I like to think that I've learned over the years not to have irrational emotional reactions to ratings differences, but it's still an ever-present pitfall that needs to be avoided. The prodigious emphasis given by most people to ratings means they can often be more important than the game itself, a mindset which is especially dangerous when actually playing. What can happen to us then?
The Wages of Fear
- I pass up winning chances - the higher-rated opponent must have some sort of trap planned or my evaluation must be incorrect.
- I play passively - I will be punished if I attempt a sacrifice or otherwise unbalance the position
- When I lose a material or positional advantage through an oversight, I think the game cannot be saved
- I lose time and energy repeatedly recalculating lines, not having faith they will hold up
- I change my preferred openings and playing style because they aren't good enough for this opponent
- Over-focus on my own plans, ignoring possible strategic or tactical threats from my opponent
- Mind goes wandering, since this game is obviously won
- I select sharper lines in order to more quickly crush my opponent, without fully calculating them
- I become a condescending jerk to another human being just because of the lower number after their name
This is not to say that ratings don't make a difference. Perhaps the most useful and healthy way to look at them is as a factor for your overall game strategy, also taking into account tournament standing, if that applies. For example, significantly higher-rated players will often try to avoid opening lines which their opponents know, which would give the lower-rated player a good middlegame position "for free". Here, the calculated trade-off is that even when a non-optimal move is played, the lower-rated player is less likely to have the knowledge and technique to be able to fully exploit it. Conversely, I believe lower-rated players should look to play their well-honed openings, regardless of how sharp they are, because they are going to be on much firmer ground mentally in the middlegame and will have all that "free" assistance in the opening phase.
Something closely allied to ratings fear and loathing is an obsession with rating points. Making this part of our thinking process can throw us off our game even with opponents who are rated similarly, as one's mental focus is then placed on the result of the game and its ratings impact, rather than on board in front of us. Being a statistician is fine, but it's best to save it for after a tournament, as otherwise it becomes an intrusive distraction with every game. People who don't play in tournaments (i.e. play a lot of one-off online games) may be especially susceptible to this, since the ratings gain/loss in each game is in fact the primary objective outcome of the games. A gambler's mentality can then develop, with long streaks of losses occurring because the player craves a win above all and wants to stop the rating slide.
During my tournament career, I've tried various psychological coping strategies regarding ratings. Of course the best remedy for ratings fear is to have at least some measured success against significantly higher-rated opposition, as occurred in Annotated Game #10 and Annotated Game #11. This gets you over the "I will inevitably lose" attitude, which thanks to the sliding scale of chess will always be a problem, at least for those under Grandmaster level. Treating losses to higher-rated opponents such as in Annotated Game #2 as a learning mechanism is also useful, although they should still be fought as hard as possible. Since I'm so often the lower-rated one in a tournament, I feel more of a sense of comradeship when facing a lower-rated opponent myself, although it's still useful to remind myself to not be lazy with my thinking and treat the game like any other.
For a while I deliberately stopped writing down my opponent's rating before the game, only looking it up afterwards. That partially worked, but at the same time it struck me as somewhat paradoxical, since the avoidance meant that I was still worried about the impact of the rating on my thinking. From a practical standpoint, it also took some effort to not accidentally see the rating on the posted crosstable. Nowadays I simply try to focus on the game of chess and on my own performance, rather than worry about the opponent's rating. This approach for me seems to work the best: accepting the fact of the rating, but not giving it any more significance than it's worth.