Overcoming Disappointment

The ancient writer Horace said, “Adversity reveals the genius of a general; good fortune conceals it.” This is true beyond just warfare. It’s easy to do well when everything goes your way. Sometimes the best possible outcomes happen without you needing to even lift a finger. This certainly feels nice, and I doubt anyone will ever complain about a string of good luck, but it doesn’t tell you anything about you.

I first heard this quote thanks to the excellent game Rome: Total War.

Sometimes, of course, the exact opposite situation happens. Everything that can go wrong does. Everything is chaos, and perhaps the easiest thing to do is give up. Some people do just that. Others, though, take it on the chin and do everything in their power to overcome these obstacles. There is no better feeling that emerging triumphant from such a challenge, for there is no doubt that you earned it, not even the tiniest possibility of doubt. It is a great feeling, pure triumph … but it requires a lot to go wrong before you can revel in this afterglow.

For me, personally, I’m still trying to decide whether I’m giving up or powering through my obstacles.

It’s been over a month since this happened. I was playing an online chess game against a titled player, someone with an official rating over 2300. That means he’s good, a somebody. I’m a nobody chess player from Canada. I should have been crushed into a cube. Instead, I was one move away from victory.

Think about that. You are an inch from glory. With one move I would beat my first ever titled player, raising my online rating over 2100 in the process. I’d have accomplished something 99% of chess players can only dream about. I would be the 1%. I would have arrived. I would put the chess world on notice. This was it. This was my moment!

Substitute your own personal ambition if don’t play chess. Maybe your team is about to win the big game, or your presentation is going like a dream, or you are moments away from setting a new personal best in whatever. You are moments away, mere moments, you can already taste sweet success … and then you throw it all away in one careless, stupid, idiotic action. Entirely your fault. Your fault. Your fault.

That’s what I did. I threw the game away, and instead of winning in three moves I resigned in two. All my dreams, my hopes, my visions of grandeur, all collapsed around me. My stomach sank to the bottom of the ocean. I was empty, completely empty. I wanted to cry, but I had no tears. I just had this emptiness. I went from wonder to woe, delight to despair, succour to sorrow in a heartbeat.

I will never forget this moment. The board position is seared into my head, with all the emotions associated with it. And as I recovered, trying to figure how this happened, I wondered if I would keep playing chess. Yes, my disappointment was that strong.

I can’t recall if I had ever been so disappointed before, at least with myself. When my favourite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, made the playoffs in 2013, they lost in heartbreaking fashion. In fact, they also lost in heartbreaking fashion in 2003, the last time they made the playoffs. That’s been the Leafs MO for the last five decade, disappointment and heartbreak.

That was not a good night. Every Leaf fan instantly knows what this is about.

All the same, it was a completely different feeling. I don’t work or control the Leafs in any way. I just cheer for them. I might as well be watching a movie, as that’s the same effect I had on the outcome, and it’s more or less the same effect the outcome had on me. I was sad for about a day and then got over it, especially when the teams that beat us ended up losing later on.

In terms of my own life, though, my own actions, I don’t think anything comes this close. In general, if I tried to accomplish something, I either did it or partially did it. I never completely bombed an exam I had actually studied for, and the same is true for all school work. I didn’t compete on many sports teams, and in terms of my martial arts, I had hiccups along the way but never anything that made me question my continued involvement.

This was worse than anything I can remember. One move, just one move, and I’d have been on top of the world. Instead everything crashed down around me. Now I’m left thinking how to pick up all the pieces… and so far I haven’t.

For the last month I’ve barely played. I haven’t studied. I’ve kept my chess involvement to a minimum. It’s been incredible hard to focus, to push myself to play or even just look at the board. I’ve tried to distract myself by doing other things. Nope. I’ve tried immersing myself even more into chess. Nope. It’s as if my fire went out and only cold, smouldering ashes remain, the last hints of my passion.

There’s a hint of my former passion hiding in here … somewhere…

I’m tired of this, though. I’m tired of living in limbo, not sure what I’m going to do. Lethargy is fine for a day but gets old quick. I need to decide, right now, what I’m going to do. Do I keep studying chess, trying to improve to master level? Do I stop that, just playing for fun on the side? Or do I give up completely and only play once every blue moon? Those are my choices.

And here I remind myself about the story of Josh Waitzkin, the American chess prodigy and subject of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. He was the favourite to win an American tournament, something like the under-8 age group, and he lost in the final game. He was devastated, and he wanted to quit chess. He almost did, but then he sucked it up, studied even harder, poured his heart and soul into it and won the under-9 the next year in dominating fashion. He went on to become an International Master and one of the highest-rated players in the country … before eventually quitting chess anyway, which makes the story slightly less inspirational.

That’s my motivation, then. Some good might yet come from this depressing, depressing feeling. I just need to do it … and it’s been hard, so freaking hard … but I’m starting to do it. I’m watching videos again, going deep into variations, playing games through my head, studying important positions. I’m still not playing much, but that’s about to change. I can feel it. Those ashes are about to be re-lit anew, and a chess-playing phoenix will rise from those ashes.

It’s funny, because if I didn’t care, if I didn’t think I could win, I would have felt nothing. I was supposed to lose. He’s a much better player than I am … but in that one game, that one glorious game, I had him. I was on top. Everything was coming my way. Maybe that was the problem, because once I realized I was winning, that I was one move away even, that’s when I blundered.

If I didn’t care, I would have felt nothing… yet, if I didn’t care, then would winning mean anything? No. For winning to matter, losing also needs to matter. That win would have felt so good, which is exactly why the loss feels so bad. You can’t have the won without the other. If I enjoy winning chess games, and I do, I guess I need to get comfortable with losing. That’s just life.

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