22 September 2012

Emotion cramps focus

There are great moments in sport.  They make for excellent cover-page photographs and foodtage for inspirational videos.  I remember, for example, Mary Decker bawling on the track after being tripped by Zola Bud.  There is the clip of Derek Redmond getting up after being ‘downed’ by a torn hamstring in the 400m of the Barcelona Olympics. Redmond hopped away from medical teams determined to finish the race and as he did, his father, a spectator at the event, came running on to the track and accompanied him.  Shaun Pollock after the historic miscalculation in the World Cup match against Sri Lanka in 2003 holding his head in despair and disappointment is another classic.

There must be countless others.  Sports are about victory and defeat.  We win some and lose some.  A ‘touch move’ check-mated, so to say, young Irindu Basnayake at the Chess Olympiad in Turkey a few days ago.   Had she won, she would have earned a WFM title.  She was winning that game and for this reason the disappointment would have been that much greater. 

So when we win, we are happy; in defeat we are sad.  Chess is not about a single game, but a series of games.  I’ve figured out that although victories gladden us and defeat saddens, there is really no need to laugh or cry.  There’s only one point after which you can weep or whoop – when the tournament is done. 

We are in the middle of the T-20 World Cup and I know that a lot of Sri Lankan chess players are avid cricket fans.  So let me take a leaf from the cricketing book to illustrate the point. 

I remember the first over of the 96th Battle of the Blues (1975).  Royal batted first.  Royal’s best bat was skipper Prasanna Kariyawasam.  In the very first over, bowled by Gamini Kumarage, Kari hammered two boundaries.  He was out the same over, trying to hook a short ball and edging to the wicket keeper.  I am not sure if Kari was a victim of a rush of blood, but a couple of good shots can certainly give you confidence, and more seriously, over-confidence.  When a batsman hits a splendid cover drive, it gives a nice feeling.  People admire the shot and cheer.  The trick is to quit self-admiration, put it behind you and prepare for the next delivery.  Ricky Ponting put it when questioned about the secret of his phenomenal success with the bat: ‘I treat every ball with respect’.

What’s the chess-relevance? 

The structure of chess competitions forces us to break down things to single games or rounds.  So even if the tournament has multiple rounds (5, 9, 10 or whatever), we have to treat each game as a competition in itself.  In cricket a batsman cannot conceptualize a string of good strokes against Dale Styne in a spell of 3 overs, a couple of pretty bad ones and then a boundary-filled couple later on.  The ‘bad’ over can cost you your wicket. 
In chess you can start with a bad game, say a loss against a weaker player, and catch up.  Udith Jayasundera, who represented Sri Lanka at the Olympiad, lost three games in a row in his first World Youth Championship in Antalya, Turkey in 2007.  I believe he ended with 5.5.  G.C. Anuruddha had a lead of 3 full points at the half way mark of the National ‘A’ some years ago.  He had a poor second half, allowing Athula Russell to win the championship and regain the national title. 
There are times when a player is put off balance by a bad loss, for example squandering a clearly winning advantage due to a bad blunder.  It rankles.  You can’t get over it.  You keep going back to the move you ought to have made.  You toss and turn in bed and cannot sleep.  You forget that the only thing you take from a game (into the next game) is the set of lessons that game has taught you. 
Sometimes you allow the ‘state-of-the-tournament’ to get to you.  You look at the points table and it disheartens you.  That’s emotion.  Chess players are passionate about the game, but when emotion enters the equation while you contemplate the 64 squares it robs something from the logic that is the heart and soul of chess.

You have to be clinical.  You can’t let the hang-over from a bad day at the office (i.e. the previous round’s game where you blundered away and lost a drawn ending, for example) creep into your head.  What that does it to drop your general playing strength.  It increases the chances of error.  It’s like a player with a 2200 rating performing at 2056.  Why handicap yourself?  

It is the same with euphoria.  Hypothetically, you could meet a grandmaster in the first round and secure a half or full point, if he or she is having a bad day.  Does this mean you can beat a similar ranking master each and every round? Obviously not.  It gives you confidence, sure, but if you can’t stop thinking about that brilliant sacrifice or combination or subtle pawn push that gave you the draw or win, you would be pruning off that much of concentration.  You got to leave the previous game behind. 

It’s Round 4, let’s say, in a 9-Round tournament.  Someone asks you, ‘How many rounds are done?’  Someone else asks, ‘How many more rounds?’  The answer to the first question is ‘None’ and the second, ‘One’.  There’s only one round that counts – the one you are going to play next.  The very idea that some rounds are ‘done’ is baggage.  The games yet to be played come under the same tag, ‘baggage’.  You don’t want to be carrying anything to a game except your preparation and focus.  Chess is a live-in-the-moment exercise, and that ‘moment’ begins with Move No 1 and ends when the game is done.  The rest is distraction. 

There’s a moment to shout and there’s a moment to weep.  Comes at the end of the tournament.  There is a good time to go over the game video and replay that excellent cover drive, so to speak, or weep over the dropped catch that cost your team the match.  Until them you have to concentrate on the next ball, if it’s cricket we are talking about.  If it is chess, then it’s the game, the 64 squares, beyond which nothing exists. Nothing.