From grandmasters, down to beginners, all chess players would do well to enter each tournament they play with a goal. That goal could simply be to play your first tournament, and learn what the experience is like, or that goal could be to improve a very specific aspect of your game, for example: don't miss any knight forks. They are not the most useful, but a competitive goal can also be applied: to score 6-0, or to not lose any games with black.
Usually I go to a tournament with two goals; occasionally with one or three goals. I think if you have too many goals you will lose your focus, as there is too much to think about. You want to identify something that is very important for you to improve, and then by holding it up as one of two or three goals, you imbue it with the weight of importance.
When you succeed at your goal, you may move on to another goal, but depending on the specific goal, I will usually bring that same goal to the next tournament, to be more certain that I have indeed cleared that hurdle. If I do not succeed at a goal, I will usually continue to aim for it at future events. There is no shame in this, and it is important to be able to admit when you have not succeeded, because the point of improving is not to lie to yourself that you have and move on, leaving the weaknesses in place. Particularly if it's a psychological weakness, you absolutely must root it out or it will sabotage you endlessly. I had one goal that took me over a year of tournaments to succeed at (not letting losses detract from the enjoyment of playing), and I had to be very honest with myself that I was failing at this again and again, even though it was embarassing, and keep at it. The result, when I finally was satisfied that I had achieved this goal three events in a row, was invaluable: since then, I have been so much happier at chess tournaments than I had been for years.
I have a few things I am working on right now, but at the end of the Biel International it became clear that one important goal to keep my eye on for the next few events would be my performance in first and last rounds. Despite performing over 2600 from rounds 2-10, indicating that I was in as good form as could be, in rounds 1 and 11 I had poor showings:
Not my worst game ever, but not a good result either. And:
This was a pretty unnecessary game to lose! Actually, the quality of that game is quite a bit higher than a lot of other last round games I have played-- as I said, I was generally playing at a high level at this event-- but it was still not satisfactory, and it helped me recognize a pattern that I had been somewhat aware of for a while: relatively poor performance in a lot of first and last round games. There is a wrinkle which is this: if I am playing for a norm, or a qualification, or a prize, or a tournament victory in the last round, then I perform very well. I am focused, not nervous, and play at my best. If one discounts those games, and only looks at last round games where there is nothing important on the line, then my last round results are quite poor.
I realize that this combination of slow starts and lackluster last rounds has been a constant drag on my rating, costing me about 5 points per tournament. Obviously I am not particularly concerned with ratings, but it seemed like an interesting project to deal with this issue. So when I set out for last week's Western States Open, this was the primary goal.
The first round went well, as you can see here.
Entering the last round, I was on board 2, playing an opponent half a point ahead of me who had a chance to earn shared first place. If I beat him, I could finish as high as second. So it is true that there was something on the line. Nevertheless, my goal was to do well in first and last round games, and this was the only last round game I would get to play, so I considered this to be "goal time."
Before the game I had to make a difficult decision: to study some openings or to go for a walk along the Truckee River. It is so hard in these situations to make the right decision, and in fact, I through a couple online databases for a few minutes to see which of my games were available, before tearing myself away and making the right decision:
Then it was time for battle, and I had to decide right away what first move to play. I was afraid of my opponent having prepared something for my sharp e4 openings, but another goal of mine was to conquer that fear, so after about a minute or two of hesitation, I played e4, and when he answered with e5, I did not hesitate to bang out my king's gambit!
Thus I won the first and last round games at my first tournament where I carried this goal with me. Now, if you were me, how would you evaluate my success here, and would you keep this goal at the next tournament? Here's my answer:
I was successful at this tournament. In particular, in the first round game, where I played a very interesting game, treated my lower-rated opponent as if she were an experienced master, and took risks as you have to when facing a strong opponent. But the last round game, I did have something at stake: I was doing well in the tournament, and up on a high board. A win would get me money and the satisfaction of having a "good event." So this game does not count over-much. I need to play well in the last round of at least one, maybe two, tournaments where I am not doing great up to the last round. And even then, I will not completely relegate this goal. I will downgrade it from "primary goal" to "secondary goal" but probably keep it in mind for my next 6-12 months of events.