How Do You Win a Chess Tournament?

spassky
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I recently (April 27-29, 2012) played in the Maryland Open chess tournament in the Under 2000 section. I played well and won the section with a 5-0 score. This earned me the title of 2012 Maryland Amateur Champion, the 4th time I have won the title (1989, 2002, 2003, 2012). I also took home a trophy, $800, 50 rating points, and my name and final round game printed in the local newspaper. Not bad for one weekend of fun!

As I thought about the tournament over the past few weeks, I wondered why, even though I play in this tournament every year, I won the title in some years, but not others. I have previously explored this question in my article “Develop a Winning Mindset” (http://www.chess.com/article/view/develop-a-winning-mindset). Even though I had been successful in the past, and developed a theory about how to repeat it, I apparently did not take my own advice every year. Or maybe I did, and there are other factors at work in determining one's result.

Despite the perception by the general public that chess is a game of pure skill and zero luck (compared to dice, cards, etc.), there are certain elements surrounding a tournament that are governed by chance. For example, even though the tournament is played indoors, some people are affected by the weather, the effects ranging from mood to migraines. This year, the weather was perfect every day.

Another factor is your opponent. He can be unpleasant or have annoying habits. He can be someone to whom you have lost in the past. He can choose openings you dislike or have trouble with. This year, I had 4 novel opponents and one I had beaten recently. And they all helpfully played openings I knew well or very well. And they were all quite nice both before and after the games, presented here.

Round 1

This can very closely followed a game I played against Bisgiuer in a simul (with colors reversed).  You can see it here: http://www.chess.com/article/view/belle-baczynskyj-and-bisguier.  So that game made this into a comfortable start for the Friday evening game (8 pm) and I am looking forward to getting White on Saturday morning (11 am).

Round 2

Another comfortable game.  I was never in any trouble and got a solid advantage with no risk.  Had plenty of time for lunch before the next round.  Wonder who I will play in the third round?

Round 3

That one was a lot more work than the first two.  I was definitely worried about him sacrificing something on h6.  I made the endgame a lot longer than necessary, but I was always winning.  Just a little sloppy after getting a winning position.  Can't let that happen again.  So far so good: 3 games, 3 wins, zero blunders.  I am due for White again, but the first round on Sunday is at 9:00 am (ouch!).  I can never go straight to bed after a game.  I'm still in concentration mode and thinking about certain moves and ideas.  It takes me awhile to unwind before I can get to bed.  Luckily, I live about 20 minutes from the tournament site, so I can get up at the last minute and still be on time.

Round 4

I was glad to see the same opening from him again, which gave me a lot of confidence.  Well, now I am alone in first at 4-0.  I had done the same in a tournament a few months ago.  When I played the last game, I played it safe and lost instead of a sacrificial line that worked perfectly in the post game analysis.  I was kicking myself for not playing it and vowed that if I were ever in the same position again, I would just go for it.  Well, here I am: last round, 4-0, playing Black.  Just hoping I get into a good opening.

Round 5

I did it! 5-0! White played into the perfect opening for me, and this time I went all out for the king with no halfway or safe moves.  The only other time I won a tournament with a 5-0 score was in a club tournament when I was a kid.  This felt much better!

So was I just lucky to win this year? I think it is useful to divide the tournament experience into two parts: factors under your control and factors having a random element to them. Factors under your control include study and a positive mindset. A positive mindset includes coming into the tournament wanting to win it all, believing you can win each game, and expecting to win each game, i.e., holding yourself to a high standard, not accepting draws in positions still full of play, not thinking about losing as soon as your opponent plays an unexpected move. Much of this is explored in the Winning Mindset article cited above.

Factors out of your control are just that – out of your control. You use your mindset to deal with them as best you can, but experience shows that we are not always completely successful in doing so. If an opponent uncorks a sharp book line that you have never seen, or you simply miscalculate when initiating a long forced sequence of moves, all the positive mindset in the world isn't going to produce the correct moves to avoid a disadvantage. And if that causes a first round loss, which reduces your maximum score to 4-1 (even if you win the last 4 games), all the belief in the world isn't going to change the fact that a 4-1 score is never good enough to take first place.

As far as the actual playing of the game goes, I think the most important thing you need to do is be careful on each and every move. This requires a high degree of discipline. Chess is not like tennis, where you can come in unprepared, lose the first set 6-0, then warm up and win the final two sets and the match. Chess is more like boxing, where allowing one lucky punch can leave you laying on the canvas. Personally, I think of a move, analyze it, write it down (in pencil), then check to see if it could be a blunder. If it isn't bad, I play it. If it is a blunder, I can just erase it. I usually erase 1 or 2 moves per game, on average. In tough positions, I have written and erased a single move up to 4 times. It does not pay to move quickly in order to show your opponent how smart you are and scare him. As Bobby Fischer famously said, “I don't believe in psychology, I believe in good moves.” You have to strive, on every move, to play “non-losing moves.” Make your opponent out-think you and come up with a superior plan, don't hand him a blunder and let him scoop up the point with one move.

The next most important thing is to know your openings as well as you possibly can. Every game has an opening phase. If you can't get through the opening well, the rest of the game will be a struggle. Do you want to struggle every game? Conversely, knowing an opening well can, if not win the game outright, lead to easy play from beginning to end, which leads to a huge increase in confidence.

So this year, I controlled what I could, got lucky with what I couldn't, and everything just lined up perfectly for me. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a title defense next year, altough a few more rating points gained between now and then will kick me up into the Open Section (that is, GMs and IMs), where I will have to revise my definition of “success.”

Visit the Maryland Chess Association website, http://mdchess.com/ .

And thanks to all the readers who like my articles and have encouraged me to write another.  Your comments make it worth the effort.

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