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Are there any psychological tricks that can be used in chess to throw off an opponent regardless of rating? It also does not matter if it is the opening, middle, or end game.

By psychological, I really don't mean rude/annoying gestures to upset the opponent, but more tricks or tactics that have more to do with making psychological moves to throw an opponent off and they can be specific instances, for example, a specific move for a specific line that might make the opponent wonder "what is going on here...".

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I suppose another way to look at this would be "How do I protect myself from dishonorable players." Otherwise I find the question repulsive. –  Tony Ennis Dec 2 '12 at 3:55
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How do you find this question repulsive? Maybe I should have been a bit more clear. I will update my answer. –  xaisoft Dec 3 '12 at 2:16
    
Ok, now that it has been edited, it's more clear, and my answer has not much to do with it, but I simply don't think that such moves really exist, without some very specific context between the players. At any rate, taking an opponent's move for what it's worth — no more, no less — is part of one's level. @TonyEnnis, who understood the initial question just like me, yes, I think it was (a small) part of it. Repulsive, maybe, YMMV, but I don't think what's bad form should stay in the shadows just because it's not encouraged. But that quickly leads to fascinating entirely off-topic debates ^_^ –  Nikana Reklawyks Dec 3 '12 at 3:08
    
I don't believe in psychology. I believe in good moves. - Bobby Fischer –  Fischer Mar 14 '13 at 22:44

11 Answers 11

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Sometimes when your opponent is in zeitnot it can make him nervous if you repeat moves a couple of times.

Also when your opponent in zeitnot is a good idea to think on your moves thoroughly and not to try to play as fast as your opponent does. And vice versa, when you're in zeitnot, you should at least try to make your opponent to play as fast as you do.

I often try to learn rarely used variations to disappoint the opponent and make him think with his own brains and not just to replay moves from the theory.

Also if I know that my opponent is rather a strategic player, I will try to play very tactical positions against him and to overcalculate him. Vice verse when the opponent is better at tactics than I am I'll try to play more closer, maneuvering positions. In other words, when I know my opponent well, I'll try to play positions that he feels least comfortable in.

Other tricks I've heard of are of questionable taste, and I don't think they fall under fair play in my understanding of it.

Another thing I always do (though it is hardly psychological), is that I never inform my opponent if he forgot to press his clock. I use his time for analyzing position, and do my move only after the opponent pressed the clock.

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What is zeitnot? When I googled it, I found a tactics trainer. –  xaisoft Nov 29 '12 at 18:43
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@xaisoft: Not much time remaining on the clock, time-pressure, that is. –  Nikana Reklawyks Nov 29 '12 at 18:45
    
I don't know if you have this term in English. In russian we have this term derived from German. It literally means "no time". When your opponent has very few time. –  Alex Petrov Nov 29 '12 at 18:46
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@xaisoft, I've heard some people like to stare to opponent continuously. To make quiet remarks and jokes, about his or her moves. To show condescending attitude to the opponent throughout the game. But as I said all those tricks not necessary work against any opponent, and what is more important they are of very questionable taste when they are done intentionally. –  Alex Petrov Nov 29 '12 at 18:51
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Alex, on the matter of an English term for zeitnot, "time trouble" is another very common expression for it. –  ETD Nov 29 '12 at 20:50

This episode from a game in the 1961 Botvinnik - Tal match does not directly answer the question, but I believe is interesting enough to point out.

One of the comments to the game quotes Botvinnik:

"After two days of play and two sleepless nights I was thoroughly tired out, yet I did not take my usual thermos flask of coffee with me to the adjournment session - this would be the most weighty proof that I would make just a few more moves and then resign the game. It was during these few moves that Tal had to miss the stalemate". - Botvinnik.

