Jennifer Yu: "If I have high expectations, I usually perform much worse."

by Alexey Root
8/29/2019 – After an initial article about FM and WGM Jennifer Yu’s ½ of 9 performance at the 2019 U.S. Junior Championship, a first follow-up article explored stereotype threat in chess, with the help of Dr. Andrei Cimpian and WFM Sarah Chiang. In this second follow-up article, WIM ALEXEY ROOT asks whether “stereotype threat” is debunked, with comments from Dr. Kenneth Regan and an interview with Yu herself. | Photos: Crystal Fuller / Saint Louis Chess Club

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Stereotype Threat, Debunked?

In my previous article, I asked Dr. Andrei Cimpian, an expert on gender stereotyping, about stereotype threat. Replying to my email follow-up with him on August 22, Dr. Cimpian wrote, “Stereotype threat is not debunked, but — as I mentioned in my interview (and as the comments suggest) — there's a lot of controversy around it.” According to Dr. Cimpian, the controversy is about whether stereotype threat results in performance decrements. However, whether or not performances change under stereotype threat, stereotype threat manifests in lowered feelings of belonging and safety.

Comeback likelihood?

In my first article on Jennifer Yu at the U.S. Junior championship, I cited sports research about a second-half comeback being unlikely if a team was way behind at half-time. When I heard Dr. Kenneth Regan speaking about poor performances in chess round robins, I contacted him via email. Dr. Regan stated, at about 20 minutes into this episode of The Perpetual Chess Podcast, “a player who starts poorly is identified as the ‘rabbit’ and harder against that player.” I asked Dr. Regan if Jennifer Yu, due to her 0-5 start in the U.S. Junior Championship, might have been the “rabbit” in that field. Dr. Regan replied:

The results of my ‘screening test’ hint at what you surmise. Her accuracy was only the smallest notch or two below the expectation for her rating according to both Stockfish 10 and Komodo 12.3. Her opponents, however, notched among the highest. 

Jennifer Yu responds

FM, WGM, and 2019 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Yu responded to my questions, via email. 

Alexey Root: What do you think of “rabbits” in chess, as defined by Dr. Regan?

Dennis the rabbit

Jennifer Yu: It certainly makes sense for players to try their hardest against the players who aren’t in their best form or who are rated lower than the rest of the pack. I’ve played in the reverse situation against a “rabbit” before and I find myself being extremely careful because some players can become extremely dangerous once they have nothing to lose. It’s far from unheard of for a “rabbit” to take down a player on top of the standings and flip the tournament upside down. I was unaware my opponents were playing at a higher accuracy than their expected rating levels against me, and I think that’s a difficult thing to assess with everything going on in a chess game. 

AR: As the wildcard for the U.S. Junior Championship, what were your expectations? Did you put a lot of pressure on yourself?

JY: If I have high expectations, I usually perform much worse. At my first U.S. Women’s Championship, I placed a lot of pressure on myself and it was a disaster. I ended with 2½/11 and last place. Going into the U.S. Junior Championship, I didn’t have very high expectations because I was second to last seed. I hoped for a great tournament of course, but realistically, I didn’t have very positive prospects. However, I also discovered that most of my best tournaments are ones where I didn’t expect much in (such as Charlotte IM Norm January 2018 and the 2018 Women’s Olympiad) which didn’t hold true for U.S. Junior Championship. After winning the U.S. Women’s Championship, I do feel more pressure at tournaments to perform well since more people would be paying attention than before. However, I don’t think that pressure played a significant role in my performance at the U.S. Junior Championship, because I played three back-to-back tournaments prior to it and kept my expectations low. 

Yu with friends

Between rounds at the 2019 U.S. Junior Championship

AR: In this award-winning podcast episode of Ladies Knight, where you were interviewed by US Chess Women’s Program Director Jennifer Shahade, your advice to a girl who had a bad start in a tournament was: “Don’t get psyched out. Don’t give up. Don’t think about anything but the move you want to make.”

Were you able to follow your own advice at the U.S. Junior Championship?

