No, I didn't think about whether or not the pen would come off.

Imaginary Rating Anxiety

Over the boardChess
This is the story of one man’s suffering at the hands of his own imagination.

That and the story of the first ten over-the-board games I have played at my local chess club.

This is my first season of serious, rated, OTB chess.

Rating anxiety, enter stage left.

Game 1

I lost my first game.

My opponent played well. But I messed up a tactic.

I was sure I was winning a piece. So I spent five minutes checking my line, then played my move. Only to immediately realise I had missed an intermediate check my opponent had which allowed them to save themselves.

I realised after this game that if you are going to win a piece in an OTB classical game, you are probably going to win.

And whilst I considered five minutes to be an eternity against the backdrop of my mostly rapid online chess past, it wasn’t nearly enough time to spend in this type of position.

I had 80 minutes left on my clock.

I should've checked and double checked and if I had done that, I would quite probably have found the correct moves. The piece was still winnable if only I had spotted the intermediate move. And if I had taken twenty minutes instead of five, I wouldn’t have needed my remaining hour to convert.

Nor would I have needed to have written this article, or lived through the tale of woe that comes next.

Chess really is a game in which a singular move, just one decision, can shift the very nature of your entire universe.

This painful first lesson really stuck. In many subsequent games when (I thought) I saw a win, I took a breath and invested as much time as I needed to be 100% sure.


Game 2

My next game was against a player rated 1316.

This guy had the same rating as some of my students.

Massive ego, enter stage right.

Out of the opening I lost respect for my opponent. They had no understanding of positional chess.

As we entered the middlegame, I realised I was wrong, they had no understanding of chess at all. I wasn’t even going to need to think for this one.

I spent most of the game considering the phrasing of my victory tweet when I got home.

And then I hung my h-pawn, my king got ripped open, and I got checkmated.

My blunder cycled endlessly through my mind as I lay down to sleep each night that week. And behind it all there was a little voice wondering if I was a fraud. A voice that would haunt me for the next three months.

What if I was a 1300? What if I was a 1000? What if I got an established rating and it was so low that all my students deserted me? What if I lost my job? My livelihood? My ability to provide for my family? What would I do then?


Game 3

How many non-professional chess players depend on their chess results to feed their family?

The answer might not be many (and with hindsight I can probably discount myself from any such list), but at the time it felt like the truest thing in the world.

I had to win.

Win or lose everything.

My opponent for round 3 was another 1300. Another player rated equal to some of my students.

But I had done some serious self-reflection in the past week.

I have a lot of respect for my students. They are great chess players. When I play training games against them, I know they are capable of finding impressive ideas that make beautiful chess conversations.

Yet somehow last week I had dismissed my opponent before the game had started. I dismissed them in a way I would never have done to any of my students.

Last week I saw my opponent (and myself for that matter) as a number. I should have seen them as a chess player. A human. My totally unacceptable level of arrogance had cost me dearly. Everyone should be respected. I am better than nobody. I am only as good as my last game.

I sat down and shook the hand of my opponent.

I looked at them and I respected them all before the game began. Every move they played I tried to understand. I gave serious consideration to all of their ideas.

I won the game and when I analysed with my opponent afterwards, I listened to their thoughts on the positions with genuine curiosity. The same as I do in my day job.

Because whilst I am the chess coach of my students, I learn new things from them every single lesson.


Game 4

Despite my win, because I had lost my first two games, I knew it might be a while before I got to play anyone near what I estimated was my own OTB rating.

And I was right. My fourth round opponent was rated 1353.

I decided I was going to use my next few games as an opportunity to really get over my massive ego and learn to respect my opponents. And I am happy to say I continued to manage that, by giving every game my fullest attention and best effort.

I have to say I didn’t really need to try hard to respect my fourth-round opponent. They had me in a pretty awkward position out of the opening. Due to a miscalculation on my part, I blundered my f-pawn.

My reaction to blundering that pawn is a moment I am really proud of, if anything because I managed to follow my own advice.

I am always pressing the importance of being resilient to my students (or what I like to call: Becoming Unkillable).

So after I blundered my f-pawn, I stood up immediately, walked about for a bit, and came back to the board with fire in my belly (not in my brain). I objectively took stock of the situation (in which I was worse) and tried to take into consideration what I did have. I tried to see the positives. Be optimistic.

I hadn’t blundered my f-pawn. I had gained a semi open f-file.

I dug in. I made things complicated. I won.


Game 5

I was playing an unrated player here. A young guy who, like myself, had played online for a few years and had recently started playing OTB.

I didn’t ask for his online rating. I didn’t need to know, because it wouldn’t affect my play.

I would be playing my best chess regardless. I was getting the hang of respecting my opponents by now.

One thing I did during this game as a sort of experiment, was to look at my opponent’s face.

I know that sounds weird, but I actually now consider it my secret weapon. Looking at your opponent can give you some information.

