Wednesday, 19 May 2021

The Importance of Mentality

Story time today and in this case about chess and not magic. I am not great at chess, people who actually play crush me. Being a gamer who has played some chess I tend in turn to crush those that don't really play chess and as such don't get many good games. Chess was one of the first games I learned. My father taught me and it is likely a big part of my becoming a gamer. At the start he would play without valuable pieces and let me have take backs. As I grew older and better those luxuries got removed. My father was never one to let me win, a handicap was one thing but he never played with any intent other than his victory. Opinion is quite divided on this one. Some think it is cruel to repeatedly crush a small child with vastly superior skill. Others think it is a mark of respect and a valuable lesson. I find myself in the latter camp rather unsurprisingly. Had he let me win I don't think I would have relished the achievement. I don't think I would have worked as hard at getting it either. It also made me a good loser which is one of the most important things you can be as far as improving at games go. 

The first time I ever beat my dad on even footing (at least as far as game mechanics go) was with a custom chess set I had made out of Games Workshop models. Not only were all the models unique, and badly painted, but it was dwarves vs goblins, further complicating what was what. It was even during some sort of family event where he was a little distracted with goings on. He refused to play with that custom chess set again and didn't really acknowledge the defeat. I would have been twelve or thirteen at the time. It would be years before I beat him again, I would likely have been around sixteen and despite hundreds of games since then I never managed more than a handful of wins. They would always be the result of him being distracted or debilitated somehow. He was the only person who I really had close games with but I never really beat him properly. I certainly never became better. Chess having no random component is pretty brutal like that, if you are better you win most of the time, if not, get used to losing. Which I did.

As I grew up I moved away from chess (and Games Workshop too) favouring the likes of Magic and computer games. I played less and less chess as the years went by. I only played with my dad and only really for something to pass the time. I wasn't really invested in it in any way. We just played because it was pretty much the only two player game we both played. Prior to the this Christmas I had likely played well under a game a year for the past decade. Then I watched the mini series "The Queen's Gambit" and I found it captivating. There was a huge degree of nostalgia regarding how old Magic events were. So much overlap in the behaviour of the competitors and the feel of the events. It was a well done series overall on top of all that. I can recommend it to those who have not watched it. It gave me a real hunger to play chess and with the only person who gave me a good game being my father I set about playing via e-mail. He lives over a hundred miles away and there was pandemic induced lockdowns in place but modern technology neatly solved those issues. 

A little switch had flipped. I not only wanted to play chess but I also wanted to beat him. I was no longer the child and wished to demonstrate this in the best way gamers know how! Chess being the only game we really play together it is the only avenue I have in which I could demonstrate gaming prowess to him. Having dedicated much of my life to games, all be it mostly Magic, and identifying as a gamer, I felt it important somehow. As a father now myself I feel like my goal is to make my child a better human than me. If those are my fathers goals then me giving him a firm beating at chess it would be a win for him too. I basically felt like I somehow owed it to him to give him a firm thrashing, they way he had showed me those many decades ago! I wasn't now just playing chess to pass the time, I was playing to win, to prove myself, a rite of passage if you will. I was playing for real stakes, even if they were only symbolic ones to me. I was now invested. 

I put in the time. I spent ages checking my moves and asking myself why I was doing things. I watched loads of chess videos and read up on openers. For the good value I used the "Queens gambit" opening on my dad in game one and he entirely fell for it thanks to a good degree of underestimation on his part! Overestimating opponents is far far better than underestimating them. You should only ever go with a strategy that relies on your opponent being bad if you have no choice. It is much the same as the heuristics of bluff. He didn't think I would up my game or do my homework and it let me get a nice healthy advantage in game one. 

In those early matches I suspect I spent five to ten times the amount of time thinking about moves than my father. I also watched a good five to ten folds worth of my play time in tuition style videos. We are talking days worth rather than hours. Lots of learning! I knew this would payoff. I was near the bottom of the learning curve for chess so it would be a nice steep ascent to begin with. I also have a lot of transferable skills from other games that will accelerate the learning process. My father's advantage in chess comes from his significant experience in it over me. He may be the more experienced chess player but I am the more experienced gamer. I felt like if it were a race I only needed to get to know the course and then I would win as I had the faster car now!

Right at the start of our games I asked myself what I needed to do in order to prove to myself I had become the better chess player. I decided that it was ten wins in a row. That felt like such a mammoth task at 0 - 0 that it would be sufficiently conclusive. Off the back of my father's sloppy start to game one I managed to secure the win after a lot of effort. I really made quite the ordeal of turning a significant advantage into an actual result. I turns out that getting pretty exclusively beaten at chess makes you far better at playing from behind than with the advantage. I was not only a poor chess player but relatively speaking I was also poor at physically closing out a game and winning it. 