[FEN ""]
[Event "match"]
[Site "Ch World , Moscow (Russia) (20)"]
[Date "1961.05.08"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "20"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[White "Mikhail Tal"]
[Black "Mikhail Botvinnik"]
[ECO "B12"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "242"]

1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 Bf5 4.h4 h6 5.Ne2 e6 6.Ng3 Ne7 7.Nc3 Nd7
8.Be3 Bh7 9.Bd3 Bxd3 10.cxd3 h5 11.Nce2 g6 12.Qd2 Ng8 13.O-O-O
Bh6 14.Kb1 Bxe3 15.fxe3 Nh6 16.e4 Qe7 17.exd5 exd5 18.Qa5 Nf8
19.Rdf1 Ne6 20.Rf3 Qd8 21.Qa4 Qb6 22.Rc1 Ng4 23.Nf1 O-O 24.Ne3
f5 25.g3 Nh2 26.Rf4 Ng4 27.Ng2 Rae8 28.Qa3 Rf7 29.Rc3 a6
30.Rb3 Qa7 31.Qd6 Qb8 32.Qxb8 Rxb8 33.Rf1 Nh2 34.Rc1 Re8
35.Ngf4 Nxf4 36.gxf4 Ng4 37.Rb6 Kg7 38.Rh1 Nh6 39.Nc3 Rc7
40.Na4 Nf7 41.Kc2 Nd8 42.Kd2 Ne6 43.Ke3 Rd7 44.b4 Kf7 45.Nc5
Nxc5 46.bxc5 Ra8 47.Kd2 Ke6 48.Rg1 Rg7 49.Kc3 Ra7 50.Kb4 a5
51.Ka4 Ra8 52.Rgb1 Ra7 53.R1b5 Rg8 54.a3 Re8 55.Rxa5 Rea8
56.Rxa7 Rxa7+ 57.Kb4 g5 58.hxg5 h4 59.a4 h3 60.Ka3 h2 61.Rb1
Ra8 62.g6 Rg8 63.Rh1 Rxg6 64.Rxh2 Rg3 65.Rh6+ Kd7 66.Rh7+ Kc8
67.e6 Rxd3+ 68.Kb2 Re3 69.e7 Kd7 70.e8=Q+ Kxe8 71.Rxb7 Kd8
72.a5 Re2+ 73.Kb3 Re1 74.Kc2 Re2+ 75.Kc3 Ra2 76.Rb6 Kc7 77.a6
Ra1 78.Kb2 Ra4 79.Kb3 Ra1 80.Rb7+ Kc8 81.Rb6 Kc7 82.Rb7+ Kc8
83.Ra7 Rb1+ 84.Kc3 Ra1 85.Ra8+ Kc7 86.Kb3 Rb1+ 87.Kc3 Ra1
88.Kb3 Rb1+ 89.Ka2 Rb5 90.a7 Ra5+ 91.Kb3 Kb7 92.Rf8 Rb5+
93.Ka4 Kxa7 94.Rxf5 Rb1 95.Rf6 Kb7 96.f5 Ra1+ 97.Kb4 Rb1+
98.Kc3 Rc1+ 99.Kd2 Rf1 100.Ke3 Kc7 101.Rf7+ Kd8 102.Ke2 Rf4
103.Kd3 Rf3+ 104.Kd2 Kc8 105.Ke2 Rf4 106.Ke3 Rf1 107.Rf8+ Kd7
108.Rf6 Kc7 109.Rf7+ Kd8 110.Ke2 Rf4 111.Kd3 Rf3+ 112.Kc2 Kc8
113.f6 Kd8 114.Rf8+ Kc7 115.Kd2 Kb7 116.Ke2 Rf4 117.Ke3 Rf1
118.Rf7+ Kc8 119.Kd2 Rf3 120.Kc2 Kd8 121.Rf8+ Kc7 1/2-1/2
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Is “tiring your opponent into forgetting about his coffee” the trick ? (… what stalemate ?) –  Nikana Reklawyks Dec 2 '12 at 2:43
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At that time after 40 moves the game would be suspended and would be continued in a couple of days. Position of that game was hopeless for Botvinnik, but there was a slight chance for stalemate. Not taking flask to the game was supposed to make Tal think that Botvinnik didn't think that the game would last long and was about to resign. Tal did notice the absence of the flask and played carelessly, and Botvinnik made it to the stalemate. –  Alex Petrov Dec 2 '12 at 22:18
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@AlexPetrov: Ah, I get it now, I misunderstood “yet”. Thanks ! –  Nikana Reklawyks Dec 3 '12 at 2:56

As mentioned in comments, staring at your opponent might off-balance some of them, just as behaving abnormally in anyway — constantly replacing pieces, or smiling as if there was a reason comes to mind.

