Why Losing At Chess Hurts So Much (And The Antidote)

Losing a chess game hurts. It certainly hurt me a lot in my professional days. Sometimes I needed days or weeks to recover mentally from a bad loss. For a while I thought this was just a “me” thing. That I was way too invested and couldn’t handle losses well.

While there is certainly some truth to this, I discovered that many Chess Amateurs also struggle with big psychological swings caused by their chess results. So why do chess results have such a huge impact on our well-being? And how can we limit negative emotions and enjoy chess fully?

Message From A Reader

After getting the following message from Ted Manasa, a reader and supporter of the Blog, I knew I had to write an article on this subject:

“Hi Noël … I just read your excellent article on avoiding time trouble. It got me thinking…
why does the game of chess produce such strong fear in players? I can think of no other game that elicits as strong of an upset when one loses than Chess.

When I lose at the Settlers of Catan, or Clue, or even Tic-Tac-Toe, it’s fine. But losing a game of Chess puts me in a Bad mood all day. I have a feeling that most chess players would relate to this. My question is: why is chess such a disproportionately big deal to us? Is it because chess is famously associated with an individual’s intelligence and therefore, we interpret a loss as a critique on our intelligence?

It certainly feels somewhat like that to me, because when I review my mistakes after a game, my internal commentary goes something like: “I can’t believe I was so dumb!” I don’t even play competitively, yet that is how I feel. Could it also be because chess outcomes are immediately and explicitly rated?

On the opposite end, if I have a good game, I feel very smart, as if Chess validated my internal perception of my intelligence (read “ego”). Even when I was competitive in Tae-Kwon-Do and Jiu-Jitsu, a loss never felt as sharp as a chess loss, even though I could get seriously hurt in those sports.”

Thanks for the message, Ted! And I love your observations. In the following paragraphs, I will focus on these key points:

  • Why is chess such a disproportionately big deal to us?
  • What is the difference to other games/sports?
  • Tools & mental tricks that helped me to limit downsides.

Why Losing A Chess Game Is Such A Big Deal

There are a few key factors that differ chess from other games/sports. I do believe that in these differences there must be some answers as to why our well-being depends so strongly on our chess results.

Here are the key factors that I see:

  • Immediate Feedback (Rating/Best Move)
  • Society stereotypes (good chess player = smart)
  • No luck/chance involved (= 100% your fault!!!)

Immediate Feedback After Losing

There are two immediate feedbacks we get whenever we play a chess game: rating & Engine feedback. Let’s look at both of them in some detail:

Rating Feedback After Losing

As Ted points out, nearly every chess game nowadays is rated! Online you will immediately see the impact every game has on your rating. Because of social stereotypes (more to that later) we cling strongly to our rating. The effect of losing a game is thus way clearer than if you lose a board game, or a Tennis match against your friend.

More so, you will be reminded of your bad result the next time you sit down at the board. Looking at your “horrible rating” might lead to you starting a chess session already with a bad feeling.This immediate feedback loop makes chess more competitive (even on amateur levels) than most other sports & games.

But in my opinion, seeing a bad rating is nothing compared to an engine that tells you how bad your moves were in just one second…

Engine Feedback

Long gone are the times when we humans were the best chess players in the World. There are hundreds of Engines that are stronger than any human being will ever be. While we need thousands of hours of straining study to get somewhat decent at chess, Engines find the best moves in a matter of a millisecond.

After you played a game, you will curiously switch on the Engine with the expectation & hope that you played somewhat well. In most cases, no matter if you won or lost, the Engine will, without any shame or empathy, point out several mistakes throughout the game.

What you believed to be a well-played game can quickly seem like a patzer-festival. This does apply to any human chess player. As chess is a game with 100% of the information available to both players, we have no place to hide. Every mistake is OUR mistake.

Obviously, Magnus Carlsen will make less (big) mistakes than any of us. But even he will be frequently corrected by an Engine.

I can tell you from my experience that the GM title is by no means a shelter from being corrected by the Engine.

Now if you compare this with other sports/games, you might start to understand the psychological significance the Engine has.

Playing Tennis With An Engine

Imagine playing Tennis and after every point someone tells you exactly every mistake you made:

“Horrible serve, way too slow and no spin”

“Bad backhand, you should have shot longline not crosscourt”

“How can you miss such an easy volley, every 5-year-old hits that”

After a 2-hour tennis session you will feel like the worst player in the World. Not only are you bad at Tennis, but you also seem to be unable to learn anything from your mistakes! Yes, you might have beaten your opponent, but it was only because he was even worse than you that day…

I doubt Amateur Tennis players would enjoy their friendly matches in this way. Having someone (or something) pointing out each and every mistake can really be tough on your mind.

Society Stereotypes

Now why does it even matter if we are good at chess or not? Isn’t it just a hobby we should enjoy practicing? In theory, yes. I absolutely second the idea of enjoying a hobby, even if the results aren’t the best. But a few stereotypes in our society make that idea hard to implement into the real life.

