Time pressure (and other maladies)

by ChessBase
9/18/2007 – Time pressure got you down? Maybe the problem isn't really the clock. Our ChessBase Workshop columnist takes a look at the psychology behind time trouble and offers a possible remedy in his latest column. Workshop...

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In checking the e-mail responses which this column generates, I sometimes find myself stopping to wonder exactly how much of a role coincidence plays in our lives. I might go several years without a particular question or comment appearing in my mailbox, and then suddenly I'll see it appear multiple times within a very short period. I recently had that experience when the same question appeared in my e-mail three or four times within a two week period. The various writers phrased the question a bit differently from each other, but the basic core question remained essentially the same. To paraphrase:

"In most of my tournament games I find myself short on time; sometimes I even lose 'won' positions because my flag falls. What can I do about this problem?"

In this case, the wisecrack answer is actually the correct one: play faster.

Now before you get angry at what appears at first glance to be a sarcastic answer, hear me out. Nearly everyone gets into time trouble every now and again; I've never lost a tournament game on time but I've come pretty danged close on a couple of occasions. But if a player gets into habitual time trouble (and by "habitual" I'd define it as one or more times in every tournament played), that's a symptom of a deeper problem. It's what an old friend of mine used to call "beating yourself". It's an old sports term (read: hoary cliché) that you still hear "Monday morning quarterbacks" throw out there when they're trying to sound knowledgable about a team's loss: "Oh, they beat themselves".

That psychological problem isn't limited just to the sports world. Back when I was a musician, I hired a close friend of mine as the drummer for one of my bands. We'd been buddies for a long time, I'd played music with him before, I knew he was a good drummer -- he just didn't have a lot of experience playing in front of a crowd. Sure enough, the first time the band took the stage in front of a live audience, he was scared to play. He wasn't banging the drums; man, he was barely tapping them. I was standing three feet in front of his drum kit and I couldn't hear him, so I knew good and well that the crowd couldn't hear him either.

While we were on break after the first set, I took him aside. "Man, why are you here?" I asked him.

He seemed a bit confused by the question. "Well, to play music."

"So when are you gonna start playing?" He seemed to take a bit of offense at that, so I explained further, "I can't hear you." He admitted that he was nervous and afraid of making a mistake.

"That's a part of live music," I told him. "There's always the chance that you're gonna mess up. But live music is 'warts and all', and most crowds I've played for seem to understand that -- they know somebody's gonna screw up at least once. They paid good money to get in and hear some music, meaning they paid to hear you. Don't disappoint 'em."

He came out in the second set and played like a house afire; it was like having a completely different guy on the drums. And he was good, too.

The point is that he was beating himself; until we talked between sets, he was failing before he even started, just because he was afraid of making a mistake.

Chess works the same way; if you lack confidence, you've lost before you ever push a pawn.

I had another friend named Tim with whom I used to push a lot of those pawns. Our abilities were dangerously close to one another's; we were always within fifty or seventy-five Elo points of each other. We'd contested a few tournament games against each other, too, and tended to split pretty evenly -- I'd win against him one month, he'd come back and beat me the next month.

One year a major USCF tournament was held in a nearby town; one of those "Class Championships" in which you played only against others players in the same rating class. It had a fairly hefty entry fee for a guy who had twin toddlers at home (babies cost money), so I decided to sit that one out. Tim, though, ponied up the bucks and entered. I drove over to the site on Saturday afternoon to see how he was doing. We sat and talked in the skittles room; Tim looked like somebody'd run over his dog. He'd lost his first two games.

"I don't know what's going on," he said. "I just can't shake this case of nerves. I keep thinking about how much money it cost to enter this thing."

"Well, that's your problem," I told him. "You're thinking about the wrong stuff. Instead of thinking about the entry fee, you oughta be thinking about chess."

