The Winning Academy 29: Fear, the biggest enemy of a chess player

by Jan Markos
1/18/2024 – In real life, staying safe is often a good idea. A human being has almost always more to lose than to gain. By being a daredevil, you might gain fame or wealth, but you might also lose health, or even your life. And what is more important? Health or wealth? Life or fame? Therefore, most of us mortals are quite fearful, and rightly so. Fear protects us from unnecessary harm. However, in chess the situation is rather different.

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The maximum you might lose in a game of chess is one point. Your life is not at stake. Therefore, at the board strong fear is seldom an appropriate emotion. On the contrary, usually it harms your objectivity, and leads to poor play.

Let us have a look at four examples when fear negatively influenced the thinking process of a player.

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In the first example, Jan Kryzstof Duda had a difficult task: being Black against the World Champion.

Carlsen-Duda, FIDE World Cup 2021, Black to move:

And he did extremely well. In the diagrammed position, Black is surely much better, controlling the only open file and having more active pieces.

I am sure that against some random guy, Duda would routinely exchange the queens and attack the a3-pawn, playing 38…Qxf1 39.Kxf1 Rc3. But against the Norwegian genius, he was afraid to let the white rook into his own camp: 40.Rc1 Rxa3 41.Rc8+ Kh7.

However, the resulting position is clearly won for Black, as his a4-pawn is very quick. Duda was simply seeing ghosts: a typical result of being scared.

He played the “safe” 38…Rc4?! and was only somewhat better. However, in the end he won anyway, as Carlsen was visibly out of shape at that day.

When scared, we often try not to allow any counterplay. But the sad truth is that most of the time we end up being too modest, paradoxically allowing more chances for our opponents than necessary.

Here's the complete game:

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In the second example, Nisipeanu had a bad position against another chess star, Vassily Ivanchuk.

Nisipeanu-Ivanchuk, Bazna Kings 2009, White to move:

White is a pawn down and his pawn structure is weak. Common sense suggests that after Black includes his minor pieces into attack, his chances to survive will be zero. Therefore, White should attack swiftly, trying to exploit the weak light squares around Black´s king.

After the courageous 32.f4! d3 33.Kg2 (This is necessary, as …Rb1 is a strong threat.) Rb1 34.Qf3 Qxd2 35.Bxd3 Rb8 36.Qe4 Kg8 37.Bc4+ Kh8 38.Bd3 White´s compensation for the piece is enough for a perpetual.

But Nisipeanu was not prepared to go for a berserk attack. He played the shy 32.Kg2? and lost without a fight few moves later.

When scared, we often forget about defending endangered positions actively. We simply try to “stay alive” somehow.

Here's the complete game:

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In the following game, Black was probably not afraid of his opponent. However, the previous course of the game was quite stressful and Black probably did not find enough inner energy to continue acting actively and courageously.

Anton Guijarro-Bortnyk, European Championship, Minsk 2017, Black to move:

It is obvious that Black can consume the e5-pawn. On the contrary, it is not obvious why he should not do that. In fact, after 18…Nxe5 19.h4 Qe7 20.Rae1 Nbc6 Black is simply better. His e5-knight is pinned, but safely protected.

And yet for Bortnyk it was too scary to take on e5. He decided to play a “safe” move that turned out to be rather suicidal. The game continued 18…Qe7?? 19. Bh7+ Kh8 20.e6!. The e5-pawn survived and punished Black just two moves later. After 20.e6! Black can simply give up.

When scared, we often tend to prefer “safe” moves, avoiding critical lines. However, passive seldom means safe, often activity is the safest way to a good result.

Here's the complete game:

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In the last example, both players were afraid to go for the critical lines.

Taylor-Edouard, Gibraltar 2019, Black to move:

Black is a pawn down, but he can take the d3-pawn. Of course, GM Edouard did check this obvious move, but he was afraid of the following long line: 22…Rxd3 23.Rxd3 Qxd3 24.Rd2 Qxc3 25.Qe6 Bf6 26.Rd7. However, this line would at least give him some counter chances, E.g. after 26…b4 the situation is rather unclear.

Instead of all this, Edouard played 22…h5?!, creating a not-so-dangerous threat …g5-g4.

And it worked! Taylor, rated 300 points lower than Edouard, got scared and played 23.Nh2?, allowing Black to answer 23…Rxd3 with an almost equal position. (The difference is that the h2-knight is no longer controlling the d2-square, and therefore the aforementioned long line does not work anymore.)

Instead of 23.Nh2, White can simply play 23.d4 with a won position.

Here's the complete game:

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A scared chessplayer avoids open fight, prefers passive continuations, delays counterplay. To put it shortly, a scared player is an easy prey.

So, how should you fight your fear? Let´s start to think about the situation that scares you differently, rewiring your mind. Let me give you at least examples:

Imagine that you are playing a strong player and you are afraid to lose. How to reframe the situation? Tell yourself: “I have much less to lose than him. Everyone expects me to lose, but I can surprise positively. Also, he might underestimate me, so I will get my chances.” Seeing the game as an opportunity might help you to fight your fear.

Or imagine that you are better, but afraid that a straightforward approach would spoil your position. Tell yourself: “I might spoil the game by playing actively. But I will surely spoil it by waiting and wavering. So, let us go for a direct attack!”

To put it simply: fighting your fear will make you a stronger player, and a more dangerous opponent for anyone.

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Jan Markos is a Slovakian chess author, trainer, and grandmaster. His book Under the Surface was the English Chess Federation´s 2018 Book of the Year. His last book, The Secret Ingredient, co-authored with David Navara, focuses on the practical aspects of play, e.g. time-management over the board, how to prepare against a specific opponent, or how to use chess engines during the training process. Markos was the U16 European Champion twenty years ago. At present he helps his pupils from several countries to achieve similar successes. Apart from focusing on the royal game, he is also the author of several non-chess books, focused on critical thinking, moral dilemmas, and phenomenology.
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