Next to being fat, unhealthy & nerdy, (strong) chess players are believed to be super-smart. Countless times people asked me if I was a “genius” when I told them that I played chess professionally. The simple fact that I can remember more than 2 opening moves makes me look like some super-human to the non-chess playing population.

I can even play chess without seeing the board. OH WOW THAT IS AMAZING. What can get a bit annoying after 100 times is pretty nice for your ego in the beginning. Who doesn’t like to be told they are smart or a genius! Additionally, playing chess can even have positive effects on your job offer! A friend of mine (rated 2000 FIDE) told me he got his new job just because he played chess.

A mediocre job-interview turned into a “I’ll pay you whatever you want” when they mentioned they were playing at a Youth Chess World Championship (yes in Switzerland you can be selected for a World Championship pretty easily…). The boss suddenly had this image of a super-genius sitting in front of him. What was skepticism turned into pure admiration.

As we all like to get some praise & admiration, we start to identify with our chess results. Identifying with anything not fully in your control is rather a recipe for disaster than success.

Identifying With Chess Results

As Ted observes, a loss can make him feel “stupid” as a person. A win, on the other side, can make him “feel smart”. This suggests to me that in a way, Ted identifies with his chess performance, as so many of us do. You don’t have to look far for more signs for this to be true. More often than not, chess players will use their rating & or title in a normal introductory conversation.

“I’m an IM, and you? I’m a 2200 player, but I want to be a GM one day.” Is a standard conversation in the chess universe. You can see ratings & titles all over social media profiles. Before telling you if they have a wife, kids or a dog, chess players will tell you their FIDE or online rating. We use our chess title, achievements, or rating as part of our identity.

Titles & rating are nice to signal some kind of strength to people that don’t know you. Especially if you are an amateur, ratings & title should at best be a little motivation. But certainly not the main driving force to play chess!

If you answer the following questions with yes, part of your identity comes from chess results:

  • Have you ever told yourself to be stupid after making a mistake?
  • Did you ever lose confidence in your abilities after losing a chess game?
  • Has a certain rating/title ever made you feel better about yourself as a person?

I guess 90% will answer all three questions with yes. It is very important to get the details right here. While “I made a stupid mistake” is totally fine, most of us use “I AM stupid”. You see the little subtle difference?

How To Make Losses Less Painful

Understanding what makes each loss in chess so painful helped me to limit the downsides.

I would never claim that a loss did not hurt me anymore. But in the last years of my career, my mood always depended less on my chess results.

And if I, as a professional player who’s income partly depended on chess results, can do it, then you should absolutely be able to do the same, too!

Here is what helped me the most:

  • Accepting that perfection is impossible
  • Building an identity off the chessboard
  • Find Perspective; chess is only a game

Perfection Is Impossible

Chess is really hard. You will always make mistakes. It is fine and absolutely normal to do so. Instead of judging the outcome (actual moves) I started to judge my input: did I give this game my all?

If the answer was yes, all the mistakes were learning opportunities. I can’t do more than try to play my best chess. Expecting yourself to play well (already very hard to define well!) is the first step to feeling horrible after most games.

Analyse the mistakes with curiosity and without attachment. Playing a bad game does NOT say anything about you as a person.

Building An Identity Off The Board

For many years, playing chess professionally basically was my identity. All I did was trying to get better in chess. And when I told people I was a GM, they would admire me immediately (or find me extremely weird).

Once I started building an identity off the board, losses in chess were less meaningful. I was able to put my heart into chess, knowing that I will be the same Noël Studer even if I lose 50 rating points.

Here are some tips how you can put less weight on your chess (applies also to amateurs!):

  • Stop introducing yourself as a chess player. Talk about different things.
  • Take your rating/title out of your social media profiles
  • Talk about the process (love for chess, enjoying to play) rather than results

When you start distancing your person from your results you will start to feel the difference. As soon as “I’m so stupid” becomes “I made a stupid move” your heart will be free to enjoy chess without the burdens of painful losses.

If you want to know how I managed to focus on the process instead of the result, then read this article.

Find Perspective

I remember feeling terrible after losing two games in a row in a closed Grandmaster tournament. Luckily, I brought a book called “Man’s search for meaning” with me. After reading only 5 pages I started to put my situation in perspective.

I’m in a beautiful hotel, executing my hobby as my profession and I feel horrible? In comparison to what Viktor Frankl had to go through in Ausschwitz during the second World War this seemed ridiculous. Yet, in all this pain Frankl managed to somewhat stay positive and keep sane thoughts.

Who am I then, to whine about losing some chess games? I managed to turn the ship around and scored 5/6 in the remaining rounds. We can solve most of our first World Problems by getting out of our own head and find some perspective.

Sadly, you don’t have to look far even in 2022 to find much less fortunate people in our World…

I firmly believe that

anyone can improve their chess through the right mindset and training techniques.

I’m here to guide you on your journey to chess mastery.

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