.
So you see, chess often has more to do with ourselves than with (chess) technique. Ewoud was unable to put his hard-earned 2200 elo points to work.

(To be continued)


  1. Ewood June 20, 2008

    I will never play Bird/Leningrad againts you! :(.


  2. Waldemar June 21, 2008

    Very wise decision ;-)

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