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The Advantages of Being a Good Loser – Veselin Topalov

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Veselin Topalov plays in the 2015 Sinquefield Cup. Photo: Austin Fuller | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

I’m lucky enough to live right down the street from the St. Louis Chess and Scholastic Chess Club where many of the best chess players in the world gather for tournaments. This week some of them are playing in the 2017 Champions Showdown and one of them is a fellow named Veselin Topalov who hails from Bulgaria. The rules of this tournament are not to his advantage and he didn’t do particularly well. That didn’t stop him from being a good loser. Some people think that is an insult, for me it is a compliment.

Topalov has been one of the top chess players in the world since 1994 and became the World Chess Federation (FIDE) World Chess Champion in 2005. He then lost a disputed match against Vladimir Kramnik to unite the two competing chess championship titles in 2006. He has been at or near the top of the Classical Chess player ratings ever since. This is an important distinction; classical chess involves lengthy games where the players have 90 minutes to complete 40 moves and then an extra half an hour for the next 20 moves.

In chess there are different classifications called Rapid and Blitz. These are games played with much less time to make moves; perhaps 20, 10 or five minutes for the entire game. Topalov is not considered one of the better players in the world under these circumstances and that was exactly the way the Champions Showdown was designed.

Not only was the format not to Topalov’s taste but he was matched against a player who is considered perhaps the best in the world at this classification, Hikaru Nakamura. Despite this obvious disadvantage he decided to compete in the tournament, certainly the guaranteed $40,000 was some incentive. Still, he is likely financially fairly well off and who among us relishes a likely humiliation?

The games went pretty much as expected as Topalov was competitive in the longer 20-minute format but was easily overwhelmed and defeated in the shorter versions. Nakamura clinched victory with five games still to play. Topalov continued to play, and lose, with what can only be described as tremendously good humor. That attitude is what I wanted to discuss.

After getting hammered by Nakamura in the final 10 blitz game he gave an interview and was not only gracious in defeat but acknowledged that he was overmatched in this style. He said despite the expected loss he will be happy to return to St. Louis and play in the event for as long as he is invited. He hoped that his games were entertaining and admitted he just wasn’t a particularly great blitz player. He said the only way he could become competitive in the format was to practice more and that at his age, 42, and place in life, he wasn’t inclined to do so.

What struck me about the interview was his combination of good cheer and disappointment. He is a fierce competitor and was not happy to lose so decisively, and yet, at the same time, perfectly accepting of events and ready to move on. I found it admirable.

I know many people prefer their athletic heroes to be raging and angry after losing. They imagine this hatred of losing translates into winning. Perhaps they are right, I don’t know that a definitive study can be performed based on anger at losing in comparison to winning ratio.

I can say I’d rather be more like Topalov. Play my best, accept defeat with a grin, and move on with life. It seems healthier, to me at least.

By Tom Liberman

Tom Liberman is a regular fellow from St. Louis, Mo., who enjoys spending time with his wonderful family and great friends. He writes Sword and Sorcery fantasy novels in his spare time. 

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