This has been a rough few weeks for me in online and correspondence chess. I recently matched my live chess losing streak of eight games in standard time control (15|10), which was incredibly disappointing given that I had improved so much over the past year. In the heat of the losing streak, I decided to see if there were any tips or tricks available on in the forums or available on any blogs. Suffice to say that I found a number of interesting posts about losing streaks and many of them contain a wide variety of answers and suggestions to help players beat a losing streak and to get back on their game. Considering that my standard time control losing streak is ongoing, but my blitz (5 min) losing streak is over, I have decided to examine some common techniques from the chess and mental health worlds to help players that might be experiencing a prolonged losing streak.

What Causes Losing Streaks?

Some of you might be thinking: If I knew what caused my losing streak, I would be able to fix it! This is an understandable question and response, especially considering the nature of the chess community. Chess players tend to be analytical and prefer to exist in a paradigm of rational thinking and logical processes. So when a player becomes mired in a streak of horrific games, he or she tends to look not only for the cause of their own losing streak, but to look at the greater philosophical or cognitive reasoning for extended chess losses. The first thing to understand about losing streaks in any sport or activity is that there is no single underlying universal force that creates these losing scenarios. There are no chess gods that have plagued me with an online chess losing streak nor does the phases of the Moon have anything to do with a losing streak. Losing streaks occur primarily because the person engaged in the activity is suffering from the effects of one of these items:

  • Fatigue: This is the most common theme I have encountered in both the chess and mental health worlds that leads to performance degradation. Sleep hygiene is critical to maintaining proper focus when playing chess. Ensure that your sleep area is clean and free of nighttime distractions. A full eight hours of sleep is recommended for best performance, especially as we get older. I had no problem staying up all night, working a full eight hour shift, and then feeling okay to play games or hang out when I was in my early twenties, but time takes its toll on our bodies and we must modify our lifestyle regimens to compensate for decreased energy and stamina. In fact, fatigue tends to be the contributing factor to the other elements in this list.

  • Distraction: The world these days moves incredibly fast. In the Campfire Chess studio, I have an iMac with three monitors, two laptops, and an iPad Air. Each of these devices allows me to connect simultaneously to a variety of websites and multimedia services. In theory, I should be able to get more done in less time, but typically it is the other way around. This is especially true with chess. It does not help to play live online chess with a desire to win and advance your rating when you are also playing YouTUBE videos, possibly a movie, and have multiple screens and other distractions at your disposal.

  • Poor Equipment: I have seen countless artistic photos with players playing on chess sets made of cardboard or old car parts and they are often playing in the snow, rain, or whatever elements can be added to the scenario to make it more dramatic. The reality is that chess is not much different from professional baseball or other sports when it comes to the effects that poor equipment can have on a player’s outcome. Get yourself a quality chess set and practice with real people OTB (over the board)!

  • Lack of Skill: Let’s face it, sometimes people just suck at chess. Most of the time, I suck at chess. That is why I started Campfire Chess and why I continue to work at it today: I want to get better!

Losing Streaks at All Skill Levels

Baku GM Teimour Radjabov became the youngest Grandmaster in the world at the time when he turned 14 years old in 2001. He is well known for his 2003 victory against long-time World Champion Garry Kasparov:

An impressive victory to be sure, but GM Radjabov would not be a subject of this post if it were not for what occurred some years later in the 2013 World Championship Candidates tournament and the most recent FIDE Grand Prix tournaments in Baku and Tashkent. In the 2013 World Championship Candidates tournament, GM Radjabov earned last place in the tournament with 4/14, losing half of his games, and shedding 30 rating points in a single tournament. In the 2012-2013 Grand Prix event in Zug, he was last again with 4.5/11 and eventually withdrew from the Grand Prix events.

Ending a Losing Streak

Much of what I have read about losing streaks comes from amateur players such as myself who are struggling to improve their chess. These players begin losing 4-5 games in a row online and flock to the forums to seek out answers to their problems. Sometimes they find support and advice while other times they find score and ridicule. Sometimes they deserve it; sometimes they do not. There are some pieces of advice, such as utilizing the right training materials, that are specific to players with certain ELO ratings. However, there are some universal methods that can help a player to beat the streak and get back to winning at chess:

  • Don’t Panic: By far, this is the most important piece of advice that a chess player could ever receive. Do not allow yourself to be pulled into the dangerous spiral of panic and self-doubt when faced with a losing streak. As mentioned above, even Grandmasters lose games, but a loss in chess is always an opportunity to learn and grow. Take each loss with confidence that there is a message on the board to be collected, analyzed, and applied for future chess success.
  • Take a Break: On the forums, higher rated players are always encouraging lower-rated players to play more games and to keep trying when they face a losing streak. Sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. I have found that the best way to beat a streak is to take a break from the activity and give yourself time to recover. This will allow the mind and body to regenerate and for you to approach chess from a refreshed perspective.
  • Slow Down: One of the beautiful aspects of chess is that it can be played in a variety of ways. There are passive players and there are aggressive players. Sometimes new players win a few games and gain enough confidence to begin playing more aggressively. This aggressiveness can lead to mistakes and losses. It is important for new and growing players to slow down and remain focused. I prefer to avoid playing blitz games and focus more on standard (15 min or 30 min) chess because blitz can damage your chess by causing poor habits and reducing attention span.
  • Analyze!: For the chess player, this one is a no-brainer. Skip ChessBase and chess engines. Instead, sit down with a printout of your losses and analyze them on a real chessboard. This will allow you to experience the loss in a new way and to try out different patterns and variations before proceeding. Pay attention to patterns and lines that appear regularly in your games. Do they work or do they lead to trouble? Take time to perform this analysis and do not rush through it. Thorough and comprehensive analysis is one of the keys to improving in chess.

There are countless suggestions out there to help people overcome losing streaks of all kinds. The link in the first paragraph to the forums is just a small taste of the hopes for chess players to conquer their losing streaks and return to chess victory. These four items are not cure-alls, but they will certainly do more good for your game than harm. Chess is the ultimate mind sport and players must do what they can to maintain a healthy and focused body and mind.