Winning against higher rated opponents

You are playing a tournament and have defeated a lower rated opponent in the last round. You feel confident, satisfied, and enjoy your accomplishment for a while. You check the next round pairings with a smile on your face and are greated by a familiar feeling of missing a heartbeat. You are paired against a much higher rated opponent.

What happens in that moment when we suddenly go from being content to being nervous? How does just the name of one person drain our confidence so much that we lose the battle even before it has begun?

We all remember how in the movie Ms Dhoni the untold story, Dhoni’s team simply gawks at Yuvraj as he walks by. Yuvraj’s confident aura, his strong past performance and confidence in his abilities makes Dhoni’s team subconciously accept that he is simply better and they lack the skills to get him out. It’s no surprise that Yuvraj went on to make 350+ runs.

Everyone in this world has fallen victim to this trap. They partially give up even before the battle starts when facing a stronger opponent. We know they have much more experience, better skills and their ranking tells us that they are just better. But there is one element that can completely change this evaluation, that has helped me many times to challenge many stronger players and even win against them.

In the recent Leon International Online Open, I just decided to play at the last minute. I played it for fun because it was a very strong tournament. In the first round I was paired against Mateusz Bartel from Poland who is rated 2648. I had never won against a 2600+ player ever in my life before, but today there was something different. I didn’t assume that he was much better than I was, I just played chess. I wasn’t calculating how many rating points I would lose or gain, I wasn’t focussed on his years of experience, neither on the adverse effects of a loss nor the happiness of defeating him. I ‘CHALLENGED’ him and I challenged myself.

While the blitz game was definitely a factor, the real reason why he crumbled was because he faced a fight. His mind was being constantly challenged, he was under pressure to find the best moves and his king being weak meant that there was no scope for errors. As a contrast, look at a game that Bartel played against Alexander Motylev(Fide classical rating 2641, Rapid 2700) in the same tournament and won a comfortable game as Black.

Throughout the game, Bartel was never even challenged. His opponent accepted a passive position and Bartel had all the time in the world to win the game. The difference is crystal clear especially thanks to the following graph. Here number of moves is represented along the x axis and +y axis refers to a better evaluation for White and -y axis refers to a better evaluation for Black.

The graph shows that Black was better throughout the game and White never even stood a chance. And White is Alexander Motylev with a rating of 2641 !

The graph never even switched to White’s side, it was a consistent win for Black. What does this tell us? This analysis shows that regardless of whom you are facing on a particular day, you CAN win the game. Yes, you can. The difference is in the skills ofcourse, that you have been building over time and will continue to do so. But even the apt skillset fails during pressure if you think too much rather than stay in the moment.

The trick is to challenge your opponent, I can’t stress it enough. When you are the higher rated player, you expect your weaker opponents to go down quickly. When that doesn’t happen, you become nervous and it’s not long before you lose track of the game and just start to play on emotions, which is a lost cause. As the lower rated player, you need to take advantage of what I am going to refer as the challenge principle. ‘Challenge them to beat them.’ Launch a strategic attack on their king, castle on opposite sides, do whatever you feel is the best for your position objectively and don’t be afraid to take on complications.

Focus on the game, talk to your pieces about which squares they would like to go to, make them your best friends during a game, and forget whom you are playing against. After you win the game, it won’t matter anyway 😉

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