Sunday, September 11, 2011


After reading an article by John Tierney in the NY Times Magazine, Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?, Published: August 17, 2011,
I thought of something GM Yasser Seirawan had written in his excellent blog post on WhyChess: "American tournament chess, at least in the world of the early seventies, and I don’t think it has changed that much, was the land of the Open Swiss tournament. The events I became most familiar with were the five-round Swiss. These were tournaments where we played in a single weekend, three games on Saturday and two on Sunday. The time-controls were about five hours in length. Hence for the Saturday rounds the whole day, often fourteen hours and more with meals sandwiched in between the rounds was the norm. Toss in some time to drive to the tournament hall and the whole weekend was devoted to the event."- Yasser Seirawan From PART TWO:
“Where are the Blitz Champions?” of “Why Blitz?” (
Now that I am older, I wonder why we played? I mean, you really gotta love the Royal game to suffer through more than around the clock chess. While playing in a weekend swiss, it seemed as if the time flew. But years later, while working at the House of Pain, it seemed the weeked would never end. By then there was an optional first round on Friday night or Saturday morning, and I often wondered why the weekend had been expanded. Then I recalled how I had been one of the players who advocated the expansion! My thinking then was for ONLY a five round swiss, with round one on Friday night and the second round on Saturday morning, with round three Saturday night. Someone got the bright idea to have an optional, truncated first round. I thought that, if a player could not make it Friday night, he could take a half point bye and still play four games. A player could have the option of taking a half point bye in round three Saturday night and still play four games with the 'new' format. Four games, two Saturday and Sunday, is enough chess. Thad Rogers ran a four round tournament once, with playeers complaining that it would not be enough for a clear winner. There WAS a clear winner! With fewer rounds, players had to fight in every round. So many players complaind that Thad went back to the 'traditional' five round swiss for his next tournament. There was a multiple tie for first place...
Tierney writes, "The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time."
The essay is adapted from a book Tierney has written with Roy F. Baumeister, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," which will be published next month.
Tierney continues, "The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation.
Any decision, whether it’s what pants to buy or whether to start a war, can be broken down into what psychologists call the Rubicon model of action phases, in honor of the river that separated Italy from the Roman province of Gaul. When Caesar reached it in 49 B.C., on his way home after conquering the Gauls, he knew that a general returning to Rome was forbidden to take his legions across the river with him, lest it be considered an invasion of Rome. Waiting on the Gaul side of the river, he was in the “predecisional phase” as he contemplated the risks and benefits of starting a civil war. Then he stopped calculating and crossed the Rubicon, reaching the “postdecisional phase,” which Caesar defined much more felicitously: “The die is cast.”
Mr. Tierney has written on his blog ( a post entitled, "Why You Need To Sleep On It", "These continual exertions explain why willpower fluctuates — and why so many people feel short of it so often."

It is asking too much for a player to play so much chess in so little time. In a two day five round swiss, one must play from Saturday at ten am until midnight, and then try to obtain sleep and get back to the board for two more games, ending somewhere between eight and ten pm. That is twenty five hours at the board in the span of, at most, thirty six hours, leaving little time for sleep. Now, if one plays Friday night, it becomes about forty eight hours, which, if one can sleep sixteen of those hours, there is not much time for anything else, such as scrubbing carcass! Is it any wonder a tournament room smells like a locker room?
I once asked NM Fred Lindsey why he had given up playing tournament chess and he replied, "Twelve hours is a long time to concentrate." GM Vadim Milov said, "Twelve hours of chess is too much at any age." (Quoted from, COUNTERPLAY: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard, by Robert Desjarlais) Some tournaments have a time limit of 40/2 followed by SD/1, which works out to a six hour game. Is it any wonder short draws are played? Top players come to America and find it very difficult to play two six hour games. They are from a culture where only one game a day is the norm. IM Boris Kogan, upon coming to America and playing in a weekend swiss said, "You Americans are CRAZY!"
A chess game is one decision after another for hours on end. Here in America it requires much stamina. Young players have much more stamina than older players and that is, as GM Victor Korchnoi has pointed out, why they excell in around the clock tournaments. It is also one of the reasons older players have given up playing tournament chess. Chess organizers need to consider this in lieu of simply doing the same thing in the same way as it has been done previously. It used to be that medical interns were required to stay awake for an inordinately long time while learning their craft. The practice is changing because studies have proven that lack of sleep is worse that drinking! The brain begins to shut down and good decisions cannot be made. Consider this from Robert Desjarlais: "I could be playing right now as well, eyeing chess pieces, as I'm also enrolled in the tournament. But I decided to sit out the last round of the weekend by taking a half-point bye. I just finished a grueling, five-hour game, which began at ten in the morning, and I have neither the energy to play again today nor the interest. After my first game I felt drained, back-sore, in need of movement." He was playing in the two-weekend schedule of the World Open. He writes this after the fourth game of that first weekend: "The game ended just before four o'clock, with the next round set to begin in an hour's time. I was in no shape to play another game just then, let alone a good one. I felt strung out; my flesh yearned for physical activity. My eyes were tired. The pool beckoned. I decided to take another half-point bye, with the sad realization that I had little competitive fire just then. That itself was a disturbing thought. Where was my will to win?"
Bobby Fischer once said that sleep was more important than knowing theory. Who is going to argue with the greatest chess player ever?
I recently read an article about a secret among the world's elite, young atheletes. The secret is a power nap! Two six-hour games in one day leave little time between rounds to eat, much less rest. Around the clock chess reminds me of what a fellow named Steven Hunt used to do when he ran a tournament he called the 'Insanity Open' because there were games literally around the clock. "I was doing great until the 3 am round..."
Organizers continue to run the same format year after year even with the dwindling attendance. They have players answer questions about which format they prefer. They do not question those many players who have stopped attending.
The ongoing World Cup is using a time limit of 40/90, followed by G/30 plus 30 seconds added per move for what they are calling 'classical' games. That time limit would seem to be more appropriate for a weekend swiss. I like having a time control after 40 moves, even if it is in only 90 minutes, and I really like not having the 30 seconds added until the second time control. Each game would end after two to two and a half hours. Two games could be played in a day, with enough time between rounds to eat and rest. A normal work day is eight hours; anything after constitutes overtime, with pay at time and a half. Is it any wonder that so many players drop out of chess, suffering from 'burn-out', as they age?

1 comment:

M. N. Taylor said...

GM Wojo had the power nap down to an art! I remember seeing him stretched out on a sofa at the House of Pain between rounds of a weekend Swiss.