Overloading the Mental Stack

(This guide originally appeared in the Master Skill Newsletter for September 29, 2022.)

Hi, it’s Aiden.

Sometimes the best lessons come from places you wouldn’t expect.

Today, I got schooled about Chess initiative from a place unrelated to Chess.

People tend to think of fields of study as separate things.

The only way to better understand Chess is to study Chess. The only way to better understand painting is to paint.

The only way to gain a deeper understanding of a thing is to do that thing.

I disagree.

In our lives, we have gathered many lessons. We have many skills in many fields.

And much of what we have learned in these other fields applies in our Chess. All we need to do is look for the connection.

If you look at the things you’ve learned in your career or your life, you will find lessons for Chess.

I learned about Chess mindset by studying stoicism.

I learned about Chess patterns by learning how our brains work.

And I just got a world-class lesson on Chess initiative by listening to people talk about Super Smash Bros.

I haven’t played Super Smash Bros in years. I have never followed the Smash esports scene. (I’m a Halo guy)

But I found myself on the tophbbq Twitch stream, watching the Radio Melee podcast.

I’m drawn to any forum where I can hear the best in the world at something talk about their craft. This was no exception.

Radio Melee features Smash personalities Toph and PPMD as hosts. They were interviewing E.U. player, Pipsqueak.

Pipsqueak has placed 1st in 8 of his last 16 professional events. Toph is a top Smash Bros streamer and commentator. And PPMD is considered one of the greatest players of all time.

These guys are the real deal.

And they illustrated to me the power of initiative in a way I’d never heard from the Chess world.

Chess and Smash Bros are both complex games.

In both, the line between a win and a loss is razor thin. Pressure is key.

In both, you don’t want adapt to your opponent. You’d much rather your opponent adapt to you.

The need to adapt in to your opponent in either game puts you at a mechanical disadvantage – but that’s not the whole story.

In the podcast, they introduced the idea of the “mental stack”. (I love this metaphor!)

For the non-tech geeks in the audience, a “stack” in computing is a collection of pieces of software that work together as one.

Every app you’ve ever used has a stack under it. The Don’t Move Training System has a stack under it.

We have a mental stack for Chess.

It’s built from lots of little pieces of mental “software” that work together.

We have our visualization software, and our pattern software, our theory software. A few others.

They come together to form the mental “app” we use to make decisions in Chess.

Your opponent has a mental stack as well. Built from whatever Chess skills and experience they have.

Like a computer, your mental stack works better when its cool.

If a computer processor has to work harder than it can manage, it starts to slow down. If it has to work too hard, it can overload.

And when that happens, nothing works. Everything shuts down.

Too much heat and it’s done for.

This is the other power of initiative in Chess.

I’ve only ever thought about initiative in clinical terms. Chess terms.

Initiative is a way to force your opponent to make defensive moves while you improve your position.

But that’s not all it does – initiative is also the tool we use to add stress to our opponent’s mental stack.

Pipsqueak phased it like this. He said:

“When someone threads the needle and goes in between the cracks in your game plan and you are forced to do something on the fly… the mental stack is so in their favor, that even if you make the adjustment, the effort you’re spending on that slows you down. Generally, that’s where people start flubbing.

When we’re on the back foot, we are at a disadvantage. Far more of one than any engine would show.

We spend our energy reacting and adjusting instead of moving forward. This strains our mental stack.

An engine can only track the position on the board. It can’t judge mental pressure.

“You’re not looking to invalidate (their play) or find one way to mechanically beat them. You’re trying to make the player too stressed to consider all their options properly. This simplifies it a lot.”

This is why hyper-aggressive play works at the lower levels of Chess.

The threats keep coming and coming until the defender’s mental stack overloads. When you don’t have the skill or experience to adapt, overload happens fast.

Hyper-aggressive play stops being quite as crushing as you go up the rating ladder. But the idea stands.

When we play with initiative, we’re not only improving our position.

We are also taxing our opponent’s mental stack.

And an advantage in the mind is every bit as powerful as an advantage on the board.

There are two main takeaways out of this.

We can think of them as the offensive and the defensive interpretations.

First, if you’re not thinking about your moves in terms of pressure, it’s time to start.

This is the offensive interpretation.

We need to play with activity, and take the initiative when opportunities present themselves.

Always be thinking, “Does this move put pressure on my opponent?”

Look at the openings you play in terms of pressure. What does each move do that my opponent needs to be aware of?

Not every move can apply pressure – but it needs to be a consideration.

If our opponent needs to deflect constant threats, they’ll eventually miss one.

Their mental stack will overload. And the winning opportunity will be there.

Second, we need to cultivate calm when we’re pressured.

This is the defensive interpretation.

If you want to push your computer processor hard, you make sure you have a good fan installed to keep it cool.

We’ll make mistakes here and there. And we’ll find ourselves under pressure. That’s unavoidable.

We need tools and techniques that keep us calm, collected, and focused when that happens.

During games, we need to breathe. Use the tension to zero us in further. Keep unhelpful thoughts away.

Outside of games, we need to work on our mindset. Ensure it’s healthy and supportive.

Prepare to take the initiative for yourself when you spot the chance.

And lastly, a more general point-

Listen to the world around you for things you can apply to Chess.

I know next to nothing about Super Smash Brothers. But this insight has enhanced my understanding of a key Chess concept.

Powerful lessons are everywhere if you look for them.

Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open.

Here’s to the journey,

- Aiden (Founder)