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On Chess: Life Lessons After Winning The 2017 US Women's Chess Championship

Women's Grandmaster Sabina Foisor, winner of the 2017 U.S. Women's Chess Championship.
Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
Women's Grandmaster Sabina Foisor, winner of the 2017 U.S. Women's Chess Championship.

Winning the 2017 U.S. Women's Chess Championship has been the highlight of my chess career so far.

It was a wonderful moment that I was blessed to be able to share with my fiancé and — from afar — with my family, but it also was the saddest moment of my life, having just lost my mother a little over two months before the start of the event.

The same way that the title came through unexpected circumstances, it also came with increased stress and responsibility.

The feelings that I had to keep proving something were haunting, preventing me from further progress. I began to put a lot of pressure on myself for my next goal, which was getting the international master title.

I felt that I had to prove something to the world, and my psychological state slowly changed: I started feeling more upset than usual for my losses and seemed to have forgotten that losses are also a part of the game. This has affected my overall objectivity in certain positions, and instead of accepting that the positions were balanced or worse for me and try to fight for a draw, I would try to find a way to complicate things, which only led to eventual worse positions and, ultimately, later, losses. 

I took the wrong approach, and my overall results suffered beginning in late 2018. The more time passed, the harder it got to keep up with my phenomenal win in 2017. I most likely hadn’t dedicated enough time to my studies in chess, and it started showing in my next tournaments, including the U.S. Women’s Championship in 2018 and 2019.

Just because I won the title once didn’t mean I was a favorite to win it again.

Sabina Foisor faces an opponent in the 2017 U.S. Women's Chess Championships.
Credit Austin Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
Sabina Foisor faces an opponent in the 2017 U.S. Women's Chess Championships.

After disappointing results in my past three important events since the end of 2018, I decided to take a break from playing. I think the final straw for me was my poor performance in this year’s U.S. Women’s Championship, where I started so badly that I was worried at some point I would finish last.

It was clear to me that I had done everything wrong this year. Therefore, I needed some time to analyze my actions, put everything in perspective and start over.

Psychological aspects are as important as dedicating time to study chess. It is very important to maintain the notion that you are working for yourself and do not need to prove anything to anyone. It is very important to understand that you have achieved success that will never be taken away from you, but also that no matter what, you always have to work harder than before if you want to keep up.

I think champions should have the mindset of being able to put in all of the required work, not only for the enjoyable parts, and also be ready for losses as part of the bigger picture.

I am planning to get back to playing soon, and hope I have learned that it really doesn’t matter the way others perceive your results.

As the year comes to a close, it is important to meditate on your achievements and failures and find a way to improve for the next year. I have dedicated more time to studying lately, so I hope that the next chess events that I participate in will provide me with the opportunity to apply what I have learned.

Sabina Francesca Foisor is a Romanian American Women’s Grandmaster. She won the 2017 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship and represented the U.S. at five consecutive Olympiads and four Women’s World Chess championships since 2010. She is a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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