Psychology

September 17, 2009 at 9:31 am 3 comments

I was reading this interview with Van Wely, a Grand Master and trainer the other day:

Van Wely considers his strongest point also his weakest: “My optimism. And I am a great fighter. Sometimes that’s not wise. I want too much in positions where I should be content with a draw. That way, I could balance my energy better in a tournament.”…

In a New in Chess interview, Van Wely once said that psychology is nonsense and doesn’t count in chess. Dutch FM Dharma Tjiam’s reaction was that Van Wely wanted to avoid tedious questions with this remark. Van Wely laughs. “Did Dharma say that? Yes, I suppose he’s right.” He knows from experience that psychology does count. “You must be able to handle pressure when there is a lot at stake. You must be able to accept defeat. Your irritation level is tested, too. Some players try to con you in all kinds of ways. It’s no fun at the top! We don’t join each other at the bar for a beer, we play at a knife edge. But Dutch top players are good colleagues.” To Van Wely, the most important psychological rule of thumb is: If you keep on believing in yourself and keep on fighting, you can go far.

Dutch IM Joris Brenninkmeijer, a psychologist, thinks it useful for top chess players to pay attention to psychological aspects. He once complained that it is easier to discuss psychology with a piece of dead wood than with Loek van Wely. Loek agrees. But his grin suggests that he does see the importance of psychological matters, it’s just that he does not necessarily want to chat about them with Brenninkmeijer. Van Wely suddenly laughs. Psychology? Yes, he does apply it now and then. In the German club competition he once put a piece en prise after a quiet opening. His opponent thought for half an hour. To one of his opponent’s team mates, Van Wely whispered that he had blundered a piece. As he had expected, the team mate duly told Van Wely’s opponent, who was all the more baffled. As a result, he didn’t dare take the piece and lost the game.

A day or so later, I stumbled upon this story, quoted in Practical Chess Psychology by Avni. It was Tilburg 1993 – several years before the interview above – and Van Wely was playing Morozevich, who tells it thus:

The position was almost equal when Van Wely offered me a draw – but he did it with a very soft voice. There was some doubt in his words and that was the reason I declined his offer. After that he did not make any more good moves and I won easily.

These stories set me thinking about various things.

(1) It would be fair to say that drawing is considered unAustralian in chess. (It certainly used to be) Is there a bridge counterpart? Is it the preempting that Sartaj hates so much? Or some other aspects of style we have here? And is this necessarily bad? Do we really have to think that the score is everything? Or might there be more to the game than the winning of it?

(2) Psychology is really very important in chess. What about bridge? The fact that the rules have slowly, over the decades, attempted to extract all character from the game perhaps means that psychology simply no longer has any part to play. Or maybe that isn’t so at all and it is very much part and parcel of the game. If you do think it is integral to the game, I would like examples of how – and where – and why.

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A Cayne grandslam…the denouement. Is this statement true?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Gill  |  September 18, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    Psychology is very important at bridge, but the effects vary from one person to another. For example, at the ANOT two of my best ever sets (plus about 80 imps for 20 boards) began with minus 4,000 and minus 2,000 on the first board. With less determined partners, such a start might have had the reverse effect. Momentum can take over as psycholgical factors dominate instead of raw skill. Then there was an amazing hand in the mid 1990s in the SNOT where my partner Cathy Chua conceded two off instead of one off in a non vul 3D to our puzzled opponents, triggering a reversal of their domination, as the psychology of the battle at the table altered, so that the momentum swung to us. Examples are endless – some people play worse if just one of the members of their team is someone they deep down don’t really want to win with. And on and on it goes.

    Reply
    • 2. cathychua  |  September 19, 2009 at 7:53 am

      Of course it is important to recognise that giving the opponents a big score at the start of the match is often to their psychological detriment. So many people freeze up and suddenly – already when the match hasn’t even started – feel like they have to nurse this unexpected gain.

      As for my brilliancy you refer to Peter. If I might elaborate, what I did was give the opponents an extra fifty because they were playing so slowly I wanted to get onto another hand. If I’d claimed one down I would have spent half an hour explaining it, so this was the time economical thing to do. It also had this interesting side effect. I recall John Newcombe talking about how he behaved in games where he was in a terrible position. He’d go ‘crazy’ and start playing non-tennis on the basis that this might throw the opponent and get him back in the match. I’d love to see some actual footage of him doing that.

      Reply
  • 3. Chris Mulley  |  September 17, 2009 at 9:54 am

    OOne thing that used to frustrate me no end was the tendency for a couple of bad boards at the start of the set to end up leading to an appalling set. We still have bad sets – I think everyone does from time to time – but I think we don’t “self-destruct” as much as we used to. Now all we need to do is stop the opponents feeling as though they can walk on water after a couple of good boards and we will be set.

    Reply

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