The Win-Loss Spectrum

Chess Education Foundation

The Win-Loss Spectrum

Off topicAnalysis
Losers interest me. Everyone likes winners, talks about winners, and celebrates winners. I am more interested in the process of losing.

For two decades, I have heard people say all kinds of things about losing:

  1. "Eh... dropped my queen, that's why I lost."
  2. "I know what I did wrong..."
  3. "I usually play above my level."
  4. "I am basically a master level player, but can't crack 2000."
  5. "He didn't win. I lost."

There are also people who say things like "I never lose, I come in second" or "Here we grow again!!" These phrases are fine and have truth behind them, but such phrases lack experienced advice and can leave a player feeling un-helped.

Varying Degrees of Losing

The cutthroat nature of winning and losing paints a bloody picture of success and failure, especially in sports and competitions. Most are conditioned to ask "Who won?" rather than "Who lost?" Sports betting also underscores the winners, and does so with pre-game predictive odds and spreads. But when it comes to self-improvement in chess, most improvers should view losing on a spectrum to help put their losses into context so they can begin to find objective ways to improve their play.

Outplayed - You don't even know why or how you lost Example Game
On the far end of the Loser's Spectrum, you lose so badly your ego steps aside, in rare fashion, making no excuses. You simply get crushed, and you lose without excuses. You might feel bad, but you lose so badly you don't know where to begin to self-improve.

This feeling is extremely common among the newest players, but most players feel this way up to a certain point (at least, it is true for me at the National Master level). In the example game above, black has no idea what went wrong. You can tell both players made a lot of errors, but black gave away pieces, had no plan, missed more tactics than white, weakened their king, and a whole host of issues. So many things went wrong for black, it would be difficult for black to know where to start if they were on a self-improvement journey.

How should you feel when Outplayed?
Understand you encountered a person who knows more than you, and that is normal and fine. Feeling bad about it won't do any good and approaching the post-game analysis with this understanding can help you appreciate the knowledge you don't have, but aspire to. Start with the things you know went wrong and try to grow the list from there. Connect what went wrong for you with what went right for your opponent. If you write sentences explaining what went wrong and right, it should read logically with an occasional blip that represents a tactic someone missed.

Also note that sometimes you must simply accept "She knew the opening, I didn't" and that's it. Sometimes your error is a deep lack of knowledge in a specific area, and the only fix for that is a serious undertaking (which sometimes is what you need to do).

Beaten - You understand why or how you lost, but not both Example Game
This is where most chess veterans fall. This kind of losing is often marked by comments like "Dropped my queen, so I lost" or "I let my opponent's rooks get too active." Essentially, the loser has some sense of what went wrong, but doesn't understand the full picture.

The example game shows two mid-level players (1500 or so). These players have much more understanding about chess than the players from the first example game. After the game, Black could not fully express why they lost. When asked, the player indicated it was because they lost too much material, which is true. However, by move 5 they were so far down in development that they never really caught up. Even by move 20 black has their queen on a8, which isn't active at all. The lack of development, and moving the same piece too much in the opening, caused white to be able to win material throughout the game because they never had enough pieces in active positions to defend against all of the threats white's active pieces could make.

How should you feel when Beaten?
I always tell people "You must connect past errors with future problems." True errors in chess have long lasting consequences that can only be relieved through a grand error on the opponent's part. Therefore, do not stop your analysis at "I dropped my queen, so I lost." Why did you drop your queen? What were you thinking or considering when you dropped your queen? Be inquisitive and find the objective truth of what went wrong (and your answer should always include what you were thinking, even if that was "I wasn't thinking").

Struggled - You had reasonable chances to win or draw, but lost or drew Example Game 1
I provided a second example so you have both a Struggle win and a Struggle loss (the evaluation graphs for both of these games go up and down for both sides).

Example Game 2
The most exciting games occur when it is a true back-and-forth. Often in these scenarios, the evaluation can jump drastically in either direction multiple times during the game. While these games can be marred with many bad moves, they are a true fight.