I was however right about the perks of putting in the work. I was learning a lot and fast. It all made good sense. I was enjoying learning and getting better and working towards this task I had set myself. Games two I was a little more sure footed and confident. I tried to play a straight up game with no gambit opening traps for that easier ride. It was hard and close but eventually went my way as well, much to my surprise. When someone has only ever beaten you you are always expecting a trick or a trap. You are waiting for it all to come falling down and never really trust that you have the advantage or are ahead despite how it looks. There is a large degree of uncertainty when treading these new paths. You need to put some faith into it and trust in your homework being well done else you can second guess yourself into losing. While I avoided that trap I did waste a lot of my time on it. Dad would make a move that objectively seemed bad and I would spend ten times as long as I needed to on it trying to work out why it was actually a great move.

I continued to improve and I continued to win matches. I sped up my games and found I was watching less chess videos. I was still absolutely spending more time on my moves than my father was but I was at least approaching the sorts of speeds that would be reasonable in a face to face game rather than one played via e-mail. I continued to improve at the game but also in confidence. I knew what I was trying to do and how I was trying to do it. I wasn't scared of traps and tricks. I could reasonably assess a situation. All this understanding and confidence meant that my learning curve would already be significantly flatter than at the start of things. 

It was probably around game six or seven that it felt as if we had achieved a full reversal. He now seemed scared of me, my moves, and my strategies. I felt like I could bully him with my pieces. Just march them at him and watch him fall back and lose ground. I was undefeated and he seemed to be coming a little apart. More than likely this was just overconfidence speaking and while not inaccurate, certainly exaggerated by a long undefeated streak. Nothing was working for him and his strategies were getting wilder. I didn't need to continue to improve as he had seemingly given up the fight, accepting that he was no longer able to beat me. 

I hit my milestone of 10 - 0 in games. I had stopped actively learning about chess and was playing sufficiently quickly each game to be at least comparable ball park in timing to my dads play speed. The switch in my head flipped back. I had achieved my goal and with that all the will and desire I had simply dissipated. We are presently in game 14 and I have lost all three games since I hit that 10 - 0 target I set myself.

I think it is two fold. While I lost my source of motivation I think he has also upped his game at this point. He did a pretty wacky sacrifice move in game 9 or there abouts and got punished really hard for it. I think he realized then that if he wanted to win or even have good games he simply needed to play better and so he acted accordingly. That or just losing ten in a row was a sufficient milestone for him to buck his ideas up and want to win sufficiently more. 

Neither of us is letting the other win. We are both playing to the best of our ability with one very clear caveat - our ability is capped by our desire or motivation. Thanks to my efforts at improving we are much more evenly matched now than ever before and as such results are going to be primarily decided by our relative efforts which will be determined by motivation. Short of any significant change from this point I expect things to be fairly back and forth with losses motivating fighting spirit and wins providing that comfy complacency. That and form of course. Whenever health is affected your game drops with it. It can be a useful barometer for self observation. 

Magic players never seem to believe me or take it on board that wanting something is the most important thing. They all just assume it is simply about how good you are. You need to want it to be able to get sufficiently good in the first place. Then you need to continue to want it enough that it doesn't seem like you are putting in loads of work, it is just something you want to be doing, something you are enjoying doing. Having the ability to put a lot of time and work into something and having the right motivations to do so are the absolute main factor in getting good at it. Being a good loser helps too. You need to be able to learn from your losses and not tilt or bury your head in the sand about them but you also need to really want to win. It is a hard mix to find, the best losers typically don't care about winning and the hungriest for the win are most likely to respond badly to losing. 

I thought this little saga about my recent and life experiences of chess painted a very neat picture of how mentality is so important in gaming. Mediocre gamers go far with good attitudes, great gamers go no where with bad attitude. I know a lot of quite decent magic players who have barely improved over the years and mostly just think the universe is out to get them and that they are super unlucky. Chess has not mechanism for cushioning your ego. It wasn't bad luck you lost, it is because in that game you were the weaker player. It really lends itself to accepting flaws and improving. I would be willing to bet that the chess community are, on average, vastly better losers than Magic players! 

Much as I have harped on about being good at losing it is all secondary to the desire. That is the most important factor in ones mentality for competition. What motivates that desire doesn't seem overly relevant to the result but it is still worth probing. If for no other reason than being able to brace yourself for when it leaves you. If you set yourself goals and they are the driving motivation for you be prepared to get a whole lot less good and enthused if and when you hit those targets. I can't seem to tie this up neatly as a narrative so to prevent any sort of rambling on the take away here is that while natural ability is certainly important and practice is essential, it is all fairly irrelevant without also having the desire backing it up. If and when it leaves you perhaps it is time to re-asses your goals in whatever activity is in question. If it is Magic then perhaps it is time to become a filthy casual like me! Competitive play can be very satisfying and rewarding on multiple fronts but casual play is a lot more fun. It is liberating and I can recommend it to any scared of taking the plunge! 

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