To play well, chess players need the same type of physical and mental discipline as needed by other sportsmen: mental toughness, strong self-confidence, endurance. However, your character has a prevailing influence over your performance. The chess knowledge and “rules and tools” of the game are of secondary importance.

The question here is why we do as we do when we find ourselves in a difficult position over the board, or under pressure or conditions of stress in general?

Under pressure: Still Standing Straight, by Kristjan Lennuk

Any competition generates powerful waves of emotions from deep within us. Some people get completely overwhelmed, they choke, while others panic. As a consequence, when emotions control us, our behavior is ineffective and inappropriate.

On the other hand, some people have learned how to successfully ride these strong emotional currents which usually equates to long-term competitive success and a healthy mental attitude.

Here’s an example of fearless defense shown by the former world champion Max Euwe, the commentary by David Bronstein from one of the best chess books ever, Zurich 1953:

Bronstein – Euwe Zurich 1953, after 20…Kg8-g7

“Both sides played into this line involving the sacrifice a piece. Black weakened the long diagonal by playing …g6; and White is giving up the piece in order to get the black king out to f6 and e6, and then assail him with all his pieces. The battle waxes uncommonly fierce.

21. Qd2 At this point I was quite pleased with my position. Indeed, after

21. …Kxf6 Black’s king can never get back to g7, but must remain in the center, assailed by both rooks, queen , bishop and perhaps even pawns. However, my opponent’s face showed no sign of despair either – an object lesson for the young player who finds himself in difficulties (especially when facing a mating attack), and chokes up at once, thereby rendering his defensive task still more difficult.

22. d5 Here I examined 22.Bb2 and 22.Qh6 too. The text is stronger: it retains both those threats while creating a third: 23.d6

22. …Rd8 A remarkable move: Black brings up the last of his defensive reserves, and obviates all three of White’s threats at a stroke. 23.Qh6 would now be met by the calm 23…Rxd5, and on 23.Bb2 Black plans to return the pieces. Even here, I was quite optimistic still, feeling that with material equality restored White’s attack would be all the stronger

23. Bb2+ Ne5 24. f4 Qc5+ 25. Kh1 Rxd5 26. fxe5+ Ke6

Having recovered his piece, White now attacks the exposed king; however, he encounters strategical difficulties in developing his attack. The king is surrounded by its own pieces, which display a sharp tendency to counterattack at the first available opportunity. The king also has many more op squares about him than would be the case if White were attacking the castled position. And finally, with White’s king tucked away at h1, his own first rank has become weak.”

Euwe defended cold-bloodedly and in the end made it a draw. Still followed:

27. Qg5 Kd7 28. Rac1 Qb6 29. Bc3 Re8 30. Bb4 Rexe5 31. Qh4 a5 32. Be1 h5 33. Bf2 Qa6 34. Bg3 Re4 35. Rxf5 Rxh4 36. Rxd5+ Ke6 37. Rcd1 Qc4 38. Rd6+ Ke7 39. Rd7+ Kf6 40. Bxh4+ Qxh4 41. Rf1+ Kg5 1/2-1/2

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So what produces different responses to pressure? What is it that throws some into all sort of psychological traps while others remain mentally unbent? Is it all about how we handle winning and losing?

Psychology of losing

Why winning and losing in sports sometimes feels like life and death even though it’s just entertainment? Losing isn’t a goal we set out to accomplish. It’s hardwired into our nature to triumph – survival, last man standing… We all want to win, but the obvious thing is: in every contest there is always a winner and a loser.

Important question here is: what succumb us to the psychology of losing? What changes the way we think when we are, say, under a fierce attack in a chess game?

What actually affects our thinking and behavior is attention span split between two things: your game and anything else, a diversion generated from within us.

For example, when we choke we think too much. It’s about losing your instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. When we panic we think too little. What actually happens is: we concern ourselves more with how we perform and less with our game in which the performance occur. [Malcolm Gladwell, The Art of Failure. Why Some People Choke and Others Panic]

And that’s exactly psychological trap we want to avoid. So what we should do when that diversion kicks in from deep within us? How to escape the effort trap that leads to choking?

What to do when under pressure

“We just need to play our best. Begin with that thought. What’s been our own best? Visualize that. Focus on that. Since the conscious mind is the enemy, distract it with visions of past personal victories, and not necessarily from chess. Help place the body into a state of relaxed confidence.” [Dr. Putt, Nerves: Panic and Choking Under Pressure]

When doubt enters your mind on your next move, think of it as being as easy as when you had that moment of triumph before. Anyway, there are defensive resources in almost every position – you just need to find them.

Another tactic to distract mind is to occupy it with a routine.

After all, it’s just a game. Find your victorious moment from the past, count through a routine, and embrace the truth you play your best by thinking least and just having fun.

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Here’s Karpov’s video on mental toughness:


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