How do you build immunity from choking? (a meditation on Carlsen and Kramnik)

Yesterday Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik each played decisive chess games in the Candidates’ tournament, for the right to challenge Vishy Anand for the world championship title.  Carlsen held the tiebreaker, so he had only to match Kramnik’s result — draw or win — to proceed to the match with Anand.

Both lost.  Uncharacteristically, both fell into time trouble.  Both made bad mistakes even after time trouble was over.  The chess world was shocked.

Arguably both choked.

Yet Kramnik has won several world championship matches, including against Kasparov, and Carlsen rose to world #1 at a very young age of course.

How does one become immune to choking?

If you have mastered stages 1 through n, presumably you still can choke at stage n + 1.  Carlsen had never played in a world championship or candidates’ match before.  In 1997 Kasparov choked when he had to play an improved Deep Blue, a machine.

Is there mean-reversion in choking and immunity to choking?  If you play at a supremely confident level at the very top, nine times in a row, do you forget how to handle pressure and eventually revert to choking?  Immunity against choking can wear off, or holding a title and having to defend it can raise the fear of choking through a kind of endowment effect (Bobby Fischer).

Does a string of confident winning raise the stakes more rapidly than you can master a rising choke, thus bringing you to n + 27 too quickly?  (The Miami Heat just lost a 27-game winning streak.)  Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak has proven so hard to break, as there is always a new and tougher choking margin.

Or can one ascend to n + 3 with sufficiently strong margins of error that perhaps the fear of choking is never overcome and remains in the background for when tougher situations come along?  Or one can ascend to n + 3 if everyone chokes along the way; someone must be choking least but still you are always a choker.

Under one theory, you become immune to choking at stage n + 2 only by at least once choking at stage n + 2 and then, on another occasion, overcoming your choke.  I call this the LeBron James theory.  Can it be that such loss/win experiences are required periodically and not just once up front?

The lessons are that it can be difficult to overcome choking, and that a complex mix of losing and winning may help you more with choking than simply lots of winning.


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