JY: I think I did a great job at not letting consecutive losses mentally get to me during the U.S. Junior Championship. The difficulty of playing a round robin is that you don’t get a break and are guaranteed a tough opponent following a loss, unlike most opens where you would be paired against someone lower rated. I actually quite liked this, even though it seems strange because of my score, but I tried to approach each game like a new tournament and a good opportunity to play against a strong player. I didn’t give up at any point in the tournament and fought in every game, even if some were just opening disasters where I never really stood a chance of surviving (such as my games in round 2 and 4). Even though I ended up losing my game in round 8, I was proud of it because I thought the quality of my play was better than it had been in earlier rounds and I nearly drew an interesting endgame (unfortunately the key word is “nearly”). 

AR: In that same Ladies Knight interview, you said that you “went to the gym every day during the U.S. Championship” Did you keep up that gym routine during the U.S. Junior Championship too?

JY: I’m a creature of habit, so I like keeping a pattern throughout tournaments. Whenever I go to St. Louis for a tournament, I always have the same routine, which during U.S. Junior Championship included going to the gym. 

AR: One of the ChessBase comments on my first “Jennifer Yu” article was “women of high accomplishment in chess actually do play ‘worse’ than similar men — be it in mixed competition or segregated. This is neither ‘opinion’ nor sexist. Go through engine evaluations from various tournaments and you will see a larger amount of moves the engine considers a blunder among female players.”

Do you think this comment is true? Or do 2450-rated chess players play games at roughly the same level, whether they are men or women?

JY: I think that this definitely varies among individuals and not the wide category of men and women. If it comes across that women seem to make more [blunders], I believe that it has a lot to do with stylistic choices. From my experience, many female players are aggressive so naturally more engine swings would occur in sharp and unclear positions. However, this is a crude generalization because many good female players are solid positional players too. For me, I often make decisions that I realize may not be the best move, but might be practical in allowing my opponent to make a mistake — especially taking other factors like time into consideration — I actually made dubious decisions like this throughout U.S. Junior Championship, which I was punished for due to the fact that I was playing strong IMs and GMs.

I think it’s ludicrous to imply that men and women who have the same rating are at different strengths. Rating is a number that is meant to be blind to all factors except the result of a game. Moreover, the argument that women’s ratings could be inflated by playing only female tournaments is completely invalid since most women don’t only play sectionalized tournaments. Using me as an example, I played fourteen tournaments in 2018 but only three of them were women-only events. Eight months and eight tournaments into 2019, the only women’s tournament I played in is the U.S. Women’s Championship. Therefore if a man and a woman have the same rating and the woman seems to make more red moves, all I can say is that both have different individual strengths and weaknesses.


AR: What are your upcoming tournaments? Your plans for studying chess or getting a chess coach?

JY: I’m playing in a few more Opens before senior year starts and I’ll be swamped with college applications and homework. Hopefully, I’ll make good use of my few remaining weeks of summer and seriously study my chess. I plan on getting a coach sometime soon because I haven’t progressed much over the last few years. 

AR: Anything else you would like to say to ChessBase readers and your fans via this article?

JY: I’d like to mention that I’ve always been an incredibly inconsistent player. If my worst tournaments and my best ones were put side by side and compared, it wouldn’t look like I was the same player. The quality of my play even fluctuates from one game to another. This can be seen in my most recent tournament, the Washington International, where I played one of my best games of recent months in round seven, and then one of my worst games I’ve probably ever played in round eight. It’s quite baffling that such a significant difference could occur between games one round apart. This has been an ongoing problem for years, so in all honesty, my disastrous result at U.S. Junior Championship was disappointing but it didn’t surprise me. I’ve had tournaments just as bad as this one before (almost every U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship is an example), the only discrepancy being that it’s never been so publicized before and I haven’t faced such strong opposition. My FIDE rating the last two years reflects this since it’s been shooting up and down drastically between the 2250-2380 range with the only periods of stability during months where I haven’t played any tournaments.

My situation in the hunt for the IM title also makes perfect sense, because I have all three of my norms but have yet to cross the 2400 threshold. To me, this means that I am capable of performing at IM-level strength in my best tournaments, making it possible to achieve the norms, but that I’m definitely a long road away from consistently playing at that level, making the rating much harder. I’m going to work on diminishing the impact of my worst tournaments and become a more stable player, but I’m going to have to put a lot of work in because there are a lot of weaknesses that I need to target.

