Andreas Wagner for Unsplash

Losing at chess: an unpacking

Recognising and handling the biological, psychological and social factors contributing to the pain of losing.

Losing at chess brings concurrent feelings, thoughts and emotions. It’s important to deconstruct the different factors to manage and overcome systematically. Let’s introduce a biopsychosocial framework - this sounds complicated, but simply recognising that losing affects your body (bio) your mind (psycho) and your perceived social standing (social).

Biological factors

After losses in soccer games, significant changes in hormonal levels were measured in both men and women. For the loser, cortisol goes up and Testosterone goes down [Jimenez & al 2012] while the winner has an increase in Testosterone. This is obvious, but there is a real physiological response to losing a game. Even if you are perfectly fine ‘psychologically’ there is a bodily response to be taken care of. For handling the body’s response, the first port of call is breathwork. Any kind of relaxing breathing, with long exhales, will trigger a physiological response by activating the vagus nerve. Your body needs rest and recovery through food, light exercise, interactions with friends and loved ones, and sleep. So get on the phone and call a friend!
Looking at a tree has also been show to reduce cortisol. Great idea to walk to a park and look at nature.

Psychological factors

The eight worldly conditions revolve around the world, and the world revolves around the eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and disgrace, blame and praise, pleasure and pain.[...]
Gain and loss, fame and disgrace,
blame and praise, and pleasure and pain.
These qualities among people are impermanent,
transient, and perishable.
An intelligent and mindful person knows these things,
seeing that they’re perishable.
Desirable things don’t disturb their mind,
nor are they repelled by the undesirable.
AN 8.5, translation by Bhikkhu Sujato

Gain and loss, the worldly conditions are temporary. Yet there is a perceived distinct ‘solidity’ to our setbacks. We feel the psychological pain acutely and our minds are running wild. This can be extremely damaging as not only you have lost the game, but you now feel you have wasted countless hours of practice. A typical chain of thoughts goes like this:

  1. I have lost this game
  2. I have made a blunder
  3. The blunder was stupid
  4. I am stupid for blundering
  5. I am stupid for spending so much time on chess and still blundering
  6. My whole investment in chess is misplaced
  7. My whole life was wasted on chess

This chain of thoughts can go very fast, without any control. Yet they are just thoughts, not the truth. I don’t think it’s possible to stop such a chain of thoughts, but there is a simple way to deal with it: you don’t have to believe your thoughts. You don’t have to believe the stories that you tell yourself - they’re just stories. It’s like the story with the two arrows from my previous article on losses: losing is the first arrow we receive, and we self-inflict further pain. It takes dedicated work to learn skills to gain awareness of an out-of-control chain of thoughts and let things go. If you want to learn further I will direct you to my course Mindfulness for the tournament player.
The main technique that I use during the guided meditation on losses is one of ‘merging’: by decreasing the distance between the emotion and us, we fully accept it and are left with a much-reduced bother. Remember Shinzen Young’s “equation” suffering = pain x resistance. We can reduce the suffering by reducing the resistance.
There is no point for the ocean to be angry at the waves.

Social factors

Losing a game directly threatens our belonging to a group we identify with: it could be the ‘Twitter #chesspunks’ or the ‘adult improvers’ or being above 2700 and appearing on If you lose games are you even an adult improver? Why aren't you improving then? Then you go on social media and see people post their wins (and get many likes) or you see people say “he’s 2695 so he’s not a Super GM anymore”. You also feel rejected from the group, which in ancients tribal environments was almost a death sentence.
Realise that the group, for better or worse, doesn’t care so much about your individual results. You won’t be ‘expelled’ from the chess improver community, in fact sharing your struggles will likely bring an outpouring of support. People won't think “they're stupid to have played such an idiotic move”. In fact if they're your friends they will most likely think “I make these dumb moves all the time myself, I hope they're okay, I'll reach out after the tournament”. Here as well, we jump to conclusions and have our thoughts run wild with imaginary consequences that never happen. We make up stories that we don’t have to give credence to.
Don't forget that social media isn't real life. Look for ways to connect with friends, colleagues, coaches, and loved ones after the game.
And put the phone away

Growing from your losses

Being ‘appropriately upset’ and caring is important for your growth as a player. If we truly ‘don’t care’ then why bother improving or learning from the losses? Remember that analysing your games is a cornerstone of chess improvement and especially analysing a loss is a tailored lesson in your shortcomings. Sometimes people say “No need to analyse this game, it was a stupid mistake” as if only the “smart” mistakes are the ones worth exploring because they would be deeper or more insightful. I think that the “stupid” mistakes are more interesting because they reveal something very raw and faulty in your playing process. They are also the most painful to analyse. As Kostya Kavustky says: “Don’t lose twice”! Meaning after losing a game, learn everything there is to be learned. If you lose and fail to learn, you have lost twice.

Mindful Eating

In her book ‘Mindful Eating’ Jan Chozen Bays describes several ‘types’ of hunger, related to the senses: the eye hunger for seeing something appealing, the mouth hunger of the eating sensation, the cellular hunger related to our need for nutrients after a workout, the ‘heart’ hunger prompted by unconscious emotions, and so on. In total, she describes nine types of hunger, each loosely associated with a body part (eyes, touch, ears, nose, mouth, stomach, cells, mind, heart). One of the most important exercises in her book, the essence of mindful eating, is to recognise which hunger you are feeling. Before eating or drinking, look inward and ask each of these parts if it is hungry. Then, this awareness brings you freedom as you are no longer changed by old habits.

Awareness brings choice and choice brings freedom
Jan Chozen Bays

Mindful Losing

We can apply a similar strategy. If we feel down after a loss, we can ask ourselves: is this a bodily response? Is my nervous system out of sync? Am I feeling the loss of the goal I was chasing? Am I worried about my belonging to a group? Am I worried about my Elo rating, and why? Again, awareness brings choice and choice brings freedom. Once you identify the different factors at play (and there are likely several interconnected factors at play), you can apply specific recipes to address these one by one. Losing is not this monolithic block or sensation. It will always be different and trigger different fears and anxieties depending on the context. It is not easy because you need to develop skills and not just knowledge! Good luck going forward and do leave a comment if you have any questions.
My previous article on losses:
Dealing with losses: avoid the second arrow

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