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On Chess: Giving thanks for competition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2011 - When I have a chess student who is doing poorly (which I'd like to think rarely happens), I remind them of an important lesson: strong competition breeds success.

Most people want to get better -- at everything. They think when they do, they will simply start winning and winning and winning (just ask Charlie Sheen). But let's look at the facts. The better you get and the higher you rise through the ranks of any professional sport, the more difficult the competition gets.

Take Tim Tebow, for instance. This guy was a winning quarterback all through high school and college, winning the Heisman Trophy during his sophomore year at the University of Florida. He was as dominant a player as there was at the collegiate level and yet, when he came to the NFL, he had to fight and claw to earn a spot as a back-up quarterback. How does the best player in the country suddenly become relegated to back-up duty?

The answer is simple: Your results are based on the level of your competition. So, no matter how good you are at anything, if your opposition is just as good, you will win about the same, maybe even less, regardless of your skill level. Finally given a chance, Tebow is doing his best to silence the critics, but many still feel he doesn't have the tools necessary to be a consistently winning pro quarterback.

So how does this relate to chess? I've just returned from the 2011 Tal Memorial Chess Tournament in Moscow, where I was helping American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. The best chess players in the world competed in a round-robin (all-play-all) format. In this nine-round tournament, nobody won more than two games! Two players (the world's No. 1-ranked player, Magnus Carlsen and world No. 3 Levon Aronian) each won two games and drew seven, and they tied for first place.

When the elite-of-the-elite in the chess world get together, it can be quite difficult to gain an edge, and even the slightest misstep can cost you a game. Unfortunately, Hikaru had a bad tournament in Moscow and was not able to win a single game. Oddly enough, neither did three other players, including reigning World Champion "Vishy" Anand (he drew all nine games!) and former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. But, those players know the next tournament is around the corner and luck may be on their side soon enough.

The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis recently hosted a tournament over Thanksgiving weekend. Mike Buckley, an amateur player in the bottom section of the Thanksgiving Open, was the lowest-ranked player in his group, but he still managed to score 5.5 out of 6, and he won $1,000. His competition was weaker, so he was able to capitalize on more mistakes. In fact, club players often win more games than the best grandmasters in the world, because their competition is not quite so fierce.

Many years ago, a World Champion Candidate, Grandmaster Jon Speelman, was playing in an open tournament with many lower-ranked players. I asked him why he was playing in such a "weak event." He had been playing in elite events against the strongest grandmasters for more than a year, and now he was playing against club players, masters and weaker grandmasters. His reply was, "I want to win some games this year."

Sometimes you have to downgrade the competition to regain that winning feeling.

Ben Finegold is the GM in residence at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center.

Ben Finegold
Grandmaster Ben Finegold learned the rules of chess at age 5 and was dubbed “The 40-year-old GM” after receiving the title in 2009. In between, Finegold was a U.S. Junior champion in 1989, a recipient of the prestigious Samford Chess Fellowship in 1993 and a competitor in nine U.S. Championships. He is a popular scholastic coach and commentator for elite events.

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