How should you feel when you lose a Struggle?
Everyone likes a true back-and-forth match. They are fun and energizing, but can be disheartening to lose. However, go through the game and mark each move where you thought you were winning. Then mark down each move you thought your opponent was winning - then do a Lichess computer analysis to see if you were right. If you are not correct, then you were likely over/underestimating your position. What about the position made you think you were winning? What made you think you were worse? What did you overlook? Again, be inquisitive!

Self-Destructing - You squandered a winning position and lost or drew Example Game
The key word here is "squandered." Essentially, this highlights the idea that you made a series of bad decisions that gave away an otherwise healthy advantage. This type of loss most commonly feels like "They didn't beat me, I beat myself." Of course, your opponent did beat you, but you helped them (a lot). Check out the example game.

  1. By move 5, white is up a piece. A healthy advantage.
  2. By move 10, they are no longer up a piece but up an exchange. A healthy advantage, but a step back.
  3. By move 15, they are checkmated in brilliant fashion.

How should you feel when you Self-Destruct?
Usually a self-destructing game is marked by how you feel. It is important not to make excuses, but being honest can matter. For example, were you tired from the last 2 games you played before being thrown into this one? Were you in time pressure because you spent too much time in the opening? Did you fail to calculate enough or did you simply not calculate at all? Self-Destruction is also very common when someone has an advantage and either doesn't know it or doesn't understand their advantage.

Swindled - Shortly before losing, you had a winning or drawn position
Everyone knows what it feels like to be swindled. Everyone hates it, and there is often very little to figure out. It usually boils down to one simple fact: you missed the trap because you were thinking about the wrong thing.

I didn't provide an example game for being swindled because we all know the feeling.

How should you feel after being Swindled?
Like crap. But once you get over that feeling, figure out why you missed the move. If it was a simple tactical pattern, perhaps it is a pattern you hadn't seen before? Or perhaps you overvalued your attack leaving yourself defenseless (this can be closer to self-destructing, but you get the idea). Be inquisitive and figure out what exactly was going on when you missed the swindle. With swindles, sometimes the answer is "I never would have seen that trick."


The Win-Loss Spectrum could have many other levels added in to it. However, to keep it simple, here is the flow:

Outplayed -- Beaten -- Struggled -- Self-Destructing -- Swindled

Draws are sprinkled in at the Struggled, Self-Destructing, and Swindled levels. For anyone Outplaying or Beating someone, if that player suddenly loses or draws, then the game turns into a Struggle, Self-Destruct, or Swindle scenario.

How should I feel about draws?
Don't hate them. Draws usually mean both sides saw enough things to level out the advantages. A purely objectively played game will always end in a draw. Draws are always better than losses, and draws are a sign that you had enough knowledge to prevent yourself from losing (even if the draw occurred due to a swindle or you self-destructed but held on for a draw instead of a loss).


Self-Improvement is often a battle against your emotions. The Win-Loss Spectrum is a small attempt by me to categorize losses in ways that allows you to have confidence to face yourself. Many people, when they lose, simply think "I dropped my queen" and never go over their loss. People do this because they are afraid to face themselves. You cannot improve with this behavior, but I recognize how difficult it can be to understand the Loser's Experience because the whole planet focuses on the Winner's Experience.

When going over any kind of loss, always praise your progress. Find what you did correctly, and notice trends in what you do correctly. For example, are you...

  1. Regularly getting out of the opening in decent positions?
  2. No longer hanging pieces to instant captures?
  3. Hanging pieces on 3-move calculations instead of 2-move calculations?
  4. Usually converting your won endgames?
  5. Winning just as often as you are losing?
  6. Pinning properly and avoiding quick Bb5 or Bg5 pins that lead to no advantage?
  7. Making even trades when winning with ease, most of the time?
  8. Able to count tempi correctly unlike last year?
  9. Developing your pieces according to a plan and not just for the sake of developing?
  10. Avoiding sacrifices unless you see a clear advantage?

Whatever you do, however you do it, and whoever's advice you take, always find ways to understand why you lost. The biggest tip I can give is losing almost always comes down to whatever you were thinking, and why what you thought was incorrect. If you go over enough of your games, you will find that you keep losing for similar reasons, and it is in those moments that growth occurs.