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Chapter Six

Practical Tournament Strategy

A well-planned tournam ent chess strategy can have an incredible impact on the
results o f the tournament chess player. Contemplating and developing a refined
approach to playing chess tournaments is critical to success, as you w ill surely fare
better than the casual and uninformed chess player that simply arrives for round
one and focuses only on the moves. There are a variety o f factors that contribute
to chess tournament success; however, any master will tell you that preparation is
one o f the most important.
‘Psychologically, y ou have to have confidence in y o u rself and this confidence
should be based on fa c t.’ - Bobby Fischer

The Importance of Off-the-Board Preparation
It’s fantastic that many chess player devote hours o f study per day to modern
opening theory, tactics, common m iddlegam e concepts, and endgam e technique
- but this is only polishing your on-the-board preparation. What about all the oth­
er ingredients to success: confidence in your ability to see the best line in a very
complicated position, or confidence in your ability to accurately convert a small
advantage in the endgame, or simply understanding your tournament standing,
and what risks are appropriate and what risks are just not worth taking.
Chess psychology is a complicated problem because there are an infinite number
o f possible answers, and it is difficult to encounter a tangible scale that will defini­
tively tell you if one perspective is the most correct. It is important to identify and
evaluate all factors as objectively as possible. Chess psychology is the fo rce behind
every move y o u make, and it is essential to understand and appreciate its im por­
tance as you attem pt to improve.


It is very easy to becom e distracted b y the littlest things. Hikaru Nakamura is the best chess player the United States has had since Bobby Fischer. Nakamura built a sizable 1.Practical Tournament Strategy 7 believe most definitely that one must not only grapple with the problems on the board. Understand­ ing the importance o f achieving an aggressive state o f mind while staying 100 percent calm and objective will certainly help your chess gam e grow. Tak­ ing a fe w draws after a ferocious start is not timid. Nakamura is a legitim ate monster on the board. However. Nakamura continued to play as aggressively as possible and proceeded to lose all three remaining games. At 25 years old and with a 2767 FIDE rating (March 2013). finally finishing in third place. At the 2011/12 Reggio Emilia Super-Tournament. It doesn’t m atter if you came out swinging in the first 75 percent o f a chess tourna­ ment . understanding your overall position and applying the necessary changes to your game is critical to success. The best chess players in the world are able to find the exact balance between using their mental and emotional energy while remaining completely calm and relaxed. And on the flip side o f things.5 point lead over his nearest rival after seven o fte n rounds. 175 . enabling you to brush o ff the distractions and put all o f your mental capacity to work. even the greatest players make mistakes sometimes.if you fizzle in the most critical last-rounds.’ . you will fail. This is a perfect exam ple o f a badly conceived chess tournam ent strategy. one must also make every effort to com bat the thoughts and will o f the opponent. to have your m en­ tal energy diverted b y some com pletely irrelevant and trivial detail. if y o u a re chasing a tournam ent leader . coming in at #8 in the world on the latest chess-rating up­ have to hit the gas and bust out all o f the gambits and tricks you know to make a comeback. Maximize Your Level of Focus during Play Achieving the optimal state o f mind during a chess gam e is a very difficult thing to do. it’s practical. As you get closer to the end o f a tournament.Mikhail Tal Risk Assessment during Tournaments Anyone who has ever played a com petitive sport will recall their favourite coach drilling the follow ing expression into the back o f their brain: ‘Finish the Drill’.

