Loss and Rating Points in Chess: a Stoic's Approach

The relish of good and evil depends in a great measure upon the opinion we have of them. – Michel de Montaigne

Loosing is bad, winning is good, right? No one who plays anything competitively can believe otherwise. No mater what attitude we have towards losses, having lost we all would have rather won. Having won, we’d consider a fool any person trying to convince us that losing would be better. But must we have an emotional response to losing? Must we fear losing when faced with a higher rated player? Should our heartrate go up when faced with an unexpected move that looks to be winning?

The ancient Stoics divided things into three categories: things that are under our control, things not under our control, and things that are only partly under our control. They would have placed in the second two categories anything external to us as well as our own bodies. The only thing that they believed was under our control was our mind. In the past few decades the field of Neuroscience has shown beyond any measure of doubt that the mind arises out of the interplay between our bodies and our brains. I believe, therefore, that we must consign the first category to the dustbin of time. Our minds are only partly under our control. Our thoughts and opinions are things that happen to us. Consider this story. You wake up in the morning, you get dressed, and you walk into the kitchen. Normally you have a cup of coffee but you’re thirsty this morning and you decide you’d rather have a cup of orange juice first. In the moments before deciding to have a cup of orange juice did you deliberate and think logically about all the possible things you could drink at that moment and pick orange juice because it was the most healthful or for some other logical reason? Or did it just pop into your mind? You might argue that you bought orange juice the day before and it was on your mind so that’s why it popped into your head. But all that does is prove that your mind was primed with a desire not entirely of your choosing. This does not mean that we cannot be deliberative and weight the merits of our thoughts and actions. It simply means that we must be much more attentive to them than perhaps we believed originally. The same is true with emotional reactions to situations. Do you become upset when you lose because you chose to? No. It just happens. Are we reacting to losing the game? No, our emotional reaction is not to losing but we are reacting to our attitudes about loss. We feel stupid. We feel like something we deserved was taken from us. We feel like we are never going to improve. We feel all of those things because we associate them with the loss of a game. Not because they are an objective part of losing. Would you get upset if you lost at connect four to your child or your best friend? We add extra things to the idea of loosing a chess game. But if we add them, can we not also subtract them?

It is possible to change our reactions to losing so that we do not allow negative emotions and attitudes to impact our future actions. Losses in rounds one and two should not lead us inevitably to a loss in round three because we become nervous and question all of the work that we have done in the past few months. And I am not suggesting that we try to turn losses into positive experiences. I am not going to tell you that you should look at a loss as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. That is a platitude. Every game you play is an opportunity for you to learn from your mistakes. This is why we analyze all of our games and not just the ones we lose. I am suggesting that a loss should not provoke any more negative a reaction than arriving at your favorite restaurant only to discover they have changed their menu and no longer offer your favorite meal. Certainly, if given the choice, you’d rather that they still make it for you. But this one thing, over which you have no control, has no real and meaningful impact on your life. So it should be with the loss of any given chess game.

Premise 1: becoming emotional over things that you cannot control is a waste of time and energy. You should strive to acknowledge what has happened and see it for what it really is: not life changing (unless we allow it to be), not painful (unless we allow it to be) and certainly not a judgement of your skill, your character, or your intelligence (unless you make it so).

Premise 2: you have no control over whether you win or lose a chess game. You can make choices that can increase your odds of winning but ultimately much of what decides a game will not be in your control. In a tournament you cannot pick your opponents. You cannot decide what opening they choose. You cannot control if they will see the threats you make, how deeply they look into any given position, etc. You can only control how much and how well you trained in the weeks and months leading up to the game, how skillfully you play during the game, the degree of focus you bring to the board, and how deeply you look into any given position.

Premise three: All of us must lose. Not all of us must whine about it. Engaging in negative self-talk (internal mental monologues where we call ourselves stupid or complain about our lack of skill) is not simply unproductive it is counterproductive. Irrational behaviors cannot lead us to rational ones except by chance and a slim chance at that! Given that fact, we also have to acknowledge that this sort of behaviors is completely natural. Yes, everyone does it. When you find yourself behaving in this way do not judge yourself, acknowledge this naturalness and remind yourself that it is untrue and counterproductive, then try to redirect your attention to something else. If it is during a game, return your focus on the game. If not, train your focus on anything else that is beneficial for you. These thoughts are less than mosquitos buzzing around your head because mosquitos can feed on you regardless of your mental state. These kinds of thoughts can only be fed by you. If you do not feed them, eventually they will leave you alone.

Premise 4: If something hurts, you aren’t doing it enough. This kind of mental training can be hard but there are some practical ways of approaching things that can help. There was a time where I was afraid to play online because I didn’t want to be confronted with a loss. This is completely at odds with how I learned Italian. I spent my first week learning how to say simple things that would be the most helpful like how are you, how do you say X in Italian, can you speak more slowly please? Then I jumped into the deep end and started talking to native speakers online. Because I was not afraid to talk to natives, I made progress really fast. To the point where I was almost certainly a functional B1 (lower intermediate) within 9 months of my first lesson. Not so with chess. It took me two months before I started to come to the conclusions in this blog post. How much did this hold me back? I can’t say for sure but I am sure that it did hold me back. Losing at chess bothered me much more than the embarrassment of saying something ridiculous in Italian. Why? Because I had already dealt with my own internal beliefs about other people’s opinions of me when I say something less than brilliant. Which, let’s be honest, is all the damn time. You don’t like to lose? Lose more. I’m not saying lose on purpose. Playing more means losing more.


One way that you can make losing less negative is by performing negative visualization. Think about all the ways that you can lose a game. Most of these will not be in your control. But many will be to some degree. By thinking about losing without judging what it means to lose we do two things. First, we can clearly understand the things that we can do to increase our odds of winning. Spending all day Saturday watching Netflix rather than training hard is an example. Knowing every reply to the 15th move of your favorite opening is likely unrealistic. Second, we mange our expectations. By understanding what we can impact and what we cannot the loss of a game or a tournament becomes both logically and obviously inevitable and we grow to accept that. But we also the way is still clear for what we can really do to improve our chances of winning. Seneca wrote, “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation.” Expect, but do not welcome.

Another way is to pay yourself for your losses. Let’s say you intend on playing 10 training games per week. Take an amount of money that can be divided by the number of games. Let’s say $50. That gives us $5 per game. For each loss that you have take $5 and put it into a “loss jar”. At the end of the week, you get to spend the money in the jar on anything you want. You want a new chess book? Buy it. You want a new Star Wars the Black Series action figure for your collection, then buy it. You can’t afford either of those things because you only lost 2 games? Well, congratulations! You might ask me, “Isn’t that just a trick?” Yes, yes it is. So what?

You can be good to yourself and nurture the types of behaviors that you want to participate in and by doing so, you will naturally eliminate negative behaviors that are counterproductive to your goals. By examining your thoughts and feels for what they truly are, not arising from external events but arising out of your thoughts and feelings of those external events, you can gain more control over them. More importantly you can enlarge your repertoire of possible reactions to those things. When we allow our thoughts and emotions to buffet our lives about like a sailboat in the ocean, we are left with no captain. We are ignorant of what is possible and we see only the eminent wreck of the ship. By thinking critically about what we feel and what we do without being judgmental, we gain much more control over the ship. Yes, we are still subject to the conditions of the sea but which ship would you rather be on? The one with no one at the helm? Certainly not. Losing or winning or dropping 100 rating points due to a bad tournament are not things that are entirely or even mostly in your control. So why spend any time and attention on them? Focus on what matters: how you train, what you train, and how you play when you’re at the board. The rest will take care of itself.