"But --"

"'But' nothing! Forget the money -- that's spent and gone. Think about your game. You're playing against guys who aren't any dang better than me, and you don't get nervous playing me, do you?" He shook his head. "Right! You kick my butt all the time," I reminded him. "So forget the money, forget the rating points, and just play your game!"

Tim went on to win four straight.

The point isn't that I'm any kind of wonderful motivational speaker (I'm not), but that both of these guys (one a musician, the other a chessplayer) were working themselves up into knots worrying about how they'd perform under pressure. And, unfortunately, both of them had wound themselves up so tightly that they weren't capable of performing to the best of their abilities -- ergo, they were beating themselves.

I've known a lot of chessplayers who routinely get into time trouble and they all share a common trait: all of them are afraid of making a mistake. Some are even afraid of playing "imperfect" chess. In both cases, they second-guess every decision they make, every candidate move and resulting variation, turning it over and over and over in their heads, while precious time slips away. The next thing you know, they have a totally "won" game, but with no time left to deliver the coup de grace; they lose on time when their flags fall.

What's worse: playing "imperfect" chess or playing a great game only to lose when your time runs out? Given that choice, I'll settle for imperfection any day.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, plays "perfect chess" (Capablanca came danged close, but even he wasn't perfect). So quit second-guessing yourself thinking that you might play an "inferior" move; sooner or later you have to "duck your head and go" like a jackrabbit running across a busy highway. Forget eating a lot of clock time in a fruitless search for the "best" move; much of the time a reasonable move will do nicely.

The problem is purely psychological. The solution? Short of spending large sums of money on psychoanalysis, a player needs to condition himself to avoid these destructive tendencies. While chessplaying software can't completely solve the "beating yourself" problem, your playing program contains some useful tools that you can use to try to condition yourself to avoid the pitfalls into which self-doubt can lead you.

Returning to the problem of time pressure, I've found that this problem has a fairly simple (if not altogether obvious) solution: practice by playing shorter games. For example, if you frequently play in tournaments with a time control of G/60 (game in sixty minutes), you should play practice games against Fritz/Shredder/Hiarcs/Junior/etc. with a shorter time limit. Time controls such as G/45 or even G/30 work well; after you've played a lot of practice games at these shorter time limits, G/60 will seem like a generous time allotment by comparison.

You also don't need to play your chess engine at full strength. Few of us class level players face anyone higher than Expert level (unless you're playing in the World Open), so playing Fritz et al. at full strength is more than a bit of overkill. Play your program at one of the handicap levels provided ("Handicap and fun" mode, "Sparring" more, or "Friend" mode) but use the clock. Use the "Blitz level" dialogue to set a time control shorter than the one used in your regular tournaments. Going back to our example, let's say the time control is G/60 at your next event. Set the Blitz mode dialogue as shown below:

...and you'll be playing a G/30 practice game. Even though it's just a practice game, try your level best to not run out of time. Get used to playing at this speed; over time you'll discover that you're no longer allowing yourself the luxury of second-guessing yourself by agonizing over every move. You'll start banging out the "obvious" moves much more quickly, which will allow you to spend more time on those trickier positions which do require more thought. You're likely to subsequently find yourself playing more quickly and accurately in your G/60 event -- in other words, you'll be playing with more confidence.

I have one last tip for you -- this one's on how to structure your thinking. I picked this tip up many years ago and it's worked very well for me. When it's your opponent's turn to move, think abstractly: consider long-range plans, goals you'd like to achieve a bit later in the game. It's time to think about how to use that open file you occupy or how to sieze control of the long diagonal. Think about long-term strategy. But when it's your turn to move think concretely: it's time to consider exact move sequences, tactical combinations, all that "I go, he goes, then I go" stuff. Structuring your thought process in this manner can also help you to alleviate your time pressure problem.

Next time around we'll look at another psychological pitfall and how you can use Fritz to help combat it. Until then, have fun!

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments on ChessBase Workshop. All responses will be read, and sending an e-mail to this address grants us permission to use it in a future column. No tech support questions, please.

© 2007, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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