You know from the position what they are probably thinking about, but it’s nice to look at their face to confirm it.

Plus my wife is constantly asking me what I am angry about when I am just chilling on the sofa. She claims that at rest my face looks semi to fully murderous.

So I figured a nice ‘neutral’ look directly into my opponent’s eyes certainly couldn’t hurt my chances.

I do that a lot now.

I like to make eye contact with my opponents. Just to let them know I am there. Especially when I am winning.

Call it what you want. I am always nice after the game, win or lose.

I enjoy long analyses, a beer and a conversation after the game, no matter the result.

But during the game I am there to win. Something I needed to remind myself of in game 10, but we will get to that calamity later.

I won game 5. And whether true or not, I had a suspicion that my opponent resigned a little earlier than they would have if I wasn’t looking directly into their soul.


Game 6

Whilst I did my best to push it out of my mind, it was nearly impossible.

My game 6 opponent was coming off of the club’s rapid championship (held the previous weekend) in which they had won all 7 games and the tournament.

I knew their rapid rating was 1900, because I had spoken with them the previous week.

Despite that, they had also managed to lose all 6 classical league games so far this season. Every. Single. Game.

So what was I supposed to make of that? 0/6 in the league, 7/7 in the rapid tournament, and a 1900 online rapid rating.

I tried my best to forget it all.

Luckily, we ended up in a super-sharp line in the fantasy Caro-Kann and all external thoughts were quickly replaced by a lot of calculation in a very wild position.

I navigated it unscathed and got myself into a lovely pawn-up rook endgame and converted nicely. This felt like my toughest opponent so far, despite them numerically being the worst I had faced in the league on paper.

It got me thinking a lot about just how different online rapid and OTB classical chess was. My opponent was much better at rapid chess than I was. He said he mostly played 10+0, which I am even worse at than 15+10.

It got me thinking that whilst I had a lot of endgame and strategic understanding, I was much less tactically sharp and probably worse at calculating than my opponent.

The fact that I had 90 minutes had probably masked the difference in our skill levels in terms of pattern recognition. I had enough time to work out any tricks.

But I doubt I would’ve survived that position against the same opponent if it had been a rapid game.

I resolved to spend more time working on pattern recognition and calculation. I began re-cycling through some relatively easy puzzle books as well as solving some more challenging problems.


Game 7

When will it end? Another 1300 opponent to navigate. For how long will I be punished for my two opening losses?

I mean punished in the sense that despite my shift in respect and mindset, I was still feeling an inordinate amount of pressure to win these games.

I felt that to lose another one of these games was to lose my chess job and my main source of income. This despite everyone around me in my life insisting that that wasn’t true.

Also thanks to NM Ben Johnson, I now had a massive target on my back.

After being interviewed on Chessable’s How to Chess Podcast (alongside GM Ivan Sokolov and IM Alex Banzea), not only had my imposter syndrome reached new heights, but my online account had also been exposed to the whole chess club. This meant all my local OTB opponents now had access to my full opening repertoire as well as knowledge of my job as a chess coach.

So this game felt a bit more intense than before. I felt watched. I felt judged in real time.

I play the Semi-Tarrasch defence as black (as the entire chess club now knows) and after this game I resolved to learn something a bit more imbalanced so that I could use an alternative in a game where I absolutely (whether true or not) had to win.

My nerves were starting to fray. My relaxing hobby was turning into a weekly make-or-break career-defining trauma.

So as I sat there in a completely drawn opposite-coloured bishop endgame, I felt physically sick.

I wondered if I could kick-start a gardening business with my background in permaculture farming. Or perhaps I could sharpen off the old chef knives and go back to working kitchens?

My opponent offered a draw. I gave them my well-practised murder stare and answered with a single word:


Here is something I always tell my students: if you have studied an endgame and you know it is a draw, never accept a draw.

If you have invested the time to study it, and you take the draw, then you have wasted your time.

You know all the different ways you messed up the drawing technique, so use that knowledge. Try to trick your opponent. Make them prove they have also studied it, that they also know how to draw. Don’t allow your study time to have been a waste.

A singular move after I rejected the draw, my opponent moved their bishop off the key diagonal. My king entered. I won 2 pawns. I won the game.

Despite knowing I had not faced many opponents at the level I considered myself to be, I was feeling pretty good about my chess. I’d responded well to my two early defeats by winning five-in-a-row.


Game 8

Finally, the joy of facing an opponent rated higher than I thought I ought to be.

Maybe the relief of feeling like I could lose and not lose face, softened my approach.

But really I was just outplayed.

My winning streak ended here. I lost a pawn in an unfamiliar opening and suffered for a couple of hours before eventually succumbing.

Although I lost this game, I gained a friend and a training partner. I now meet with this opponent and a few other people from the chess club every week at my house to study Artur Yusupov’s Orange Series.

