Author: Igor Smirnov, Grandmaster
Subject: Psychology, chess, dealing with anxiety
Recommendation: a good e-book on a neglected area of chess theory
Buy it here: Champion Psychology
This is an ebook, not an actual, physical book. On the whole, I dislike ebooks. Anyone can publish one, standards are generally low and they are rarely worth the money. Champion Psychology, by Igor Smirnov, is better than most, though it still faces some of the shortcomings inherent in ebooks. Let me start with those.
The official page count is 112, but that includes the title page, the table of contents, the disclaimer and the index at the back. It has fairly large text and lots of paragraph breaks. Chapters frequently end half-page or even the first third of a page, which gives the illusion of bulk. The book has five sections, and each section has its own fancy-graphic page, which looks nice but again is mostly padding.
All in all, the book is around 25,000 words, give or take. That’s about 50 ‘regular’ pages of a normal book. This is why ebooks are popular with Internet salesmen: 50 pages is now a book. The author earns more money for less work, compared to traditional writing jobs. This is more a complaint about ebooks on the whole, but it’s good to realize that the price-per-page is much higher for an ebook than most equivalent, physical books.
That said, there are very few equivalents. ‘Chess for Tigers’ was my first foray into this subject, but it doesn’t cover psychology exclusively; it is more about improving from beginner to intermediate or perhaps early-advanced strength. ‘The Will to Win!’ is a recent book that, though I haven’t read personally, appears to be lacking judging from some reviews. ‘Psychology in Chess’ is a Soviet classic from the 70s: likely useful but dated, especially in the computer age. There aren’t many other books out there.
What exactly is chess psychology? On his website, Smirnov frequently got questions relating to anxiety or nerves during a chess game. How do you avoid or minimize this ‘butterfly in the stomach’ feeling? This book was created to help answer that question, to give practical guidance. This is almost completely neglected in chess literature. In general, books focus on the psychology of our opponents, trying to confuse or trick them. This book, mostly, focuses on improving our own confidence over the board.
For the most part, the book answers the bell. It does it by stating, paradoxically, you cannot get rid of nerves, just like you cannot get rid of darkness out of a room. If you turn on a light, though, the darkness will recede. Similarly, if we change our focus, we can eliminate or at least reduce our chess anxiety. It surprisingly works. Anxiety has derailed some of my chess games, and I have felt much more relaxed since applying some of these suggestions.
The book covers five different areas. Perhaps the best is his second section, Decision Making, where Smirnov gives some common psychological situations, like calculating a variation over and over again, never getting anywhere, or looking at a position for 10 or more minutes and not getting anywhere fast. Smirnov tells us, “There’s a big difference between thinking and having doubts,” and how true is that! We waste time thinking, “I don’t know if this move works,” rather than actually calculating to see if it works. Recognizing when we are using our time unproductively, just multiplying our doubts, is a great way to minimize our anxiety, to flip the metaphorical lightswitch in our minds.
Other sections include using psychology against your opponent to make him have doubts, as well as unique ways to approach tournaments and even chess training as a whole. Some of these chapters are novel and very interesting. I wish more ink was spilled here. Somewhat disappointingly, a few chapters at the end of the book appear to be based off some of Smirnov’s free blog posts, and one is actually a direct copy-and-paste. I guess it’s not plagiarism if it’s your own work, but it feels like filler if you’ve already read that content before.
I should mention before I end that the production value is actually quite high. I complained about ebooks in general at the beginning, but Champion Psychology looks great. Fonts are clear, spelling and grammar mistakes are almost non-existent, and everything looks good. Smirnov spent a lot of time preparing his text; it reads better than many native speakers. He has an easy, conversational style that works well for this subject.
Final verdict? First, if you don’t play chess, don’t buy it. Though it may have some residual carry-over effect to other areas of life, you will find the vast majority of the advice useless. For chess players, ask how much you suffer from nerves. If you have utter confidence, you can probably use that money for something better (check my reviews of GM Smirnov’s other products, most of which I highly recommend). The more you suffer from nervousness, the more potential value you will get out of it. I haven’t found anything else like it, and it has worked for me. I would certainly give it a shot.