Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Weakest Link

I happened to overhear a conversation that a father of a novice player was having with one of the NY chess coaches. The father was saying something like, "he seems really strong to me, he can play exceptionally well for 4-5 moves in a row but will then blunder a piece and throw away the game. If only he could play like that the whole game, I'm sure he'd do much better..." And the coach nodded and assured the man of his son's obvious talent for the game, etc.

I think this is really a common thought among parents of beginner or improving players. And it's pretty much universally true. Everyone could probably play 100-200 points stronger if they eliminated the 1 worst blunder from their games.

It's so common, in fact, that thinking this way is sort of a trap. It's easy to convince yourself that the player is somehow better than the results. The harsh reality is that the chess rating system is amazingly accurate given enough time. Rating is the unbiased, brutally honest measure of your strength as a chess player. I've often found myself thinking that Richie, for instance, should really be rated 200 points higher but why do I really think that? Perhaps it's because he beats me occasionally. But the problem is that when we play casually, do I really take the time to think and play near my full strength? Am I subconsciously soft-playing him? Surely letting him take back that one obvious blunder couldn't make a signficant difference. There's no way he'd make that kind of gross error in a slow tournament game, right?

I picked out a recent game to illustrate the point. Richie played this game against another player rated almost the same as him. Amazingly, even after putting this game through a chess engine, I could only identify 1 major blunder. In fact the game was within about 1.0 pt (1 pawn) of even until that blunder. It's no wonder that Richie playing strength seems to so hard for me to comprehend when he can play a nearly blunderless game with excellent positional control, only to uncork a stinker like 18... Bd3?? for no obvious reason. And this isn't exactly a fluke since he made an almost identical error later in the same tournament.

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