And so whilst this wasn’t a win for me, it was a win of sorts for my wife who claims that men over the age of 30 with kids do in fact need friends.

I have friends. I did explain that to her. But apparently having three friends that you see once every two years doesn’t count.

Who knew?


Game 9

I was provisionally rated just over 1500 at this point. And my next opponent was stable at 1681. A good chance to prove myself.

And I did exactly that.


Game 10

This is a bizarre story, but it’s something I will never forget or let happen again.

We are in a fairly equal IQP position. I’m on my favourite side of it (without the IQP). I’ve got a lot of pieces off the board and I like my position, although I don’t think I am better.

My opponent picks up their queen and puts it on b6. And they don’t let go.

It’s a blunder. They know it. I know it.

And so they sit like that, with their hand on the queen for an inordinate amount of time. I’m looking where else it can go. All the other squares are worse. My opponent, fingertips still pressed onto the crown of their queen, looks up at me.

“Can I take it back?”

Blood rushes to my head. I'm flooded by an intense social anxiety. Inside I am screaming: “No, of course you can’t! Don’t you know my career depends on this game?” I open my mouth, I hesitate, and somehow a single word escapes my lips.


What have I done? What is wrong with me? Damn empathy, ruining my life!

I went for a walk. I had a long conversation with myself. I told myself I would never ever let that happen again.

But I also acknowledged that I had done it now. No point in crying over spilt milk.

I needed to forget about it, sit back down and win anyway.

So I sat down, I played, and I played. And perhaps through the force of the rage directed at my own stupidity, I won.


Mid-Season Thoughts

Then I waited.

Six long days before the league table was updated. I had played 10 games. Won 7, albeit that half of those were against players rated 1300-1400. But I am just as proud if not more proud of winning four of those, considering the pressure I felt under to win after losing the first.

The league table came out. My rating (no longer provisional) is still below 1600, which is the OTB rating that I thought I was around.

Despite my non-provisional number not being what I’d hoped it would be, the whole ordeal finally feels like it is over.

For some reason, 1600 FIDE was the number I had established in my head as ‘safely high enough’ so that I would never feel uncomfortable teaching at the level I teach.

I even felt secure enough in my chess-playing abilities to actually recount this semi-traumatic, near career-ending run of games to a good portion of my students and other Adult Improvers at the biweekly online hangouts I host.

And instead of my students leaving me for another chess coach immediately after I admitted losing to a 1300-rated opponent, they just laughed at me.

What’s more, it seemed that I might actually be the only one who gave a shit. Maybe I needn’t have spent the last few months panicking that I was going to be sacked by everyone. Maybe I should have shared about my insecurities and rating anxiety earlier.

As one particularly lovely student pointed out, they didn’t really give a shit what my rating was as long as their one kept going up.

Confirming that the only person who really cares about your rating, is you.

And so I go into my next game feeling somewhat more relaxed. Feeling excited to go to the chess club and play. Free at last from the crippling imaginary pressure I placed on my own shoulders.

Free, not because I’ve reached any kind of target rating, but free because I realise nobody cares.

My aim for the rest of the season is to try and prove I am a strong enough player to be picked for one of my club’s two teams that compete in the official Dutch league next season.

That, and to stop acting like a complete lunatic over a board game.

Thanks for reading.

Do you also identify as a chess lunatic? Let me help you out with your chess, book a free trial lesson with me today.

I prepare it especially for you based on your actual games, no one-size-fits-all approach.

Kindly note that I currently coach students rated <1200 FIDE or online equivalent (<1600 Lichess classical/rapid, <1300 rapid). I've specialised my coaching for Adult Improvers in this rating band, so if that's where you're at in your chess journey - go ahead and schedule a Zoom with me and we can take a look at your games together.

No matter your rating, from 3-digits to GM, you're welcome to come to the Adult Improver Zoom Hangout. The next one is on Friday, March 1st at 1900 UTC. When you join TheOnoZone community, you're invited to these get-togethers with other chess-obsessed adults every other week. There's a free trial available on Patreon, so go ahead and try it out to see if you like it.

Grab your free Chess Study Plan Template here and here you can download the Wordy Chess Book List that I created for Adult Improvers who don't fully speak chess yet. Make sure you're on my list to receive news about my future blog posts, podcast episodes and other chess stuff by subscribing to my newsletter.

You can also listen to all 8 episodes from the first season of Ono Another Chess Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

If you want to get in touch with me, you've got options: I have a contact form on my website, you can hit me up on Twitter, send me an email at, or message me right here on Lichess.

Many thanks to Patrons of TheOnoZone for their support: Benjamin Portheault + Rick Choplan + Tim Everett + MatthewKCanada + Brett + Nate + Laura + Marcus Buffett + Dan Bock + Dawn Lawson + Glen G + Mikey Wells + Michael Shpizner + Karen W + Gregory C + BowiE + Yara V + Stefan K + Ché Martin + Ben Johnson.