Kasparov’s games show an enormous amount o f mental energy. it’s easy to understand why many chess players have a hard tim e dedicating 100 percent o f their mental capacity to the board in front o f them. ‘Only through focu s can you do world-class things. Garry Kasparov exem plifies the ability to harness the benefits o f turning em o­ tional energy into a powerful m otivational tool. It is ab­ solutely imperative to keep a firm grip on your emotions during a chess tourna­ ment. After every chess tournament.’ . or attem pting to launch a decisive attack out o f a complicated position maintaining the maximum amount o f concentration possible is going to permit you to play your best. but the best players are able to keep this energy in check and allow only its positive effects on their game. you should ana­ lyse you r games to persistently find ways to improve . de­ tracting and devaluing the tim e you have spent working hard to study and pre­ pare fo r tournaments by allowing anxiety and nerves to affect your game. regardless o f age or experience. because this is the single larg­ est limitation to success in the game. But this quality is exactly what separates the great players from the good . This topic is especially relevant to the amateur and interm e­ diate chess player.Bill Gates 176 .Chess Psychology: The Will to Win! Identify Problems and Enforce Solutions Lack o f focus is the most common obstacle to a chess player’s improvement.and your psychological conduct should be exam ined under this auto-critical microscope with the same level o f scrutiny as the moves themselves. In the age o f mind-numbing hyper-stimulation. such as more energy in critical moments and an extra stubborn defence. Many players are simply unable to play their best chess without emotional energy and inspiration. Every chess player must individually find his/her perfect mental balance.most chess players have no idea that they are afflicted with this terrible disease o f being continually distracted.the ability to ignore all possible distractions and wrap their entire mind around the im m ediate problem on the chess board. enabling him to push harder and harder for the win in difficult positions. Whether you ’re playing an opening you ’ve played a thousand times b e­ fore. and it was his fierce desire to win that pushed him to win and defend with longevity the title o f world champion. And the worst part is . no m atter how capable you are. that fine line between in­ vesting and pushing yourself emotionally while still playing an objectively sound gam e with machine-like analysis. being careful not to allow them to negatively spill over into a game. Get Your Mind Right! The greatest deterrent to playing your best chess is allowing yourself to be dis­ tracted.

and preparation as the vehicles o f their success . Failure to maximize your focus and use every ounce o f potential you have equates to achieving sub-optimal’s actually encouraging the kid to make more mis­ takes because his mom continues to rem ind him how incredibly potentially tal­ ented he is. Rising to the occasion in one chess gam e and trying your hardest is a good thing. Beginner and interm ediate chess players regard the advanced player with an incredible degree o f respect.Sir Winston Churchill The Out-Gangster Effect For one reason or another.your ‘potential’ is completely irrelevant. He just made this mistake because he’s not trying.extracting every ounce out o f their ‘potential’ on a daily basis. if you can’t control yourself to clear your mind and achieve optimal fo ­ cus on the task at hand . not potential outcomes if you had just tried a little bit harder and the same m axim applies to chess! Nothing Good Comes Easy Successful men and wom en nearly always accredit hard work.they are usually fought fo r with every grain o f mental energy and resolve. I’m sure the follow ing scene w ill be quite fam iliar to any chess player w ho’s attended a handful o f serious tournaments: It’s a huge Swiss tournament and in the early rounds ayoung/rising 1700 player is facing o ff against the local FIDE Master (FM). The real world is focused on results. you have to push yourself by constantly expanding your limits o f work.’ And this type o f excuse is terrible because it is doing nothing to correct this maladaptive behaviour . Basically. ‘A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. a mysterious aura o f excellence seems to exist around all advanced chess players. these things are simply im ­ possible to achieve if you can’t command your mind to operate on an optimal lev­ el. dedication.’ .however. often resulting in an overes­ timation o f abilities. Let’s cut the nonsense and get to the facts. The best things in life are not given freely . an optim ist sees the oppor­ tunity in every difficulty.if you really want to succeed in chess (and life?). Potential Means Nothing Mothers love to make excuses for problems or failures o f their children: ‘Oh you know he just has so much potential.Practical Tournament Strategy Without Focus and Execution. but this is only one small step in the ladder to success. who dem and absolute focus from their mind at all times o f work . Real victory comes to those who deserve it. The young player has pre­ 177 . It is not enough to merely put your mind to work when it’s convenient .

