Time pressure (and other maladies) - part 2

9/22/2007 – In the previous ChessBase Workshop column we introduced the idea of "beating oneself", based upon those little self-doubting psychological quirks from which some players suffer and which can really hurt one's chess results. This time our Workshop delves into the world of psychology again in this week's column, with a look at "rating envy" and how to combat it with the help of Fritz.

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In the previous ChessBase Workshop column we introduced the idea of "beating oneself", based upon those little self-doubting psychological quirks from which some players suffer and which can really hurt one's chess results. We specifically considered time pressure (eating up tons of clock time through second-guessing oneself) and how you can use Fritz as a training tool to help you combat that tendency.

This week we're going to consider another common "self doubt" quirk that can really wreck your chess performance. It's not usually a problem in "class" events or "quads", which typically pit players of more or less similar Elo ratings against each other. But when you play in a Swiss System event (especially the larger ones), hoo boy! This problem often rears its ugly head.

I believe that just about every chess player has encountered this problem at some point in his or her chess career. It usually strikes early in one's tournament life, while a player is still "finding his feet" and getting used to rated events. Most of us eventually outgrow it (usually about five seconds after the first time we take down a player rated 400 or 500 points higher than ourselves); for some folks it remains a problem for years into their tournament life.

You've probably already guessed where this is headed. I believe that in every Swiss System event in which I've ever played I've overheard at least one player saying at the pairing chart or wallboard: "Look at his rating! I'll never beat him!"

If you go into a game with that kind of defeatist attitude, you're dead before you ever push a pawn. Unless the guy keels over from a heart attack during the game, or an earth tremor causes a fissure to open and swallow the board before the game's finished, you're toast.

Back when I was still an active tournament player, I tended to view a game someone with a higher rating as an opportunity instead of something to be dreaded. It's really a case of having nothing to lose and everything to gain due to the way the Elo system works. I was usually more nervous playing against someone with a much lower rating, because I usually didn't know whether my opponent was relatively unskilled or was really an "up'n'comer" whose rating hadn't yet caught up with his abilities. In spite of that, I do understand why some players are a bit skittish when going into a rated game against an opponent with a higher rating.

As is the case with the malady of habitual time pressure, chessplaying software can help you to fight this psychological tendency to be nervous when playing a higher-rated opponent. There are three separate modes in the Fritz "family" of playing programs which can help you in this regard.

The first is "Rated game" mode. This has been discussed in detail in previous columns I've written over the years, so I'll just briefly explain the idea underlying this mode of play. Rated game mode attempts to simulate tournament chess conditions. You're required to play timed games with no takebacks allowed, no ability to use the Coach or other "advice" functions, no access to the Engine analysis pane, etc. In short, you're completely on your own in a game against Fritz (or any other chess engine available when you hit F3 to get the engine list).

To launch Rated game mode, go to the File menu in Fritz, select "New", and then "Rated game" from the submenu (or hit SHIFT-CTRL-R using the keyboard). You'll see the following dialogue appear:

The various controls and settings have been discused in-depth in previous columns; the section we're concentrating on now is this one:

Notice that the "Playing strength" section contains a slider which will provide a range of values. Loading the Fritz10 engine on a relatively antiquated Pentium III machine yields values (which are, of course, approximations) ranging from Elo 1980 to 2750. If you wish, you can select the "Unleashed" box to have the program play at its full strength (in this case an approximate rating of 3011). The faster the processor, the higher the range of values will tend to be.

Of course, for the average class level player (say USCF 1200 to 1600 Elo), that range of values might still seem entirely too high (since the lowest value is still just a hair shy of USCF Expert range, not accounting for possible [and controversial as well as hotly debated] "rating inflation" between USCF and FIDE Elo ratings). To get a lower range of values, you can load an older version of Fritz. For example, Fritz6 on the same Pentium III machine reveals this range of Elo approximations:

We now see that the low end of the sliding scale has dropped to a club-level 1680. If that's still too high, you might be able to load an even older 16-bit version of Fritz (on pre-Windows XP machines; Fritz1.20 in the following example) to get a lower range:

And if that's still too high, you can download a weaker engine (such as Turing) from the Downloads page at www.chessbase.com to drop it even lower:

As a rating suggestion, set the slider to a rating in the same ballpark as the players who you typically face in chess tournaments; past experience will be the key here. Once you've set the engine's approximate rating (as well as the other parameters), click "OK" to start the game. Bear in mind that the idea here isn't necessarily to win a bunch of games against a higher-rated opponent (although doing so should certainly take care of your reservations about playing such an opponent!); you're simply getting used to the idea of playing against someone stronger. If you set the slider to a level 200 to 250 points higher than your own rating, I believe that you'll discover that the games aren't complete routs; you might typically lose a pawn or two and have an uphill fight in the endgame, but the games shouldn't be total massacres.

What we're accomplishing here is a form of conditioning; you're becoming accustomed to the notion of playing someone a fair bit better while simultaneously discovering that you do have some skills after all -- while you'll lose more often than you win, you're not being dominated by the computer. Once the nervousness vanishes, you'll find that in your rated tournament games against human opponents you'll tend to give your adversary a good run for the money, win or lose.

Earlier I mentioned that there were three modes you can use in this confidence-building exercise. The second is "Handicap and fun" mode, which also contains a rating slider:

You can access this dialogue via the File menu ("New"/"Handicap and fun") or via the Game menu ("Levels"/"Handicap and fun"). And, as is the case with "Rated game" mode, the range of values will vary depending on the chess engine you've selected (via the Engine list, reached by hitting the F3 key on your keyboard). As previously described, you set the approximate level of your usual tournament opposition and start playing some games, just to get used to the "feel" of playing against someone stronger. "Handicap and fun" mode differs from Rated game mode in that you'll be able to use the Coach (and other "advice" features), see the Engine analysis pane, play without clocks, etc. I recommend turning off the Coach (by deselecting it in the Help menu) and closing the Engine analysis pane (by right-clicking in the pane and selecting "Close"), otherwise you don't get a good simulation of playing against a real person (unless you're gifted with mental telepathy, in which case go ahead and leave the Engine analysis pane open).

The third mode is "Friend" mode, mentioned here because the process is somewhat more automatic -- Friend mode keeps track of your prior results when you use it, and it attempts to provide you with a somewhat stronger opponent to play against. In Friend mode you should be able to win around 20% to 25% of your games. As with "Handicap and fun" mode, you're able to set options such as the availability of the Coach function and the Engine analysis pane. My only reservation about using it in the present context (overcoming a psychological disadvantage caused by "rating envy") is that Friend mode uses a numerical "handicap" value which doesn't correspond to an Elo rating; in other words, you're not quite sure how much stronger your electronic opponent is when you're using Friend mode.

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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