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I always tend to be tense when playing. I guess you could say I find chess somewhat stressful? I see it as a fight to win as opposed to some ordinary board game like Monopoly. I really can't relate to well with people who just play chess because they find it relaxing. For some reason though, I still like the game, even though it's stressful to a certain degree, who knows why?

Would you say this is normal chess player behavior? What do you feel when it comes to chess, I would like to hear some other players' experience. Did you feel stressed out when you first started? Are you still tense or do you find the game purely relaxing?

  • definitely stressed when first started. It gets easier though, until your opponents get better! – magd May 12 '16 at 9:10
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    I feel nervous and stressed before the game starts. Once I made my first move, it's all about finding the best move. – jf328 May 12 '16 at 15:46
  • I always feel nervous before and after the game. – Manoj Kumar May 20 '16 at 17:05
  • For some reason, I find playing chess online far more stressful than any other format or setting, regardless of time control. Often, I really want to play online, but can't even bring myself to start a game, and end up staring at the lobby screen for half an hour. Yet I don't have any anxieties playing OTB at all. – foiwofjwej Jun 10 '18 at 18:08
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I play a lot of board games and a lot of chess in particular. I can tell you that every chess player has a certain element of nervous energy whilst playing. This keeps us sharp. These are the reasons I believe chess generates nervous energy in the players:

  • Competitiveness: Chess is purely competitive and we are all playing to win on some level, whether it is to beat the opponent, get a draw against a Grand Master, or to improve our game, i.e. beat ourselves
  • Skill: There is no random component. I can't blame the dice gods if I lose
  • Not a team game: Similar to how I can't blame the dice gods if I lose, I can't even blame my team mates! Even when chess is played as a team (e.g. Olympiad), what my team is doing during my game doesn't affect the outcome of my game
  • Ratings: This relates to pride, but if I am playing against someone who I see as being a weaker player (lower rating/child player/patzer), then I'll be extremely embarrassed to lose. Similarly, I want to beat higher rated players to inflate my ego
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    I mostly agree, apart from what you stated in "Not a team game". When you play in team (and I mostly play chess in league or cup team matches), the outcome of your game is ofen affected by your teammates. Sometimes if your team needs your full point, you have to try to force some more aggresive play in a position that is a clear draw otherwise, and you end up either winning or losing instead of drawing. Sometimes you play for a draw even when you have some advantage, in order not to risk losing half a point if that's what your team needs. But other than that, I agree with what you said. – fbxmg May 12 '16 at 11:59
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In a 1972 interview with Bobby Fischer the following famous exchange took place:

WALLACE: Winning for winning's sake is important, but do you like to beat another man?

FISCHER: Yes, I like to beat another man.

WALLACE: You smile about it. Do you like to crush another man's ego?

FISCHER: Uh-huh, so when they go home that night, they can't kid themselves that they're so hot.

I think a watered down version of that mentality drives many chess players. It generates a lot of stress which can make you feel really good when you win, really bad when you lose but more importantly it disturbs the calm thinking you need to find the best move and win.

It is a very Western way of thinking and behaving. A more Eastern approach where you enter something like a Zen state, calmly looking for the "truth" in the position, searching objectively for the best moves for you and your opponent, is likely to produce better results by reducing the errors that arise from over-strong emotions and reduce the stress levels.

Of course that stress high may be what some players play the game for. Bungee jumping levels of adrenaline without leaving your seat.

You will often see very strong players sit and think for several minutes before making their first move. Of course it could just be that they are trying to remember their opening computer preparation. I prefer to think that they feel they haven't arrived at the board in the optimum calm state of mind and are composing themselves, trying to enter the necessary Zen state :-)

  • I like your comment. I feel that over time, I have gradually become the Zen-like player or at least tried to be that way. I play daily - so time pressure is minimal. I also turn off chat, so that the many jerks who play chess and trash talk cannot disturb my Zen groove. I just enjoy the game as an intellectual puzzle and have zero stress. – Andrew Brooks May 7 '19 at 14:16
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This (or variations thereof) is a common graph from performance psychology. As you can see, some level of arousal is good, but too much can be a problem. Too much stress is certainly a common problem (as is the opposite, too little arousal leading to lack of focus or energy). If you find yourself too far to the right side of the graph, there are many techniques to reduce your arousal. One very helpful idea is to learn some breathing exercises. For example, inhale deeply, count to three, then exhale slowly. This can be surprisingly effective for calming down.

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"People ask me what I do when I want to relax and are often baffled when I tell them I race motorcycles. They don't seem to understand that when you're traveling 120mph around a corner with a knee a quarter inch off the asphalt, if you're not relaxed, you're @!^&ed."

The things which relax people are often baffling. I, for one, do not understand how running long distances can ever be considered relaxing, but people do it!

I would argue that there are two reasons why a game like chess is not relaxing. The first is the competitive nature. If you focus on winning the game above all else, you will naturally enter a stressing mindset. For some environments, such as tournament play, this is desired. In more casual games, it can be undesirable. It can help to reframe the game not as a way to compete with the other person, but as an opportunity to better yourself, sharpening your claws within the rules of the game.

The other reason is that you use stressing approaches. This can happen to anyone, and can go completely unnoticed. We often have many different ways of resolving a situation, each of which taxes the brain in different ways. For example, we may be able to use a gut instinct approach to play where you slowly look at the position until it makes itself clear to you, or we may use a highly analytical approach which involves keeping mental maps of game trees and board positions in our head. Choosing the latter will add to stress, no matter how much you focus on bettering yourself.

The Zen solution to this is not just to focus on bettering yourself, but to focus on letting the game make you more aware of what is going on inside. When you realize that you are using a particularly punishing approach to a position, revel in it. Use it as an opportunity to learn how to use that tool. In general, this leads to a decrease in stress as you home that tool into something which is just as effective, but far less stressful.

We do see a pattern in human nature for relaxation. Many people who learn to relax while doing an otherwise stressful action teach themselves to strive towards something which can only be attained by relaxing. Through this, they gain the skill to relax anywhere, and that is a powerful skill.

There are people who are at their calmest jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. I'd call them freaks, but who am I to judge. The things which relax us are tremendously personal. I recommend exploring them.

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I don't know if you're playing in chess competitions or not but if you are, I have an idea on how to stay calm but I don't know if it will work. There is some predictable pattern to the way your game play in a rated match affects the gameplay of your opponents. All you have to do is stop worrying about how well you play your current match and keep trying different strategies and doing your own thinking and doing your own research based on your observations. If you decide you have all the time in the world to play a really good match and are not in a hurry to do so, then you can use the creative thinking approach to slowly research in your own head how to eventually play a really good match instead of blocking that ability by panicking and trying as hard as you can to win the current match while you're playing it. Other people probably can't teach you their method of playing well. I think doing your own research based on your own observations of your opponents in rated matches will work so much better for you then getting taught somebody else's method in a lesson no matter how good a chess player they are.

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