Why do I play better against stronger players?

This is a question that keeps many club chess players awake at night – especially if they are graded, like yours truly, between 120-140 ECF.

This is something we have all experienced at some stage of our chess odyssey.

The circumstances when these thoughts appear are often the same. They usually occur after securing a heroic draw against a 180-rated opponent when you had the best of the game. This is then followed by a horrible and deserved loss or draw to a sub-120 graded player in your next match.

How can I play so well and soar so high, then sink so low?

This is the joy of competitive club chess. It allows you to dream and then cruelly dishes out a dose of reality.

This has happened many times to me in my lowly chess career and hence the need to address this question in a public forum.

After sufficient navel-gazing time I have come to the conclusion that the same factors are involved in both games. Obviously you may say, but please let me explain why.

To use an excellent analogy, I will call it the “Leicester City Chess Rules” (LCCR).

Nobody gave Leicester City a chance to escape relegation last season or to win the Premier League this season. Indeed, the odds at the start of this season of them winning the league were 5000-1!

Will LCCR help you outfox your opponents?
Will LCCR help you outfox your opponents?

The rules are not exhaustive and can be expanded:

  • Your frame of mind.  I am playing a 180 – he/she should crush me – so a loss is no disgrace. I play without pressure. Nobody expects me to win, or even draw.
  • Your opponent’s frame of mind.  All the pressure is on them. They have the high grade – they should crush me. I am sawdust compared to their stardust. This can induce a false sense of security and lead to risk-taking. Something they would never entertain against a peer.
  • The time factor.  I have found that the liberating effect of no expectation translates into excellent clock management. You play sensible and logical moves – avoiding at all costs a tactical melee. This means you are often well up on the clock. Time pressure is your high-grade opponent’s problem, not yours.
  • As the game progresses – the effect that a loss or draw has on their grade increasingly comes in to play.
  • The pressure that comes from the results on other boards. This is something that can affect your opponent as other results come in.

These are the five critical factors that influence the course of the game. Unfortunately, they also apply equally – but not so favourably – to your game with sub-120 graded opponents.

  • Your frame of mind.  I should win; I out grade them by 20 points – the win is in the bag. So wrong in every way – Caissa has many ways to dish out a dose of humble pie!
  • Your opponents frame of mind.  They play without fear – they do not know about your 180-graded heroics. I am just another opponent.
  • The time factor.  My clock management is far worse. I spend too much time striving for an advantage – when simple moves would be better. I must and will win. This thought process inevitably results in defeat.
  • As the game progresses, the realisation that you may actually lose increasingly weighs on you. This is compounded by the thought of lost grading points.
  • The match situation.  Your team needs a win – you need a win – this ups the ante and again clouds your thought process and logic.

What conclusions can we draw from this? These are my personal LCCR’s:

  • Play the game not the opponent
  • Every game of chess is the same. There are only three possible outcomes
  • Use a bit of Lasker logic – make pragmatic moves when the position is unclear, not so-called “strong” moves
  • Do not waste loads of time on obvious moves. Avoid time trouble
  • Your grade will take care of itself. The game on the board should be your focus.
  • Finally, play your game, not the match. This may be a Boycott approach but chess is about your game not your teammates. This may be selfish but it will help focus your mind on what you can actually influence. Of course, supporting your team once your game has finished is essential.

Adoption of the LCCR may not make you a better player, but it will give you peace of mind. Playing without pressure means you will play better.

So, do you play better against stronger players?

My answer on balance is probably yes, but the flip-side is that your results against peers tend to remain the same for the reasons outlined above. If you can translate that form against the very strong players to your usual graded opponents then you may be one step nearer to unlocking the mystery of that board game called Chess.

By our London League 4 Captain, John White.

Last Updated: Mar 25, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

2 thoughts on “Why do I play better against stronger players?”

  1. Fascinating piece this John. Really gets to the psychology of a face to face game. I often prefer not knowing my opponents grade – the pressure of knowing you’re playing a “weaker” opponent (even at my sub-120 level) can change the game.

  2. Great advice to try and adopt the same approach against a weaker opponent as you do to a higher or equal one; there’s a lot to be said in that. I think taking each move as it comes and not to expect your opponent to play badly or to fail tactically because that may in fact not happen which could result in a mental panic. Just play the game and respect the position/possibilities regardless who you’re playing.

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