All in all, there are no excuses to be made for my performance at U.S. Junior Championship. I didn’t go into the tournament with the correct strategy and should’ve realized early on that I needed to change the unnecessarily aggressive way I was playing if I wanted to stop the bleeding. My opponents out prepped and outplayed me and there’s no solution for that except to get better. I dug myself into a hole with issues that plagued me throughout the tournament like time management, and I’ll need to drastically correct them if I want to avoid situations like this in the future.

At the end of the day, U.S. Junior Championship was just a bad tournament. However, one bad tournament doesn’t seem too bad in the grand scheme of things if I’m able to learn from my mistakes.


Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.
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UncleBent UncleBent 9/1/2019 04:21
Leavenfish wrote: "Was it Bobby Fisher who opined ‘good moves are the only thing’"

It's interesting that you mention Fischer, since it took him a long time to get over the fact that the "Russians" were conspiring against him. And, in fact, they probably were. But, eventually, he just got past that distraction and concentrated on "good moves," and the rest is history.
IntensityInsanity IntensityInsanity 8/31/2019 09:52
Regardless of who agrees or not, I want to thank Alexey Root for these articles. These articles have caused a good discussion and prompted debate. I would certainly enjoy reading more from Ms Root - of whose playing and writing I have read since I was a kid playing chess in the 80’s! I appreciate people like Alexey Root who have contributed a lot to chess over the course of their career.
fede666 fede666 8/31/2019 06:52
She did not have a bad tournament...0.5 out 9 shows she did not belong there..women players should be invited to strong tournaments only if they have gained the necessary rating points...this politically correct attitude that pretends that they can play top tournaments with the big boys is just ridiculous...0.5/9 proves it
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/31/2019 05:53
Oh, and since you ask…I am just a humble 2000+ OTB player (down to 2018 at the moment) who has held the USCF’s Candidate Master title for over 20 years, (Life Master by their first attempt at awarding it via norms in a nice framed certificate, but I don't think it is considered 'valid' anymore), 2399 ICCF (quit about 20 yrs ago when computers started to destroy ‘true’ Correspondence chess)…clearly someone who left his best chess behind him and just enjoys playing for the sake of the challenge these days.

Beyond that, I work in the health care supply chain, enjoy reading about ancient history, poetry, science and the outdoors. So, that’s basically who I am.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/31/2019 05:52

Like I said, let’s forget it. If you wish to say that you misinterpreted instead of misrepresented what I said, fine. I’ll accept and forgive you that along with the ensuing question to Jennifer.

Now, in Jennifer's answer lies an interesting thought: Stylistically, is there a difference in your average stable (yes, lets throw ‘K factor’ talk out for this) 2450 (to pick the rating you chose) male and female?

I have often mentioned to those who moan about ‘draws’ in the top men’s tournaments to consider following top female tournaments. The games in their tournaments are on average more exciting.

Now are they more exciting because of some stylistic (aggression, etc) difference as Jennifer hints at, or simply because they (like tournaments with males of a similar rating) make more mistakes than Top level male/open tournaments (200-300 rating points higher)? I tend to think the latter. Chess is a game of mistakes. The lower rated the competition, the more mistakes….the more ‘fun’ to go thru/watch and arguably more instructive to the average player.

Your contributions engender a lot of knee-jerk criticism. I think because they add (unintentionally) to the victimization culture debates which so many people get tired of hearing about. Was it Bobby Fisher who opined ‘good moves are the only thing’ (not a direct quote, and I might be thinking of another famous player)? But such an investigation into possible measurable ‘stylistic differences’ between the sexes – that I think would be arguably more productive and find wide acceptance.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/31/2019 03:22

I did not address it… because I simply have not thought about. In addition to which, I thought you were asking Ms. Root!
UncleBent UncleBent 8/30/2019 05:04
@Leavenfish You failed to address my point that not all similarly-rated players will have uniform results, even if they end up with similar tournament rating performances. Jennifer Yu excels at dispatching with lower or equal rated players at a higher rate than her rating would predict. But the opposite result occurs when she plays higher rated players. In the article, Jennifer faults her "aggressive" approach, and her failure to moderate. This same aggressive approach tests players of lesser ability, but exposed her to superior opponents who were not as "tested."