Your objective playing strength becomes less important and your psychological strength becomes the guiding factor to success.the most important phase is the fourth quarter. So the next tim e you ’re entering the final phase o f an important gam e and the stress is building to a maximum .Chess Psychology: The Will to Win! pared well for his experienced opponent. Understanding the importance o f aggressive chess psy­ chology can take your gam e to the next level. but overestimating him and constantly thinking in the back o f your head that you know how bad he’s going to beat you in the end is quite another.the kid makes a fe w small errors that lead to sudden defeat. This happens to be a great motivational tool. to win! Learning from previous defeats should not in­ clude perpetuating the same maladaptive behaviour. A crowd gathers around the board and even though the position is completely equal. local or world level is al­ ii 78 . Now why does this always seem to happen? Strong Chess Psychology Will Win You Games! When the gam e is equal and dynamically balanced as you approach the later stages. I hate losing more than just about anything else. em erging from the opening with a strong initiative and a dangerous attack.’ The FM senses a critical moment and plays more determined than ever. The FM is able to push back the attack and the position becomes roughly equal. you should feed o ff o f these painful past experiences and learn from them. everyone is whispering how the FM has got the kid on the ropes and how ‘He’s going to close this ou t justlike always. How to Be on the Giving End of the Out-Gangster Spectrum Personally. although you should be careful not to let previous defeats lead to continued feelings o f anxiety or nervousness in such situations. Looking at the body language o f the tw o players.. the nerves get to him and the kid starts making passive/defensive moves. you can tell that the experienced FM feels very comfortable in this situation and is thriving on the nervous energy/anxiety o f the young 1700. whether at the junior. The FM becomes even more determined to win. Instead. Playing 75 percent o f a gam e well does not mean anything .this is the exact m om ent when you need to buckle down and become extremely stubborn in y o u r mission to win this gam e at ail costs. no m atter who the opponent is. the mental fibre o f the chess player will be tested. although both players are low on tim e after the complicated opening and m iddlegam e . Giving due respect to a strong opponent is one thing. Soon enough.but there is still a lot o f chess left to play. Chess Tournament Preparation Chess tournam ent preparation.. and just like that .

This is a terrible idea! In a normal tournament.Practical Tournament Strategy ways a nerve-wrecking activity. instantly forget about the previous positions and focus exclusively on the present and the future possible does not matter an­ ymore. After you make a move. Nevertheless. take your tim e! CleaT your mind. so make sure you take all the tim e needed to make the best possible moves. some moves do mean more than others. When you reach this im por­ tant point. or five moves before . Learning to be calm and collected is vital for chess tournament preparation.essentially your chess gam e as a whole! Don’t keep harping on a blunder. take it easy on Friday night. fo rget everything that happened be­ fore.every move is im por­ tant. So. Soyou’ve been studying and playing a lot o f prac­ tice games. This is extrem ely important. Play your best to win the gam e with what you have right in front o f you. 179 . If you made a mistake on the m ove w on’t have a chance. i f it happened. above all. and you literally fall apart at the board and get destroyed in 13 moves. You don’t get bonus points for having extra tim e on the clock at the end o f the game. maintain composure at all times. Many beginner players will impulsively grab pieces and make critical moves without taking any real tim e to think. Make sure you take a deep breath and chill out. Finely tuning your sense o f critical situations is a requirement to Where did it all go wrong? Calm Your Nerves! Chess. Focus on tak­ ing your tim e during chess tournaments. Forgetting Past Blunders This really applies not only to chess tournament preparation but to your chess preparation. Sometimes I like to close my eyes at the beginning o f a game. and identify the best course o f action. and even arrive 20 minutes early at the tournam ent hall to make sure you’re comfortable and everything is set. you usually have about 90 minutes for the entire game. bu t if you can’t control yourself at the board . Then the tim e comes to sit down and play. sleep well. You can study all you want. then it’s done. When practicing fo r the tournament. and completely clear m y mind and remind m yself that I am there to do one thing . your chess psychology . You register fo r the next local tournament. Critical Moments There is no such thing as moves that don’t matter in chess . see if you can ‘fe e l’ when these moments hit. even if the clock is ticking. is a game o f nerves. so just m ove on.

