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Lessons On and Off the Board – Chess Super Nationals 2k17

Ethan Li, Managing Editor

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We each had seconds left on the clock. It was no longer a battle of skill, but rather a test of stamina. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

When I play chess, I can feel exactly how long a minute is. A minute is enough time to calculate three variations, maybe four. It is enough time to mentally break down twice, and recover three times. It is, hopefully, enough time to make the right decision in a crunch.

At the National Championship this year, I entered the fifth round as one of only two perfect scores. I was paired against a talented International Master and fellow All-American teammate who I played alongside at the World Olympiad in Slovenia. Our game started slowly, and for over three hours neither of us could claim an advantage. Finally, nearing the fourth hour and the beginning of time pressure, I successfully crashed through his defense with a calculated pawn sacrifice. I achieved a winning position! But then, I relaxed.

This is the great danger of achieving an advantage: a player loosens the pressure when victory is near. Conversely, the person losing redoubles their efforts, struggling with the tenacity of a cornered animal, desperately clawing at any chance, any possibility, to recover. The worst thing was that I knew all this, yet I still relaxed. I have played chess for over ten years and made this exact same mistake countless times. The national stage unbalanced me.

My mind began to wander. During the game, the stress on the brain is so quietly intense–so wholly pervasive–that the mind takes the first chance possible to escape the tension. It takes extreme focus and discipline to maintain a high level of concentration throughout the entire match. I started to wonder: what would I eat for dinner? Would that sushi place still be open this late? I checked my watch: 11:45. Probably not. How much longer would this game take?

I wasted time and effectively squandered the advantage I achieved from three hours of toil in a mere ten minutes. In the end, I drew (tied) a position which was so absolutely winning that I could have converted the full point when I was five. But in time trouble anything is possible. The final minutes of a chess game are akin to the fifth set of a grueling tennis match. The pristine, clean-cut, calculated play from earlier deteriorates into a brutal street fight fraught with sloppy attacks, incomplete defenses, and missed wins. In those minutes I feel, more than any other time, the true length of a minute.

Despite this lackluster performance, the real blunder came later that night, after the round, back in my hotel room. I felt robbed. I felt cheated. I cursed foul words and abused the hotel pillows with my fists. I could not believe what had happened, and I definitely could not sleep. My mind tormented itself, a destructive self-effacing process which was not helped by my ability to visualize the game mentally. The final moves played on an infinite loop in my mind, as I forced myself to watch all the potential wins I missed.

I broke down.

The next morning I lost my penultimate round from a similarly winning position. I could not bear to play chess anymore. From this experience, I learned the importance of finding a balance between caring too much and not caring enough. Playing with emotion and passion allowed me to play more imaginatively and focus more intensely, but it also left me more vulnerable to the debilitating pain of losses. But caring is unequivocally essential to improvement and progress.

Finding the right balance of emotion is a lesson I learned from chess, but one that I endeavor to apply to life as well. I learned to care and expose myself to failure, because although the greatest pains come from caring, the purest joys are born from it also.

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Lessons On and Off the Board – Chess Super Nationals 2k17