Going into the US Junior, I did not have high expectations for Jennifer, based on a look at her prior performance against 2450+ opponents. I did expect her to defeat the one lower-rated player (Atulya Vaidya), but after he played very well to win the game, I knew she was in for a rough tournament. But, as mentioned, I would have higher expectations for Carissa Yip, if she were to play today. Two players, with similar ratings but different profiles.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/30/2019 03:42
...and I meant to add that volatility in general applies to everyone (that's why ratings are just snapshots in time), not just Juniors, but I do think, yes, that it is more pronounced there.
Alexey Root Alexey Root 8/30/2019 03:35
Leavenfish wrote 10 hours ago "Sorry you were wrong." Since it was Leavenfish's quote I was interpreting, when I asked Jennifer about men and women rated 2450, it is for Leavenfish to judge. However, I did not even think of the alternate (apparently what Leavenfish actually meant) interpretation of comparing the games of 2450 and 2743 players. Leavenfish also speculated (about my motivations for writing articles about Jennifer Yu): "Perhaps it surprised you – you are the one who wrote the articles delving into possible psychological reasons to ‘explain her result’." I already stated my motivation for writing the articles in the very first one titled "Jennifer Yu's U.S. Junior Championship: Can research explain her result?": "Thanks to chess fan “Leavenfish” for his comment, which motivated me to write this article." And that motivating comment was, on an article "U.S. Junior and U.S. Senior": "Leavenfish 7/20/2019 05:58 I rather doubt however that we will see a Chessbase article specifically about this result from Alexi Root." So Leavenfish challenged me to write one article, which turned into three articles. I could not write an entire article with this lead sentence, "Yu just had a bad tournament." So instead I speculated about stereotype threat and second-half comebacks. I am surprised that no one is commenting on Dr. Kenneth Regan's insight quoted in this article, as his quote fits the "stereotype lift" theory and also brings into question if Yu had a bad tournament or if her opponents just had "good" tournaments: "Dr. Regan replied: The results of my ‘screening test’ hint at what you surmise. Her accuracy was only the smallest notch or two below the expectation for her rating according to both Stockfish 10 and Komodo 12.3. Her opponents, however, notched among the highest."
I do not know who "Leavenfish" is in real life but thanks to him (or her) for comments, especially the one which allowed me to write three "Jennifer Yu" articles.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/30/2019 03:34
I don't want to wade into your point of contention with Alexey about 'K' factor...but it does not in any way affect someone's play does it? I don't think Yu's destroying the other ladies at the US Championship has anything to do with...anything but her play. If as you say, "...a junior player is only as good (or as bad) as his last result"... that was a pretty impressive result.

I do understand your point about the volatility as a result. That said, for non Juniors a 2450 is a 2450, but I get your point.

Of course, anyone 'can' catch lightening in a bottle for an event.

But 'K factor' aside, it
celeje celeje 8/30/2019 03:23
@ Alexey, @ UncleBent:

Thanks for your replies to my question on the photo.
UncleBent UncleBent 8/30/2019 11:41
You are wrong -- men and women rated the same have the same rating strength. Now there is a difference with players under 18, both boys and girls, since FIDE uses a higher K factor which makes their ratings more volatile, up to a certain rating level. In effect, a junior player is only as good (or as bad) as his last result.

When Jennifer went 10-1 at the US Women Championship, she was playing against a field that had just 1 GM (low rated) and 1 IM. When she played in the US Junior, she was paired vs 4 GMs and 3 IMs. And, if you look at Jennifer's history, she has never done well against the very top layers (worse than her rating would predict), but has done very well (better than her rating-predicted score) against lower-rated players. In effect, she just went off her cliff.

That characteristic (under-performing/over-performing) is not specific to gender. When I was younger, I dominated 1800's and 1900's, but once I got over 2000, and had to play stronger players, I was a lamb. By contrast, 15 year old Carissa Yip does very much better than her ratting would predict vs 2400+ players, but, up until this summer, had under-performed against the lower-rated. In fact, Carissa probably has lost rating points playing in women's tournaments (which are lower rated), and then has had to restore her rating with wins and draws vs 2400+ players.