feelings o f anxiety. and specifically your op­ ponent’s it is very easy fo r your opponent to diverge from your last-minute preparation. only check what board you ’re playing on and completely ignore your opponent’s rating. I know enough to stay away from gambling because the house always wins! The same principle applies in chess. in that a player who gambles by playing very loose moves against a lower-rated opponent. so in many o f my chess classes. Play the Best Move! From my brief experience in casinos.Chess Psychology: The Will to Win! Play the Board. b u tyo u never want to get too caught up in pre-game preparation . where his incredibly deep level o f preparation in the sharpest lines o f his tim e enabled him to obtain dangerous ini­ tiatives very early in the game.’ . Not the Opponent! It is very easy to pay too much attention to the pairings. It’s okay to check the pairings and try to get a h ead start by trying to prepare against an op­ ponent if you ’ve played him or her before and are fam iliar with his or her style. Over-emphasizing your opponent’s rating is one o f the most common mistakes a beginner player can make. I recommend a very simple solu­ tion to my students: when you look at the pairings. Playing sub-optimal moves against lower-rated opposition opens the door to embarrassing defeats and should not be taken lightly. is sure to get busted badly in the long run. Kas­ parov’s main strength was in the opening. The best chess players in the history o f the gam e have m aintained the ability to play the highest level o f chess against all opponents. potentially resulting in a lack o f confidence. hopelessness. Bobby Fischer’s opening preparation was also fan ­ tastic. Getting anxious about playing a much higher-rated opponent is never going to help your game. This tem porary solution will also help you avoid another dangerous common beginner pitfall . It’s easy to look at the pairings and get nervous about playing against a higher­ rated opponent. In answer to the question: Who isy o u r opponent tonight?: 'Tonight I am playing against the Black pieces.Akiba Rubinstein Maintaining Equilibrium Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer are tw o o f the best chess players ever. never permitting even the slightest chance o f losing to an inferior rival. hoping his opponent doesn’t find the flaws. Don’t Gamble.and even more dangerous. and generally bad play. but it can be even easier to becom e over-confident about playing a lower-rated opponent . permitting him to challenge the Soviet regim e in the middle o f the 20th 180 .underesti­ mating your opponent.

It’s easy to see if someone is m oving way too fast in the opening. By check­ ing the student’s notation matched up with the tim e remaining after each move. this easy trick enables me to identify if there is a problem with my student’s move speed . I frequently encounter students who completely lose track o f tim e in compli­ cated positions .each side has plenty o f tim e to dissect and punish the mistakes o f an opponent’s hasty opening moves. If a student is taking way to o much tim e in complicated positions. 183 . In my chess classes.bu t the best place to look for improvements in speed o f play can be found in your previous games.and if so. Constantly analysing past games and tweaking y o u r individual chess style with an honest eye f o r scrutiny will lead to a guaranteed ju m p in improvement. optimal speed fo r moves in chess . I’m usually able to determine where these types o f problems occur. I have often found that this is because he or she is suffering from a lack o f confidence. You should be analysing your games after each tournam ent anyway. exactly where it occurs.resulting in debilitating tim e trouble later in the game. How to Find Your Correct Speed It’s not easy finding your unique. then this exercise can definitely help you pinpoint your problem.Practical Tournament Strategy o f a gam e certainly depends on the tim e control. but if you think you might not be moving at the best speed during each game. You will play y o u r best chess byfin d in g the ideal balance between trusting y ou r instincts with fa irly quick evaluations and moves. One great way o f evaluating y o u r move speed is to write down how much tim e you have left on the clock right next to each move as you take notation during a game. and developing y o u r intuition to detect critical situations where you need to use more tim e on the clock to success­ fully navigate y o u r way through a complicated position. resulting in the inability to take decisive action. but sometimes this problem goes a little deeper than just blitzing ou t the first 10-15 moves. but for your standard chess gam e (usually around 60 or 90 minutes) .

