Thursday, 11 October 2018

Mental aspects of chess: Playing against a stronger opponent


The initial feeling one gets after an unfavorable pairing


So here's a situation most of you might be familiar with:

The pairings are out, you look for your name. There it is! You glance at your opponent and oh-my-gosh, he's rated 400 Elo points higher than you! You do more research and discover he is an up and coming prodigy (>10 years younger than you) with the potential to become the next Grandmaster. 

What are you thinking at this exact moment? 

Truth is, most people would be intimated by such a pairing. I know I would be. However, I've learned a couple of mind tricks along the way to help me cope with the added pressure. 

1. You've got nothing to lose. 


Heck, with a gap of over 400 ELO points, no one is expecting you to win. All the pressure is on your opponent. Just go out there, play your best and enjoy the 'lesson' if you lose. 


2. Your opponent is human and will make mistakes. 


You're not playing against computer engines such as Stockfish, Houdini or Komodo who will rip most chess players to shreds by move 20. Your opponent is a human made of flesh and blood, not some chess deity who plays perfect moves endlessly. There will be inaccuracies and it's up to you to find out how to best exploit them. 

Remember that the ELO system is just a reflection of how consistent a player is. As humans, we all have our good days and our bad days. It helps to imagine before the start of every chess game, both players start from an  ELO rating strength of ZERO and must 'work' our way up to our playing strength.  Your opponent cannot take anything for granted.

3. Prepare hard. Leave no room for regrets 


If there's ample time, look through your opponent's game and come to the chessboard with a game plan in mind. The good thing about having a higher rated opponent is that normally they tend to have more games in the database then you. Therefore, in theory, you can come more prepared since you have more information on them then they have on you. I truly believe that chess databases have somewhat leveled the playing field a little. Even masters can get caught off-guard in the opening or middlegame and never recover. Take for example the following game I played against an NM (FIDE rated 2067) on chess.com recently. He walked right into my opening preparation and as a result, I was able to convert the point without much trouble. 

A game that I liked (ChessBase 14)
[Event "Live Chess"] [Site "Chess.com"] [Date "2018.10.07"] [Round "?"] [White "Canadian NM Master"] [Black "Myself"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C11"] [WhiteElo "1820"] [BlackElo "1850"] [PlyCount "38"] [EventDate "2018.??.??"] [TimeControl "900+10"] {My opponent is an NM from Canada.} 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. e5 { The Steinz Variation. Very topical in top level play and considered to be one of the main lines against the French} Nfd7 5. f4 c5 6. Nf3 Nc6 7. Be3 Be7 8. Qd2 O-O 9. O-O-O $2 {I was quite suprised when my opponent played this as I was under the impression that most masters would know this move to be a mistake.} ({Better was} 9. Be2 b6 10. O-O f6 {thematic.}) ({another main line goes.} 9. Bd3 f6 $1) 9... c4 $1 {prevents White from developing his light square bishop and prepares the queenside pawn storm.} 10. f5 b5 $1 {the point! Black doesn't fear the lost of the B pawn as it opens up lines of attack along the b file against White's king} 11. Nxb5 (11. f6 gxf6 12. Bh6 fxe5 $1 13. Bxf8 Qxf8) 11... Rb8 12. fxe6 fxe6 13. Nd6 Bxd6 14. exd6 Nb6 (14... Nf6 15. Bf4 Ne4 16. Qe3 Nxd6) 15. Ne5 (15. Bg5 Qxd6) 15... Qxd6 16. b3 $4 {Probably overlook the fact that Black can now check on a3 with devastating consequences.} (16. Nxc6 Qxc6 17. b3 Na4 $1 18. bxa4 (18. Qa5 cxb3 19. axb3 Rxb3) 18... c3 19. Qd3 Rf7 $3) 16... Qa3+ 17. Kb1 Na4 18. Qc1 $4 (18. c3 cxb3 19. Nxc6 Nxc3+ 20. Qxc3 Qxa2+ 21. Kc1 b2+ 22. Kd2 b1=Q+) 18... Nc3+ 19. Ka1 Qxa2# {checkmate} 0-1

Bottom line: When playing a much stronger opponent, there's nothing to lose. Prepare as hard as you can and enjoy your 'lesson'. Your opponent cannot beat you if you play good moves. 

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