Emotional Cascade (Seven Slots, Part 5)

How tilt works and why it's so damaging to our Chess.

From the inside is how most fortresses fall.

Tilt, overconfidence, rumination, frustration, cockiness.

These emotions are both central to the game of Chess, and poisonous to our ability to play it well.

Here’s why.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a Chess game and you’ve reached this position.

Recognize it?

Your seven slots are juggling all the information in the position. Currently it’s comfortable.

You’re tracking everything and you have some space to think.

But you’ve recently made a small mistake in this game, and you’re a bit annoyed at yourself.

The annoyance spikes briefly, then subsides. But it doesn’t fully go away. It lingers there, in the back of your mind.

Humans have evolved to heed their emotions. They demand attention. It’s hanging around, and needs to be processed.

So your brain allocates a slot to processing it. This takes a slot from your thinking space.

In the game, you sense your annoyance and know it’s going to cause you problems, so you try to calm down.

You move some of your attention to suppressing the negative emotion you are feeling. This takes another slot.

You feel more in control of the emotion, but less certain about the position. You feel a little foggy, distracted, unsure.

Now, the two slots you used to have available for thinking are pointed at your frustration.

To make matters worse, you’re now flustered because you’re struggling to think. The negative feelings grow, and you clamp down harder to control them.

Now it’s all taking up so much space that you’ve forgotten details about the position.

You no longer have everything clear in your mind. You’re making decisions on partial information.

You overload. Then you blunder.

Does that sound familiar?

This is why emotion is so destructive to our Chess.

As Ethan Kross in his incredible book Chatter puts it:

Your labor-intensive... functions need every neuron they can get, but a negative inner voice hogs our neural capacity… In effect, we jam our executive functions up by attending to a ‘dual task’ - the task of doing whatever it is we want to do and the task of listening to our pained inner voice.

This “dual task” of Ethan’s isn’t only reserved for negative emotions.

Ever blundered straight after you notice you have a winning position against a higher-rated opponent?

When we see we’re winning, we get excited. The emotion demands attention and demands a slot. But we know we need to keep the emotion in check, so we try to suppress it, which takes another slot.

The emotion undermines the very focus and concentration that allowed us to get the winning position in the first place.

Then we make a critical mistake. Not because we’re bad players, but because we ran out of slots.

We don’t know when the emotions will come during our games, but we can be pretty sure it won’t be at convenient times. So we need to focus on tools to prevent and defuse strong emotional responses in games.

Here are some tools that may help.

1) Talk to yourself in the third person.

Language is powerful. When we use the word “I” in our minds, we identify with whatever we are saying. When what we’re saying is negative, it deepens the pain.

Studies have shown that we can make a huge improvement in our mood by avoiding the word “I” in our self-talk. (It achieves the same effect in 1 second as 15-minutes of journalling!)

Instead of “I made a mistake there”, say “[insert your name] made a mistake there.”

Talk about yourself as if you were someone else. It will help you gain distance from your negative feelings.

You’ll find your inner voice becomes nicer as well- because you start talking to yourself as you would a friend.

2) Accept the experience.

Merlin Mann, one of my favorite thinkers on the planet, once spoke about his anxiety and insomnia. For years, we would lie awake with a crippling sense of dread.

Then, after some reading and a lot of work, he started to solve it. Did he make the anxiety go away? No. Instead, he accepted it. He stopped fighting it.

When the anxious thoughts came , he would say to himself, “This is the part of the night where the anxiety comes. It will pass and then I will go to sleep.”

The anxiety shifted from being a thing that was preventing his sleep, to a step on his nightly path to sleep. Then, with time, the bursts of anxiety got shorter and shorter until he was having the best sleep of his life.

Acceptance of an emotion takes much of the sting out of the emotion. We can do the same with our Chess. Accept the emotions as part of the game.

When you feel frustration coming, say “This is the part where the frustration comes. That’s ok. It’s part of the game. It will pass.”

Stop fighting your emotions so hard. Accept them, and let them pass. Free up those slots, and get back to your game.

3) Time Travel (kinda)

One of the most effective and speedy tools for calming a negative emotion is to time travel. At least, time travel emotionally.

When you find yourself frustrated in a game, allow your mind to zoom ahead in time. The frustration is bad now, but how much will you care about this moment in a week’s time? Or a month?

Or ten years?

Mentally zoom ahead in time and look back at your current situation. Will this emotion you’re feeling right now matter to you then? Probably not.

Let this future perspective take over, and morph your emotion into something more measured. Something more useful.

Whichever tools you decide to use, this part of our game can always use more work.

Chess is brutal. Even the most winningest positions are only one small mistake away from disaster. (Yes, I know “winningest” isn’t a word.)

Our emotions strain our seven slots. If we don’t learn to manage them, we are at a major disadvantage. There’s a reason all the top players in the world have sports psychologists. This stuff is important.

When we let our emotions overrun us, we will make mistakes.

Emotions are the last component that we’ll look at in this Seven Slots series. There’s plenty more I could talk about, but we’ll save that for another day.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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