Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Art Of Losing

What goes through a player's mind when he/she loses a game? How best do you try to cope with the loss?

Different players deal handle defeat differently.

My worst instance of losing was in a rapid game. Upon resignation, I shook my opponent's hand but stormed out of the playing hall not because I was angry at my opponent but because I was extremely disgusted with my play. In fact, I headed for the washroom to calm myself down for a couple of minutes.

Which brings me to my subject on handling losses.

I've had 2 very bad losses this year which kept me awake at night after the game. One of the problems with playing games in the evening is that your brain is still on a huge "high" after the game. That makes getting to bed an extremely arduous task (forcing your brain to relax) and couple that with a loss punctuated by poor gameplay and your brain is in overdrive mode.

How does one properly cope with losses?

Take Vladimir Kramnik. His loss comes no bigger than the biggest prize in chess. He lost a huge chance to regain his title against Vishy Anand in Bonn, Germany. So how does he deal with such a much publicised defeat?

During the post-match conference, Chess.FM filmed the following proceedings. You can see it at here:

Alternatively, you can download the .FLV file directly from here (you'll need a compatible video player like VideoLan's VLC media player to play it):

The most important things to take away from Kramnik's comments IMHO were the following:

1. "Life is like this. It is not always that you win."

One has to acknowledge the fact that playing chess means that you have to be ready to come to terms with both the winning and losing aspects that comes with the royal game. No one can win all the time, not even World Champions.

2. "I clearly made certain mistakes in my preparation and which I already understood and probably after analysing the match, I would understand (them) even more what I should I do better. And I'm very much eager to improve. I think I would have quite serious changes in my ways of preparing for tournaments, for chess games; even maybe, even in my way of playing. It was a harsh lesson but I'm sure it would be a very useful one."

Acknowledging your own mistakes and faults and actively seeking to rectify them is the hallmark of a good player. Any player seeking to improve the quality of their play needs to admit to his/her own mistakes and identifying their mistakes and make a conscious effort to fix these mistakes. This holds true not just in chess but also for other sports.

Every chess game takes with it a lesson, even more so when you lose. Less one forgets, one should always perform post-mortem analysis on one's own games.

3. "....because I am still very interested in playing chess..... For the moment, I still enjoy it. "

In other words, one has to have continuous interest in chess to learn and recover from the painful loss/experience. If you do not enjoy chess, then chess is not going to be fun for you for long.

4. "I'm also happy to play against such an opponent. Vishy is a really great player."

This is one thing that is missing from some chess players. The ability to lose graciously and to pay tribute to your opponent. When one loses, one should not seek excuses nor alternative explanations to explain away the defeat. Rather, one should own up and admit that your opponent was better than you.

5. The last quote from Kramnik needs no explanation and one that I feel is the most important point.

"You don't feel very well after losing a game ........ but it's only a game, not a reason to be depressed. I take it as a test.... I try to do my best... this is the motto in my life. You're responsible for the quality of your work but you're not responsible for the result of it.... So I'm responsible for doing my best. But if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. What can I do? .... I don't see a reason to shout at everyone because of this."



  1. Excellent thoughts. Sometimes I'm totally numb after a loss. I'm thinking to myself WTF did I do to mess that game up? Sometimes it's something so stupid it's laughable. (Read my latest post for an example of that.) Other times it seemed like the right thing to do, and failed miserably. Sometimes losing is difficult to take in chess because we feel defeat is an assault on our intellect.

    If I get beat in a race I can deal with the fact that my competition may be more gifted athletically. Sometimes it's hard to accept the feeling of being stupid. The ability to bounce back from a loss helps us, especially if we can learn something from it.

  2. To piggyback on Polly's point...

    In a race it is easy to say well, the other person was faster than me. Most people can live with that, hey the other guy/gal is more gifted than I. But when you lose a game, it's like admitting that the other person is smarter than you, and for most chessplayers that is simply too much to bear.

    On the flip side a professional athlete would hardly be ok after losing a competition, admitting the other person, was stronger, faster very hard. But this same person losing a chess game...probably not that big a deal.

  3. The longest i was mad (at myself) for losing a game is about 5 minutes. But i am always polite and civil against my opponent.

    It happened only once that i had to leave the analysis after the game. But the reason for that was that i, youthfull at 26 at that specific moment of time, saw in the postmortom that i had missed a mate in one!

    But for the rest i am a 'grab a beer' kinda guy who enjoys life the best way he can.

  4. Great stuff. This I like the most:
    "I think I would have quite serious changes in my ways of preparing for tournaments, for chess games; even maybe, even in my way of playing. It was a harsh lesson but I'm sure it would be a very useful one."

    Actually, recently after two very painful losses, I changed the direction of my chess training and "way of playing" and already won the game I probably wouldn't win before (instead of just playing the opening my opponent knew well I chose another, not played by both of us).

  5. If I lose because i was outplayed, I recover faster. But when I pull a self prophecy of boneheadedness and lose to a fricking howler... I have a hard time. I am so hard on myself.

  6. Polly, wang:

    I hear you fellas.

    Indeed, there's something to be mentioned about making yourself look stupid in front of other people. Ego-crushing also helps take whatever shreds of humility you may have left (especially when you lose to a blunder).

    chesstiger: wow. 5 minutes. :) impressive. it takes me a lot longer to calm down. i too always make a mental point never to get angry at my opponent but angry at myself.

    rollingpawns: that's wonderful. sometimes, a change in our thinking is in order. great to hear you're doing great.

    BlunderProne: i know exactly how you feel. many a time, i lose because of my own blunders and playing like a total drunkard. sometimes, i just turn up at the board and allowed for no apparent reason to blunder right off the bat! lol.

    thanks to everyone for their input. much appreciate it. :)

  7. He left off one of the points:

    6. "My insistence on not going to the restroom every 3 moves really took me out of rhythm. I should have stuck with what worked for me in the Topalov match."

  8. Hi LEP,


    Actually Kramnik did get up and walk quite a bit to the bathroom but not as often as in the Topalov match.

  9. A few years ago, I set my chess board up in a coffee shop just in case passers-by wanted to play. After a while, an old man asked if he could sit with me and play. I played black and opened with the Sicilian Defense (which I was learning at the time). He beat me something awful. We played again, and he beat me again. After playing and getting beat a third time, I finally asked him "What am I doing wrong?" He spoke softly and said "You haven't learned how to lose yet."

    I'm a teacher, and I've repeated this story to my students a lot over the years. The old man's words meant that beneath every loss is a lesson waiting to be learned. If I'm too ignorant to see the lesson, then the loss will likely happen in the same way later. If I learn the lesson, I grow.

    Is the life lesson to win or to grow? How often do you learn something new by beating the same type of players over and over?

    By the way...go to my blog and check out the top ten reasons why chess is better than sex. Visit me at