you will undoubtedly notice that they almost never lost tw o games in a row. You also don’t want to let high-pressure situations throw you o ff your normal gam e and style o f play. Clear your head and ignore all distractions. Near-perfect precision in the endgam e is definitely a good thing as well. This can cloud your 181 . The only thing that matters is the next move that you need to make. etc. Fischer also happened to play the endgam e with computer-like precision. You must train yourself to ignore all external factors such as the tournament standing. and focus on the position in front o f you and the next move you need to make.taking everything in stride and pa­ tiently regrouping to regain their mental balance and continue to play a t an op ­ timal level. the more you be­ come emotionally invested in the outcomes o f your efforts. Make sure you stand up in these tense m o­ ments and stick to the openings and types o f positions you k n o w best . calm down. they were much more likely to comeback from a loss with a win in their next game. So the next tim e the road gets a little rocky and it starts becom ing difficult to think straight. because a balanced mental equilibrium is sure to guaran­ tee optimal to your strengths. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not a coincidence.’ -Garry Kasparov It’s not a bad idea to take a fe w pointers from Fischer and Kasparov. whether you drew or lost a gam e in the previous round that you should have won.Practical Tournament Strategy century with unparalleled success. a place where art and science com e together in the human mind and are refined and improved by experience. make yourself step away. So just how can you start pointing your gam e in the right direction? Baby Steps The most basic elem ent o f mental balance is to focus on the position im m ediately in fron t o f you. Incredibly deep and sharp opening preparation is great. 'Chess is a unique cognitive nexus. capable o f making even the most experienced grandmaster’s defence look flimsy and disorganized. In fact. But what really distinguished these tw o world chess champions from their contemporaries was their ability to recover from surprises on the chess board . If you take a good look at their careers. Don’t Get So Emotional! It is very natural that the more energy you put into a chess game. This is a great example o f how a strong chess psychology and mental fibre can take your gam e to the next level.

take some tim e to slow down. and it is very important to understand the positive aspects that are conducive to success and the negative characteristics that contribute to failure. While tim e pressure is a very real and dangerous elem ent in chess. as the structure and pressure you are able to achieve will form the fram ework fo r the rest o f the game. 'Emotional instability can be one o f the factors giving rise to a fa ilu re by chess players in im portant duels. playing their most excited (and usually worst) chess shortly after shaking hands with their opponent and beginning the game. which is exactly why you should be fully aware o f the dangers o f emotional thinking in chess. One o f the most common beginner chess mistakes is clock mismanagement. It is absolutely critical to play your best chess in every single game that you play. walk away.IM Mark Dvoretsky Control Your Emotions from the First Move The opening is an essential part o f chess. hoping that a rapidly achieved tim e advantage in the opening will carry over into enduring tim e pressure in the middlegam e and endgame. the easier it will be to avoid this maladaptive behaviour.’ . and to do that you will need to be thinking like a computer. O f course. calculating and strategizing with pure objectivity. The amateur chess player is very prone to m oving too fast in the opening and downright gam ­ bling. specifically playing too fast in the opening in an attem pt to ‘save tim e’ for later in the game. The more cognizant you are o f the negative impacts o f emotional and irra­ tional thinking in chess. Clock Management Every chess player has their ow n unique individual style. and the percentages are definitely not in your favour. how much tim e you consume throughout the course 182 . it should certainly not be overestimated. and clear your head to make sure you are making moves from a completely objective perspective. Under the influence o f surging emotions (and not neces­ sarily negative ones) we sometimes lose concentration and stop objectively evaluat­ ing the events that are taking place on the board. So the next tim e you feel your­ self becom ing too em otionally attached in a gam e and your judgm ent becomes affected . I’ve noticed that beginners are especially afflicted by this problem in the opening stages o f the game. Gambling with you r emotions by impulsively m oving too fast with the inten­ tion o f putting pressure on you r opponent via the clock is a very long-shot bet. Sacrificing the quality o f your moves because you want to achieve a big advantage on the clock in the opening is simply ineffective.Chess Psychology: The Will to Win! judgm ent and lead to second-best decisions.