As I mention elsewhere, you can try the long-shot trick of not pressing your clock to distract them. Probably not achieving much though.

Obviously nothing of that belongs to fair play, but I guess that's not much of this question's issue.


What actually happened to me in the last game of a 15-minutes tournament, as I had not much time remaining¹ was my opponent² — in an obviously losing position — play very fast, misplacing many pieces on the way, and, as I played my move and replaced some pieces on their squares, play his, and pretend I had touched the piece I was replacing, therefore had to play it³.

As I made the move I wanted, he would move the piece back and press his clock again, repeatedly, muttering some foreign words⁴ about “having to play”. In the end, he would keep his finger pressed on the mechanical clock, preventing me from stopping it. I lost most of my time to all of that, and wouldn't have had enough to mate would he have played till the end after the referee finally came and let me play the bishop. Hopefully, he just went self-righteous against the referee, so I won by “that”.

Not very psychological, will definitely get you a bad reputation, and unlikely to achieve anything in major events, but definitely throws-off your opponent, probably also for the next game. Rank pressure helps, especially after a tense game, etc.


¹ Like 4 minutes : well enough to win the endgame-with-a-bishop-advantage the combination we where playing lead to, but not enough to deal with nasty clock tricks.
² Ranked ~150 better than I did, he was playing for a prize, I was playing for 4th place and to enhance a friend's prize.
³ Hence faking a trebuchet zugzwang where I was about to move the said bishop.
⁴ It sounded like engrish, but in a French town that'll definitely catch off-guards your usual chess player.

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Draw offers are useful for psychological reasons, provided of course that you don't particularly mind getting a draw as a result of your offer now and then.

Let's say you have a more or less equal position, where both players have to play pretty cautiously, neither can really attack at the moment. Then you offer a draw, and your opponent declines. Now he will a) feel morally obligated to play for the win, and b) believe you are only playing for a draw! This leads to excessive risk taking by your opponent.

Another way to use them is to be just slightly obnoxious, when you know he isn't going to accept. Let's say you know he's traveled two hours to get here, he outrates you and you offer a draw after 8 moves. Irritated people have trouble staying objective and he's more likely to take excessive risks, again. Although I don't actually do this as I think it's over the line.

Another thing I do is when I'm walking around while my opponent is thinking, and he is really using too much time for this move and seems unable to make up his mind, then I will continue walking around. The moment you sit down is often the moment they take a decision and make a move, I want to make them waste as much time as possible in those situations.

Of course, when I'm walking around, notice I've actually made a blunder but he may not have seen the combination yet, then I will sit down immediately hoping he'll promptly move... If he doesn't, just get up again.

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doing something like 38.Qxd3 in Emanuel Lasker vs Johann Hermann Bauer (1889):

[fen ""]

1.f4 d5 2.e3 Nf6 3.b3 e6 4.Bb2 Be7 5.Bd3 b6 6.Nc3 Bb7 7.Nf3
Nbd7 8.O-O O-O 9.Ne2 c5 10.Ng3 Qc7 11.Ne5 Nxe5 12.Bxe5 Qc6
13.Qe2 a6 14.Nh5 Nxh5 15.Bxh7+ Kxh7 16.Qxh5+ Kg8 17.Bxg7 Kxg7
18.Qg4+ Kh7 19.Rf3 e5 20.Rh3+ Qh6 21.Rxh6+ Kxh6 22.Qd7 Bf6
23.Qxb7 Kg7 24.Rf1 Rab8 25.Qd7 Rfd8 26.Qg4+ Kf8 27.fxe5 Bg7
28.e6 Rb7 29.Qg6 f6 30.Rxf6+ Bxf6 31.Qxf6+ Ke8 32.Qh8+ Ke7
33.Qg7+ Kxe6 34. Qxb7 Rd6 35. Qxa6 d4 36. exd4 cxd4 37. h4 d3
38. Qxd3 1-0

hehe :)

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I do not get it. The game is won, so what ? –  Nikana Reklawyks Jan 12 '13 at 6:08
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@NikanaReklawyks he basically told him (in a very peculiar way) "dude, just resign", QxP is clearly not the best move, also the OP was clear that "It also does not matter if it is the opening, middle, or end game." –  ajax333221 Jan 12 '13 at 6:47
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I contend Qxd3 is, if not the best, then the simplest way to win: it forces the major pieces off for both sides (if 38...Rc5 39. Qg5+ and 40. Qxc5 and boils things down to a K+P ending I could easily win with 1-minute remaining against Carlsen ;) –  user76 Jan 15 '13 at 18:16
    
Unless Carlsen pulls a nice psychological trick on you :) –  yrodro Sep 8 '13 at 17:44

TL;DR: When your opponent has an extremely cramped position, sometimes they can "crack" and make bad moves (if you don't help them out of it, and give them time).

