Monday, September 2, 2013

Enjoying the Process

"Focus, while I display flows ferocious."--Busta Rhymes, "Everything Remains Raw"

Consistently converting winning positions is one of the greatest challenges that a chess player faces. Perhaps the biggest difference between Masters and non-Masters is that Masters are much more proficient at winning the games that they "should" win. I have worked very hard to improve at this phase of the game and I have made enough progress to maintain an Expert rating but not quite enough progress to earn the Master title. Throughout my chess career I have sought the advice of Masters on this subject, trying to gain insight about how their minds function when victory is in sight but not yet secured.

When I was a Class A player trying to reach Expert level in the early 1990s, Senior Master Boris Men explained to me that when you have the advantage the most important thing is to "play against your opponent's play." I had never heard this expression before, though I later realized that it is a standard Master level technique. The idea is that by squelching any possible counterplay you will force your opponent to either trade pieces or else place his pieces passively; this is much more prudent than chasing after stray pawns or prematurely launching an attack that could weaken your position. SM Men's advice has helped me a lot, though following through on his prescription is easier said than done.

More recently, Hans Multhopp, a USCF Master who is also a FIDE Master, told me to enjoy the winning process. At first I thought that he meant savor the prospect of victory--by cultivating the Relentless mindset of champions like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, players who are not satisfied until they dominate and destroy their opponents--but Multhopp clarified that a chess player should enjoy looking for the best moves and solving problems over the board. Chess should be fun! When you are winning a chess game it is easy to become bored, stressed out and/or distracted but ideally one should remain focused and joyful.

This is one of the many ways that chess is a metaphor for life. In The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja: Mastering the Four Gates to Freedom, Ross Heaven writes, "Life is meant to be played with, not stressed over." Having a winning position can be more nerve-wracking than having a losing position, because the losing player may have already resigned himself to his fate while the winning player, paradoxically, has everything to lose if he makes one false move. Chess can be a masochistic endeavor: we suffer when we are losing because we hate to lose but we also suffer when we are winning because we are afraid that we might lose! I overheard an International Master exclaim, "I hate this game!"--and this was after he had just won from a losing position. Something is very wrong if someone who has reached the 99th percentile in his chosen endeavor feels miserable after winning a game instead of being happy not just for the victory but also for becoming so proficient and accomplished in such a challenging sport/art. Caissa is a mistress who both tempts and torments her lovers.

I am more convinced than ever that Multhopp is right: enjoying the process is the key not just to attaining chess mastery but also the key to getting the most out of chess--and life. Making Master is a worthy goal but achieving mastery of one's emotions--"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same," as Kipling put it--is the ultimate goal. Win or lose, in chess or in life, I am fighting to not say/feel, "I hate this game!"

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