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How do GMs "play the man, not the board" as some books say? Would that work for club level players or could they use other methods? Prepared variations? Trash talk?

What are the ways one can play the man but not the board that are they legal under FIDE rules and would not be called annoying the opponent or the like?

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As you mentioned, playing the man can mean several different things, but before I answer I want to say that no one can become a better player by only playing the man - objectivity is the number 1 priority.

Many top-level GMs do play the man and the most notable example I can give is the Kasparov-Kramnik match in 2000. Kramnik knew that Kasparov disliked queenless middlegames, so he put the Berlin into his opening arsenal. Kramnik also played d4 in his match because Kasparov was known to be a deadly Najdorf player (it should be noted that Kramnik did play e4 at that time). Another example that I can think of is a younger player taking advantage of an older player's fatigue and grinding the position down for hours. These are the main ways that GMs play the man as far as I know.

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It's all Sun Tzu; If the player is a tactician, play positional. If the player is positional, play tactical. If the guy is booked up in a line -- don't play into it unless you have a surprise...

It is not about off the board antics. Is the guy out of form or a little sick? Then make the game long and complicated...

Then as SubhanKhan mentioned: at the supreme level they look for any little detail. GM Gufeld loved his dark-square bishop so much, if you traded it off he would take a draw...

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    what about sun tzu off the board aspects ? – edwina oliver Feb 10 at 23:56
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    @edwinaoliver I've seen trash talking backfire, when it further motivated the opponent. But, I've also seen women use cleavage to distract their male opponents to good effect. – Ywapom Feb 11 at 16:59
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    @edwinaoliver That would be called “bad sportsmanship”. – 11684 Feb 12 at 19:47
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While the other answers are great at addressing what playing the man means, this one will be more about your initial question about helping at the club level.

I do not think playing the man is as viable of a strategy for a club level player. The reason it works at a higher level is that GMs already have the appropriate skill level to compete with each other normally and there is more readily available information about opponents/they play against each other often enough to get a read on their play style.

There are a few issues with this at a club level that make it a non-viable strategy:

  1. There are many more people who play at a club level than at a GM level. Odds are, outside of your own club's members, you will not be playing the same person on a regular enough basis to ascertain their style. This makes playing the man a more research oriented ordeal that would take up far too much time for you as an individual to do and could be spent on your fundamentals or strategy. I would not recommend it unless you are going to a tournament and are the underdog in a match up against a player that has a lot of publicly accessible match information available.
  2. If you are part of a club, you probably love the game and want to actually improve. You are already dedicating more time than most on the game and thinking about it strategically. Playing the man would be considered a cheesy strategy by most people and is not something that makes you improve. Also, to echo what I stated above, you'd realistically only play your own club members enough to get an idea of another players play style. It's never worth cheesing a practice opponent since that is the time to work on your own game and actually improve.

I do not think there is anything wrong with a cheesy strategy for a single person or playing the man in general. It is actually great for higher level players to think this way because it shows their passion for the game and their observational prowess. For lower ranked players, it is relatively useless and even those who are very attached to their ELO or ranking should stay away from playing the man except for in select situations detailed in the first point. A stable ELO with slow but steady improvement is far better than being a swingy player who wins underdog matchups and loses to lower ranked players.

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  • interesting. i think it is possible to play the man in some ways at any level. it is more about the man than about the game of chess. – edwina oliver Feb 11 at 23:37
  • Of course you can read visual cues of any opponent at any level. In that sense, it is a good habit to get into. I was thinking more along the lines of the situation SubhanKhan mentioned in his answer. Playing the man, in that sense, is not as likely to work at a club level since you are not going to be playing opponents frequently enough to get an idea of their play style. I guess it depends on your interpretation of playing the man (tailored strategy vs perceived psychology of opponent). – Cloudzzz Feb 12 at 16:32
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Disclaimer: I am mainly answering the 2nd question (Would that work for club level players or could they use other methods?).

Yes, it is possible for a club level player to play the man. First, I would like to clarify that playing the man is not the exact opposite of objective play. There is even a certain intersection between them in human vs human games! Playing the opponent refers to bringing in the psychology factor which makes sense because you are playing against a human after all. And it is widely used in all levels of play.

Thorough analysis may point out that a sacrifice/gambit is not sound, but playing that posiiton in the defensive against an aggressive player is another thing. Think about Tal's games ("There are two types of sacrifices: correct ones and mine." -Tal). In an interview Kramnik attributed his good record agaist Kasparov to his mindset.

Quote from Vladimir Kramnik Interview: 'I'm Not Afraid To Lose'‎ (emphasize mine).

I don’t care about losing. I enjoy the process, and it doesn’t make any difference if I win or lose. ...............................................
Qn: Do you think this mindset helped you during your career?
I think so, because with my approach to chess, I was never intimidated or felt afraid of anyone. I think this particularly helped against Garry, whenever we played. I could clearly see that whenever other players faced him, there was a fear, up to the point of panic. For me this was always quite strange. Of course Garry was a special player, and I’ve always had deep respect for his chess, but when you play any opponent, you’re just playing a game. You can lose, but so what?

Some top-level players have used surprise as a weapon against strong players. I hesitate to give example games for this and similar tricks employed.

One way club-level players play the man is to stop opponent's plans in the track (one needs to have an ability to measure opponents and see their plan to do so; not so easy). Some players do this even when opponent's plan doesn't seem so good. This aims to bring down their confidence instead of annoying them (which by the way shows a clear lack of sportsmanship).

And now to justify that there is an intersection between playing your opponent and objective play, ...
Many players would prefer to steer the game to a position which the opponent doesn't like though objectively they may be perfectly fine. This 'objective part' of this decision is that you want to control where the game goes (in terms of style, or personal preferences). Also, when you are not in a position to control the game, the 'objectively' best strategy is not to let your opponent achieve their goals either. An example is to make sure that your opponent cannot make use of the (semi)open file he/she possess. A distant example is neutralizing your lack of space by exchanging minor pieces (this would be considered an objective decision usually; but this strategy is not objective in all crammed-like positions).

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