How To Fight Perfectionism In Chess

The Pubering Brain

I just watched a weekly Dutch television show called “Boeken” (“Books”). In it the host interviews writers about their new books. Today the guest was Eveline Crone. She is a psychologist and researches the developing brain. The book she wrote is entitled “Het puberende brein” (“The brain in puberty”). Crone states that young adolescents obviously have not yet developed their frontal cortex in the same way as adults have. The frontal cortex is the area of the brain that does a lot of controlling and directing. Whereas the frontal cortex of adults functions much like a speedy motorway and has solutions for most problems and situations, the frontal cortex of children in their puberty is more like a set of meandering paths in the wood. One consequence is that the young adolescent has a more natural access to creativity and intuition. This outline prompted me to think about my own rusty, albeit speedy, motorways in chess.


Last Friday evening I played a game at my local chess club. In it I fell victim to one of my old bad chess habits: perfectionism. My opponent played an inferior move in the opening and I gradually outplayed him. Just when objectively speaking I should have reaped the fruits of my play, I was prone to wanting and carefulness. I felt that my position was so strong that I should be able to win more than just that one pawn that I could take on a number of occasions. Imagine analyzing after the game only to find out that indeed I should not have taken the pawn, but should have gone for bigger game (which is usually the case when I feel like that)! Also during the game I repeatedly thought of an advice that IGM Normunds Miezis once gave to a friend of mine: “One pawn is just enough! Why didn’t you take it?” But even gifted with the advice of an experienced grandmaster I could not stop behaving like the monkey that puts his hand in the cookie jar, “…trying to get all the cookies, only to end up with useless crumbles” (Anand after a game in which Karpov had spoiled a big advantage against him). lastly I felt that maybe my opponent would get some counter play when I would take the pawn. Yes indeed, I wanted it all, and under the most favourable circumstances!


We can only win a game if we bring about a so-called imbalance. IM Jeremy Silman uses this term to describe differences between the two sides in a chess game. Didn’t Fischer already say: “In order to gain a square you have to give up a square”. I think I somehow should have trusted to my intuition and taken the pawn at some moment. I certainly would have had better chances to win the endgame being a pawn up than with the material count being even, right? In this case that would have required courage, because going against your perfectionism is not an easy thing to do! Yes, a strong chess player also needs courage from time to time…


I think that at the root of perfectionism lays fear. Probably fear of losing the game, or of not winning the game. And win I need to, if I want to stay in the race for the club championship. The objective of perfectionism is to control events and their consequences. OK, in a way it helped me, because I didn’t lose the game, but I also did not win it and I felt grumpy about it! But hey, what have I got to lose? I am not playing for the World Championship here! Why not consider the game as an experiment and try and fight my perfectionism? That is probably the only way to grow.


Just to show you how difficult it is to change the brain when you’re no longer in puberty let me tell you that several weeks before the game I agreed not to think longer than 5 minutes about a chess move when playing a “serious” over the board game. Just the week before, when I played another opponent, I fell in love with the possibility of a queen sacrifice and spent 30 minutes on it, completing forgetting (?) about the agreement I made with myself not to spent more than 5 minutes per move. I had reminded myself of the same agreement before the game I played last Friday. You can imagine that I spent way too much time trying to figure out if I could not win more than just that one pawn. Nevertheless, I feel that it is a vital experiment just to try and test my intuition, so I will remain true to this agreement. Coming Tuesday I have a new game coming up and therefore a new chance for an experiment!

Which Antidotes Do You Try?

Some of you may have discovered psychological flaws in your chess playing. I can recommend everybody to try and find an antidote to them. Take this perfectionism for instance. Obviously one way of fighting it is not thinking so long and saying to yourself: OK, I will now play this move regardless of the consequences, because I cannot foresee and control all of them, and the move I have in mind feels right. But, try one experiment at a time! The brain has enough difficulty taking an exit from the motorway as it is, for our flaws are not just flaws for any reason.


If you like, please leave a reaction to this post about your own psychological flaws and the antidote you try or recommend. That way we might have a nice discussion about it.

Game Analysis

Come back and check this post for an update. I might just feel inclined to post a video analysis of the Friday game…

Signing Off

I wish you courage to try and break your bad chess habits and wish you lots of improvement!

feeling courageous


  1. Johan November 17, 2008

    I used to play to quickly, kinda the opposite of your problem. Instead of going to sit on my hands or look for a better move after i found a playable move i changed my hardware. By this i mean that i now only use a ballpoint with a cap on it. So to write my opponent move down i first have to remove the cap, write the move on the scoresheet, put the cap back on and only then i can ponder my reply. These few second it takes me to do ‘the cap’ thing stops me from lashing out a reply. It also psychologically helps me to get in the right frame of mind to start ‘my pondersession’ about my reply.

    I guess that what i am trying to say is that my brain now knows that it’s time to first think before i react after the ‘cap ritual’. I need such ritual, it prevents me from lashing out moves instantly.

  2. Keith Brian Johnson November 22, 2008

    Greetings. In my chess club, we use a 40/80 time control, which becomes 40/75 with five-second delay, followed by SD/30. I get into a lot of time trouble, some of which is caused by always looking for the *best* move. I’m *trying* to move faster, and am *trying*, with only limited success, to leave myself forty minutes for my last twenty moves.

    I have found two different sorts of time when I spend many minutes on a move. The first is when I need to calculate tactics in possible variations. I don’t see a way around spending the time to do that. But the second is when I am considering each of two or more moves and although I can’t see any concrete reason to prefer either of them, the *course of the rest of the game*–its entire character–will be quite different if I choose one of them than if I choose another of them. Such times, I think, are when I just need to bite the bullet, accept that I can’t play two games at once, and also accept that it’s OK to just pick one and play on, banishing the other “possible game” to the realm of the unplayed. I dislike selecting one course when it means giving up another–I always think of “the road not taken”–but I have to tell myself to go ahead and move–to pick one of the alternatives and play it, so that I’ll have some time to think later on in the game.

    Keith Brian Johnson

  3. Torkil February 9, 2009

    Great article, that kind of problem sounds strangely familiar to me ;)

    Time trouble is a constant part of my game, and it is to a large extent caused by that perfectionism you mention. Apart from the fact that I am indeed a slow thinker (and lousy blitz player), I agree the main reason is fear of losing, because I have found the main reason I play the game is whishing to win, especially in a team contest.

    So far I have only twice managed to get rid of that fixation on the result and rather played for the fun of it during the full course of a tournament – in both cases I scored 6/7, once winning the tournament, at the other opportunity tying first place with another player. Apart from these wonderful moments my everyday chess looks quite different: It is an unrelentingt urge to win the game from the first move on, preferably by calculating the refutation of my opponent’s first slight inaccuracy, followed by time trouble and inevitably losing a large number of games from positions which were quite promising initially. Now who cares what the position looked like before I messed it up in time trouble, and don’t we all pity those whiners who go on telling you they should rightfully have won because at some point they thought their position was superior?
    Food for thought, thanks again for the article!

  4. Waldemar February 9, 2009

    Thanks for your reply, very recognizable story!

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