The Chessmaster series of games had an (IMHO) excellent set of instructional videos by Josh Waitzkin. Although probably nothing revolutionary, he had one regarding the psychology of chess, which I've found to be very interesting.

One of the concepts involved games where your opponent found themselves in a cramped (but otherwise balanced / drawish) position. Here, if you are able to bide your time (in such a way that you don't give up tempo), you can often cause your opponent to attempt to break out of the cramped position without sufficient preparation. In the video, Josh played quiet moves to bide his time, and without any obvious forced defensive moves to play, his opponent had to try come up with something new. Unfortunately for the opponent, there were no "excellent" moves present; he really had no way to break the position open in a way that was beneficial (but neither did the other player). Objectively, the position was equal, but one player felt that pressure was building up. Eventually, Josh's opponent decided to open the game up, and ended up losing very quickly.

I guess this would be the chess equivalent of "give somebody enough rope (to hang themselves)", and it's also a pretty good example of legitimate psychological tricks in chess. I'm not sure how this would apply at high levels of play, but it's certainly applicable up to low-level tournament play, in my opinion. If you do decide to try this, just make sure you're not giving your opponent the free tempos they need to win the game (this is the hard part).

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I have watched that video and it indeed very excellent along with all the other videos. –  xaisoft Jan 29 '13 at 14:34

Reading @RemcoGerlich's answer about walking around reminded me of a situation that happened between Tal and Fishcer:

Every player has his own habit: one will first make his move and then write it down, while another will do things the other way around. Incidentally, in recent years Fischer has actively objected to this 'other way round', expressing the opinion that a scoresheet is not a black-board for writing down exercises. However, in our game Fischer first wrote down the move 22.Rae1!, without a doubt the strongest, and wrote it not in his usual English notation but in European, almost Russian! Then he not very deftly pushed the scoresheet towards me. 'He's asking for an endorsement', I thought to myself, but how was I to react? To frown was impossible, if I smiled he would suspect 'trickery', so I did the natural thing. I got up and began to calmly walk up and down the stage. I met Petrosian, made some joke to him, and he replied. The 15-year-old Fischer, who was essentially still only a large child, sat with a confused expression on his face, looking first at the front row of spectators where his second was sitting, and then at me.

Then he wrote down another move. 22.Qc6?, and after 22...Rd7 23.Rae1+ Be7 24.Rxf7 Kxf7 25.Qe6+ Kf8! 26.Qxd7 Qd6 I held on to my extra piece and adjourned the game in a won position. When I later asked Fischer why he hadn't played 22.Rae1, he replied: 'Well, you laughed when I wrote it down!' - Mikhal Tal

Here is the game:

[fen ""]    
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 b5 8. f4 b4 9. Na4 Nxe4 10. O-O g6 11. f5 gxf5 12. Nxf5 Rg8 13. Bd5 Ra7 14. Bxe4 exf5 15. Bxf5 Re7 16. Bxc8 Qxc8 17. Bf4 Qc6 18. Qf3 Qxa4 19. Bxd6 Qc6 20. Bxb8 Qb6 21. Kh1 Qxb8 22. Qc6 Rd7 23. Rae1 Be7 24. Rxf7 Kxf7 25. Qe6 Kf8 26. Qxd7 Qd6 27. Qb7 Rg6 28. c3 a5 29. Qc8 Kg7 30. Qc4 Bd8 31. cxb4 axb4 32. g3 Qc6 33. Re4 Qxc4 34. Rxc4 Rb6 35. Kg2 Kf6 36. Kf3 Ke5 37. Ke3 Bg5 38. Ke2 Kd5 39. Kd3 Bf6 40. Rc2 Be5 41. Re2 Rf6 42. Rc2 Rf3 43. Ke2 Rf7 44. Kd3 Bd4 45. a3 b3 46. Rc8 Bxb2 47. Rd8 Kc6 48. Rb8 Rf3 49. Kc4 Rc3 50. Kb4 Kc7 51. Rb5 Ba1 52. a4 b2