Btw, over the past 5 weeks, Carissa has played in 3 international tournaments with a Tournament Performance Rating well over 2500. And out of her 27 opponents, I believe there were only 2 females. The September FIDE rating lists come out tomorrow and Carissa may well have broken the 2400 barrier.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/30/2019 05:31
Wow! I knew I would be off but not that far. It further confirms that a 2450 rating puts a woman among the top of her gender in Chess while for a male…well, he is just an ‘also ran’, nowhere near the top.

If we go back to my very first post in the previous article, I summed it up with: “It is hard for me to square (Yu) ripping thru the top US females and getting totally outclassed by a group of the best male Juniors.”

I would have thought someone who could so dominate the best - and largely experienced - women in the US would have done better against a group of (yes, strong) Junior males. Instead it showed in terms of pure chess ability, that an American phenomena in female chess…is just considerably worse than the best Junior males. It surprised me.

Perhaps it surprised you – you are the one who wrote the articles delving into possible psychological reasons to ‘explain her result’.

It would seem that what constitutes truly high accomplishment in chess is an entirely different level of play when it comes to men and women. That is all.

Again though, you are the one who offered up the strawman to Yu (and as if I was somehow implying it)… "Do you think this comment is true? Or do 2450-rated chess players play games at roughly the same level, whether they are men or women?"

Which led her to (rightly, of course) say: “I think it’s ludicrous to imply that men and women who have the same rating are at different strengths.” Sorry, you were wrong. I would have expected more...but lets just leave it at that.
UncleBent UncleBent 8/30/2019 02:32
celeje asked: "Who is the youngster on the right in the first photo?"

I believe he is 16 year old Hans Niemann, an IM, and one of Jennifer's opponents in the US Junior Championship.
adbennet adbennet 8/30/2019 12:49
Jennifer Yu said: "From my experience, many female players are aggressive..."

This has been my experience as well, I am glad to see it confirmed by a player with a different perspective.

Jennifer Yu said: "I didn’t go into the tournament with the correct strategy and should’ve realized early on that I needed to change the unnecessarily (sic) aggressive way I was playing if I wanted to stop the bleeding."

I disagree 100%. Aggression against a superior opponent is admirable, please don't change that. I was very impressed as the tournament went on that you were still duking it out.

Playing directly for draws, or hoping the opponent will self-destruct as they avoid a draw, aka "playing for rating", is shabby chess. Of course, there is a time to play (or fight) for a draw, but not as an overall tournament strategy.
Alexey Root Alexey Root 8/29/2019 11:32
Hi, celeje, I don't know who is on the right in the first photo. The only photo I submitted for the article is the one of my pet rabbit, Denis. The editor of ChessBase chose the other photos, of Jennifer Yu. So he may answer your question, or you could research on the Saint Louis Chess Club Flickr account or website.
bbrodinsky bbrodinsky 8/29/2019 10:55
I really like her attitude. She seems very unshaded by the recent (or any) poor performance. She knows the goal, how to achieve it, and won’t be distracted by talk of bias, sexism regardless of whether true or not. She also is self-aware enough to admit weaknesses. Hard to believe this woman is only in high school! Very impressive young lady.
While she can undoubtedly learn much chess from GMs, it seems to me that those GMs could learn a lot of other things from her.
celeje celeje 8/29/2019 09:36
Who is the youngster on the right in the first photo?
Alexey Root Alexey Root 8/29/2019 04:07
Hi, ChessBase readers. Thank you for your comments on this article and on the prior two articles in this "Jennifer Yu" series. In the very first article, I wrote, "So stereotype threat may have negatively affected her performance." I wrote "may have" because that's what I meant. There are many other possible explanations for Yu's U.S. Junior Championship performance, including the "just a bad tournament" mentioned by several people who have commented and by Yu herself. Thus this is the last article in the "Jennifer Yu" series. However, I did want to respond to KevinC and Leavenfish in their comments below. Are you both suggesting that there should be a comparison of the quality of play of players rated more than 300 points apart (2450 vs. 2743)? That is not a comparison that seems useful, as of course players rated 2450 make more blunders than 2743-rated players. When I see the word "similar" in terms of "high accomplishment in chess" to me that means "the same rating." Last, thanks to Justjeff for noticing the photo of my pet rabbit Denis in this article. I read all comments on all my articles. If there are further questions for me, please ask here (or contact me via email or Facebook if you don't want to comment here). If I see questions I can answer or statements I can clarify, I will. However, I don't want to drag on this comment thread endlessly as there are many other interesting articles on ChessBase that deserve readers' attention and comments. Thanks again, readers. Alexey Root
KevinC KevinC 8/29/2019 12:04
There two more factors going on here, and one is the Bell Curve, and the second is the different K factors. The difference between a 2273 (her stating rating at the U.S. Woman's Championship) and 2373 (100 points, and there were only two players marginally higher rated than that upper rating of 2373 in the Women's Championship.) is not the same as the rating difference of a 2500 to a 2600. Even without any change in the K-factor, it is harder to move up the higher your rating; but add in that the K-factor drops to 10 once over 2400, it is then also mathematically twice as hard to gain rating points, so they players she faced in the U.S. junior were that much stronger.

