How to Build Confidence Like a Chess World Champion

We all know that confidence is a big part of becoming successful. When you have confidence, you feel like a Superman who can accomplish anything. In fact, it’s been proven in psychology studies that confidence increases performance in just about every area from sports to raw intelligence.

There are many ways that people suggest how one can build self-confidence. But perhaps the most reliable way to learn anything is by observing those who are already masters. That is, we can learn how to be confident by studying confident people and applying their techniques to our own lives. One such confident person is Garry Kasparov.

The Legend of Kasparov

Garry Kasparov was the world champion in chess for 15 years from 1985 to 2000. His playstyle was well-known for being aggressive and extremely confident. He was always moving and attacking even when it looked like the game wasn’t in his favour. That self-confidence was part of his game. His play fed off of that energy and intimidated his opponents.

There was one particular chess tournament where Kasparov had to bring his confidence to the next level. It was the 1990 World Chess Championship and he was playing against his long-time rival Anatoly Karpov.

Kasparov was the one defending his world title, but after the first 12 of the 24 matches to be played, he found himself tied 6–6 in the series. He wasn’t playing his best at all — he was on the defensive, hesitant and slow in his play, not like his regular Kasparov style at all. He was making bad mistakes, ones that his opponent easily capitalized on.

News outlets even started to call out his defeat, with The New York Times saying that “Mr. Kasparov had lost confidence and grown nervous in New York.” He needed to get back to his old self if he wanted to maintain his position atop the chess world.

Bringing Out Kasparov Confidence

Josh Waitzkin, the author of the wonderful book The Art of Learning and once a chess prodigy himself, had the privilege of connecting with Kasparov to discuss chess strategy with him. In particular, Kasparov divulged how he was able to deal with the great challenge of the 1990 World Chess Championship, by bringing back his confidence to retain his title.

Kasparov was a fiercely aggressive chess player who thrived on energy and confidence. My father wrote a book called Mortal Games about Garry, and during the years surrounding the 1990 Kasparov-Karpov match, we both spent quite a lot of time with him.

At one point, after Kasparov had lost a big game and was feeling dark and fragile, my father asked Garry how he would handle his lack of confidence in the next game. Garry responded that he would try to play the chess moves that he would have played if he were feeling confident. He would pretend to feel confident, and hopefully trigger the state.

Kasparov was an intimidator over the board. Everyone in the chess world was afraid of Garry and he fed on that reality. If Garry bristled at the chessboard, opponents would wither. So if Garry was feeling bad, but puffed up his chest, made aggressive moves, and appeared to be the manifestation of Confidence itself, then opponents would become unsettled. Step by step, Garry would feed off his own chess moves, off the created position, and off his opponent’s building fear, until soon enough the confidence would become real and Garry would be in flow…

He was not being artificial. Garry was triggering his zone by playing Kasparov chess.

The second set of matches saw Kasparov finally playing like his normal, confident self. He made bold moves without hesitation. He attacked how he wanted to attack. He brought the entire board back under his control with his dynamic and open playstyle. With his confidence back in the fray, Kasparov went on to win the championship and retain his title for another 10 years.

The Confidence Cycle

Part of Kasparov’s skill in chess was his confidence. He fed off of it, using it to play faster and more aggressively. He made bold moves that intimidated his opponents. It was his weapon of chess power.

It is often said that having confidence helps you to perform at a higher level. But, as is evident with Kasparov, the reverse is also true: Playing as if you are already at a higher level helps you to develop your confidence. The more boldly you play, the more confident your mindset becomes. Each big move you make is proof to yourself that you can make big moves like a confident person would. Your confident play gives you more confidence, and your new confidence raises your skill level; it’s a powerful compounding effect.

You can use this compounding effect of confidence to your advantage. Whenever you’re feeling anxious or lacking confidence, ask yourself: how would I act if I were already at a higher level? Asking that simple question can often reveal the very simple thing that you need to do to succeed. You make one higher-level move, which then gives you even more confidence to make another. And another, and another.

Let your actions inspire your confidence, and your confidence inspire your actions. Work like you’re the best in your industry. Talk like you’re an expert in your field. Dress like you’re a strong and sexy person.

When you convince yourself to act like you’re already at a higher level, your performance and skill will come out naturally. Your mind and body adapt to perform at the required level because you’ve convinced yourself that’s who you are. Eventually, the compounding effect of confidence will take hold and turn you into a confident person in every way.

To learn more

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris

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