game at chessgames.com

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Interesting that you found this. –  xaisoft Feb 15 '13 at 16:27
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To help others find this too, Tal recounts this story in The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal (if memory serves). –  ETD Feb 17 '13 at 2:28
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@EdDean, I see, Thanks. That's where the original story must be from! I believe I first read this story in Kasparov's OMGP. –  Akavall Feb 17 '13 at 3:50

One suggestion I read, and really liked -- is that your opponent is more likely to miss a tactic if it looks like an ordinary developing move.

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If your opponent is low on time, try to keep the position complicated. Avoid making moves that have an obvious answer (e.g., captures and checks), and try to keep tension on the board, so that he has lots of options to consider every move.

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Something I like to do in online chess is if I lose a Pawn or more in material, and if I'm higher rated, I offer them a draw. That usually burns a few seconds on the clock as they try to weigh the utility of accepting the draw while up material or whether or not they should play on and convert, but the opportunity cost of them even contemplating this decision means they lose time on the clock.

It's kinda stupid, maybe disrespectful, and will definitely make your opponent rage if they decide to play on and lose, but just a little something I like to do.

If you are interested in this topic, there is a book called "How to get lucky in chess" that you should look up and download (pretty sure there is a pirated copy somewhere online) that discusses issues you ask about in your post.

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It's disrespectful and various online chess websites add several seconds to your opponent clock if you offer draw (several seconds to make a decision). –  Zistoloen Jan 28 '13 at 17:17
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Chill out, I'm not advocating offering excessive draws. I'll at most offer one draw in a losing position just to burn a little bit of time on their clock. Nothing illegal about that. –  flicflac Jan 28 '13 at 22:18
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The book is called How To Be Lucky In Chess, and it is still in print, so I'd recommend buying it if you want to read it. (It's an excellent book). –  dfan Mar 14 '13 at 18:47

The most famous example of a psychological play is this game between Lasker and Capablanca:

[fen ""]

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. d4 exd4 6. Qxd4 Qxd4 7. Nxd4 Bd6 8. Nc3 Ne7 9. O-O O-O 10. f4 Re8 11. Nb3 f6 12. f5 b6 13. Bf4 Bb7 14. Bxd6 cxd6 15. Nd4 Rad8 16. Ne6 Rd7 17. Rad1 Nc8 18. Rf2 b5 19. Rfd2 Rde7 20. b4 Kf7 21. a3 Ba8 22. Kf2 Ra7 23. g4 h6 24. Rd3 a5 25. h4 axb4 26. axb4 Rae7 27. Kf3 Rg8 28. Kf4 g6 29. Rg3 g5 30. Kf3 Nb6 31. hxg5 hxg5 32. Rh3 Rd7 33. Kg3 Ke8 34. Rdh1 Bb7 35. e5 dxe5 36. Ne4 Nd5 37. N6c5 Bc8 38. Nxd7 Bxd7 39. Rh7 Rf8 40. Ra1 Kd8 41. Ra8 Bc8 42. Nc5

This is the 1914 St. Petersburg Tournament, where the first Grand Master titles were allegedly invested on the top five players by none other than Czar Nicholas II (they were Lasker, Alekhine, Capablanca, Tarrasch, and Marshall). It was the most important tournament at the time and Lasker as reigning World champion had a moral obligation to win, particularly since he had not played in a tournament for five years.

Unfortunately for him there was this young upstart by the name of Capablanca who had only won one major event (San Sebastian 1911), and who pulled ahead to first position. At the very end, Lasker was trailing by half a point, and a win was necessary. In the second to last round he met Capablanca, and the stage was set for an epic clash. Needing a win against an all-confident opponent, Lasker decided to play the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez. This surprised everyone since this choice leads to the elimination of queens and drawish endgames. Needless to say, Capablanca lowered his guard and was unprepared when Lasker's real strength came to the surface. The champion outplayed the newcomer, edged ahead in the table, and won the tournament by 1/2 a point.

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