I have never liked the changing K-factor, and I think it is one of the primary reasons for her expected number of wins versus her actual number of wins.

Lastly, you cannot take any one result and make broad conclusions about virtually anything, which is what the author is trying to do, and it comes off as a big excuse, and a disservice to Yu, herself.
KevinC KevinC 8/29/2019 11:49
@Leavenfish, a rating of 2450 makes you 1322 in the world (Aljoscha Feuerstack, Germany). Marie Sebag, 2450, is the 29th rated woman in the world, so that was close.
UncleBent UncleBent 8/29/2019 08:29
Jennifer Yu had a bad tournament. She stepped up in class, and had to play against higher-rated, better prepared opponents, and since this was a RR instead of a Swiss, there was no respite. Any experienced chess players understands, except, it appears, to Dr. Root, who tried to introduce the concept of "Stereotype Threat" to explain a bad result. End of story.

And that is not to deny that the Stereotype Threat exists at lower levels of experience and competition. But when a young woman has risen to the level of 2300+ ELO, you've gotten past dealing with the threat. As Jennifer mentioned, one of her IM Norms came in an event where most of her opponents were men.

Continue to address the issue of gender at the lower levels of chess skill -- we need a larger pool of female players both for the future of women's chess, and chess in general. But drop this particular nonsensical argument. In the past 5 years, we have seen incredible results from a group of teenage girls, with a slew of accumulated IM Norms and GM scalps. The goal should be to encourage and enable them to get better coaching to get even better. Tyring to plant the idea of "Stereotype Threat" in their minds is only counter-productive.
mrstillwater mrstillwater 8/29/2019 07:45
Not surprisingly, Jennifer's comments are very sensible and level headed with no attempt to blame her marginally worse than expected performance on gender or any other nebulous excuse. Something the author of this article might wish to reflect on.
Leavenfish Leavenfish 8/29/2019 07:08
Lots could be said...but let me focus on your quote of me used as the precursor to the question you then posed to Jennifer.

You fairly quote me, but this led to the surprising question "Do you think this comment is true? Or do 2450-rated chess players play games at roughly the same level, whether they are men or women?"

What?? I NEVER spoke of mere 'ratings'. This was your invention. Jennifer quite rightly points out that a 245o is precisely that - be they male or female. So, you set up a straw man for her to knock down!??. That is...lets be charitable and say...not right of you.

I use the term men and women "of high accomplishment" which by about any definition should mean toward the top of their profession and/or playing in the top tournaments held each year...I am watching the replay of one right now in St. Louis...all rated 2743 or higher.

A 2450 male is far from the top of his profession and if you go by the ratings lists - probably what, top 400-500? I don't know. However a 2450 female...puts her around the top 25 females.

I frankly don't know if I should be mad over this. I do know that I am tired and am going to bed before I allow myself to think about it too much.
Justjeff Justjeff 8/29/2019 03:54
I was pleased to see the picture of the bunny (I think) and the magnetic set. I did tactical exercises with that set when I was a junior.

She's doing fine. Everyone, including Magnus Carlsen, has had a bad tournament. It's the risk you take when you step up to a stronger level of competition. But if you're going to be good you have to take that step.