Ups and Downs of Chess

Whenever you play chess, you must learn how to cope with the ups and downs of chess. As a chess instructor, I regularly tell people “I am in the business of teaching people how to lose constructively.” Like anything, chess can be full of obstacles. Interestingly, the obstacles in chess are almost always you.

I am on a losing streak, what do I do?
This common question is asked by many who struggle to improve. One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from National Master Dan Heisman “You have to be willing to take your lumps!” He is quite right. If you cannot stand losing, then you’re going to have a hard time improving. Dan’s book The Improving Chess Thinker is all about analyzing how players at different levels speak about different positions. Through this process, Dan shows us the types of mistakes lower level players make when compared to higher level players.

So, what do you do when you are on a losing streak?
First, identify why you are on a losing streak.

How do I identify my issue?
Take some time off actually playing chess and learn for a little while. I can say that most of the time when I am on a losing streak, it is related to tactics. If you don’t regularly go over high-level games or solve tactics, then your tactical vision can wane a bit. I find at lower levels of chess this is often the reason people get stuck on losing streaks. Therefore, books like Improve Your Chess Tactics can be very helpful. I often look for chess books with “Improve” in the title that speak to improving a specific skill. For example, books like Improve Your Endgame Play or Improve Your Opening Play will give practical advice to you on specific key skills. Neither will suddenly make you a brilliant chess virtuoso; however, they will help you identify and work on your own errors. These kinds of books are fantastic if you have identified a clear area for improvement in your game.

However, books like Test, Evaluate, and Improve Your Chess or A Guide to Chess Improvement are also helpful but don’t specifically focus on one skill set. These are more for assessing problems which have their own independent value. Books with a more generalized approach have the advantage of being able to cover a wide variety of issues, and often they help you test to see if you have issues in those areas. From there, it is a good idea to seek out resources to help you with specifically identified skills.

I am on a Winning Streak! Woohoo!!
Well, good for you! As any good player knows that if a winning streak goes too long, then odds are you need to seek out stronger competition. However, winning streaks when you are an equivalent or lesser rating than your peers typically mean you are making a breakthrough and improving. During these times, it is a good idea to understand how you have improved. For example, if you improved because of hard work and you identified a weakness that you worked on, then when your losing streak ends you’ll need to do this again. If your winning streak is because you changed an opening you play, then be sure to understand your opponents will likely keep pace with you at the next event.

Winning streaks are always uplifting but understanding why your winning streak is happening is helpful to putting your efforts into context. Sometimes, you didn’t do anything extra at all but find yourself winning games. That is ok! However, just because you didn’t actively do anything doesn’t mean you didn’t improve. Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov says, “The best way to improve in chess is to play as often as possible.” In a lecture he gave in Kentucky some years ago, he specifically said players learn much more from playing game after game than they do from any other process. I am inclined to agree with him.

But wait a second… you just said to get out of a losing streak I should take a break but Kaidanov says playing more games is better? Which is it!?
Well, both are true. It depends on your situation. Here are a few examples that make use of both ideas from my own life.

When on a losing streak, I had just come off a break due to college and hadn’t played in a while. So, my opponents could see the rust fall off me as I moved each piece. I felt that, in this situation, taking a further break really wouldn’t make much sense. I decided to take Dan Heisman’s advice and take my beatings and come out of them stronger in the end.

Another example was that I had lost many games across two tournaments and let some lower ranked players beat me as well. How did I fix it? I created an account on Lichess.com and, being a new player but a master level player, all fell before me! I don’t advocate for making numerous accounts on the same chess website; however, being ‘new’ for a little while and winning a few games raised my spirits and it pulled me out of my slump.

Currently, I haven’t played much chess in the last 2 years (despite having purchased a Life Membership to the US Chess federation not too long ago). But, I regularly go over GM games, read chess books, and study chess for fun. So, while I am on a break, I do not feel rusty right now. Sometimes just enjoying chess as a hobby, instead of a pursuit, helps you advance.