As a player and coach the question of how best to prepare for chess tournaments is constantly on my mind or being posed to me by students and friends. For this blog I am going to share some insights and ideas that I have about tournament preparation that is geared specifically to USCF rated Swiss style format tournaments and serious players who desire peak results.
Last July I had just such a peak result in the 2012 World Open U2400 and Midwest Class Championship sharing first place in both events, gaining over fifty rating points and over 10,000 dollars in prizes.
What was the secret to my sudden uptick in playing ?
Eating Right, Sleeping right and Living Right.
In June of 2012 I had stopped a longtime habit. Not an easy thing to do, but I can promise you that smoking is bad for your health and your chess. I could finally breathe again and the extra oxygen in my brain helped me stay sharp and focused during the long days of two six hour games.
My wife Kelly also gets credit as she tries to enforce a healthy, gluten free, diet as well as encouraging me to work out. During that time I was doing light daily cardio with hand weights and using an exercise machine.
I would say in general keep a positive state of mind and nurture emotions and feelings of hopefulness, joy, and plenty of laughter (I recall watching loads of comedy films).
Creative Problem Solving
In the build up to my 10k run I became obsessed with improving my memory and became a member of luminosity.com. In particular a memory game called Memory Matrix became a daily challenge as I attempted to improve my high score. I would encourage you to keep your mind sharp and flexible by learning other games and puzzles outside of chess such as GO, Scrabble, Sudoku, Shogi, etc.
Learning new skills and thinking about the connections to chess is a creative way to give your mind a break from chess while still staying, “in the zone”.
The Power of Visualization and Positive Thinking
I am amazed at how many times I have had great performances and then thought back to how I was visualizing that very moment or indeed planning/dreaming out the entire game in advance. I once heard of a man being hypnotized to believe he was Paul Morphy and then he won a chess tournament. I do not know if that is really true, but something with that has always stuck with me.
Let's face it we all have hopes and fears of the upcoming event, why not build yourself up to being a confident player who believes he is going to be fighting for the first prize in the final round and coming out on top. Try it while you are in the act of studying chess or playing casual games or training games; see yourself playing these same winning moves at the tournament. Try to imagine yourself putting all that work into action; playing strong chess and avoiding bad habits (playing too fast, getting up from the board, not getting tired, blunders...).
Confidence and “game” are huge parts of the chess battle. In many games I have observed it comes down to who has more will and energy than anything else. My advice is to not be afraid to dream and believe you are going to have a great result, but of course this has to be backed up by hard work before the event and during the games.
Of all the skills in the chess player's toolbox I would argue that Calculation (and evaluation) and Tactical Strength are the base level ingredients of being on form and achieving desired results. We all know what happens if we are not able to spot double attacks, combinations or simply dropping pawns and pieces.
In June of 2012 one particular student and I were giving extra attention to the study of basic to intermediate level King and Pawn endgame studies and I am positive that this work set me up for a peak result. It is a well known truth that the study of King and Pawn endgames is a practice in pure calculation, often times long variations, with a definite conclusion.
Along with the study of K&P I can also attest to the deliberate practice and solving of tactical studies. The trick here is to choose a book or software that has just the right mix of problems that you can feel challenged yet still be able to solve many positions in a sitting. For me it was the excellent book 1,000 Checkmate Combinations by Victor Henkin. For you it may be an online tactics trainer or one of the countless books on chess tactics.
Here is a special position I give to students to help build their calculation abilities and sharpen up for a big event.
Taken together the pracitce of K&P endgame studies alongside tactical training is a sure way to get your game in razor sharp form.
Going All Out
This idea ties into my thoughts on creative visualization, but I want to stress the importance of being psyched up to play great, uncompromising chess during the event. During the World Open I got off to a bad start and I found myself down a pawn and in a bad position out of the opening. It would have been very easy to become discouraged and play passively and eventually lose the game, but I dug into the position and hung on with all I had to survive the middlegame and get to a drawn position after which I even somehow won the endgame.
This first round win inspired me to play fighting chess even in equal or worse positions by playing tenacious defense and making brave, calculated gambles at various critical moments. In order to go beyond yourself and your current abilities you need to feel inspired and sometimes even a bit invincible. I recall various mottoes floating through my head at the time such as, “strike while the iron is hot” and “fight to the finish”. I remember having to push myself over and over again to not let up and keep up the tension and pressure on my opponents until the last move of the last game.
My father had passed away two years prior. We played many tournaments together and the World Open was always the highlight of our chess calender. In 2012 I felt as though Carl Sr. was sitting beside me during the games or watching over my shoulder; giving me a nod of approval in the crowded hallways, still in my corner.
Naturally everyone has a different style and psychological makeup; my advice to you is to be creative and cultivate your inner fire; become inspired at the actual tournament and believe that you have what it takes to take it all. Also do not forget about making the most of the time you spend with your family, friends and loved ones. This is your support team and you need feel emotionally strong and loved in order to achieve maximal results.
I do hope to see you at tournaments playing the best chess of your life!
“Coach” Carl Boor
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I will leave you with the two most critical and exciting games from the best month of my chess career...so far.