How Do You Win a Chess Tournament?

  • spassky
  • | May 19, 2012

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” ( 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:  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, .

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


  • 3 years ago


    Can u accept to be my friend?

  • 3 years ago


    Thanks for the games.

  • 4 years ago


    OTOH, Yoniker does have a point (if not a bit rudely).  Strong players have always recommended to eliminate, or at least, minimize our weaknesses.  To find them is a feat in and of itself.  To eradicate them usually requires outside help.  Improvement comes at the edge of our comfort zone.  Staying only within our comfort zone causes us to stagnate and fail to grow.  I'm afraid it's the old case of "a ship in harbor is safe...but that's not why ships are built".

  • 4 years ago


    "Spassky", a 1900 player says:

    "I believe you are falling victim to the conventional "wisdom" ".

    Who should we believe,all the GMs/IMs/world champions who tell us to learn from our mistakes and weaknesses,or "spassky",a 1900 player who did not improve at all in the last 5 years,who says to learn from your "strengths" and "victories"?. 

    Or should i study from,say,Karpov's "from your defeats" (it is an actual title).

    Comparing chess to tennis? rediculous!


    Taking an example from the chess world champions??

    They all were very good at every aspect of the game!


    Botvinnik's weakness was tactics,ie he calculated only like a 2600 player rather than 2700!!....


    Another example of how big "Spassky"'s ego is...

    I hope that no one will listen to those false advices,based on air,given by a bad player... (to clarify-I am a better player,at least rating wise,and i consider myself a bad player who cannot give an advice to anyone A1600).

  • 4 years ago


    I see your point Spassky.  It's actually not the end result of a game itself that determines its study 'usefulness'.  Areas to work on can be found in any of our games.  I suppose emotional connections to chess are important for both motivation and improvement.  I just personally don't like to shy away from a challenge because it happens to be rather unpleasant. 

  • 4 years ago


    Yeah, I was particularly talking about being really bad at a particular phase of the game, and that such a situation should be taken care of as the absolute priority.

    Anyway, thanks, nice discussion indeed.

  • 4 years ago



    I think we are approaching a middle ground.  I agree that if a player is simply horrible at endgames, he will lose every game that goes to an endgame, and that needs to be fixed.  I don't think too many players have such a glaring hole in their game.  Rather than a 1600 who plays like a 2600 in some positions and a 600 in others (+/- 1000 points), I think more players are like a 1600 who plays like a 1900 or a 1300 (+/- 300 points).  Maybe we are differing on our definitions of "strength" and "weakness".

    As for the tennis analogy, you stated "...but if you are constantly running to your forehand to hit every ball, you are giving your opponent an easy strategy."  Have you heard of a player named "Nadal"?  On TV, the commentators often say about his opponent, "He just can't find Nadal's backhand today", meaning Nadal is running around on every backhand and crushing a forehand and the opponent can't force him to hit a backhand.  Not such an "easy strategy" for his opponents.  But Nadal has to (and does) have a powerful forehand, so he can get away with leaving a large part of the court open when he runs around the backhand.  If he had not honed his forehand strength, his backhand "weakness" would often be exposed.  But it just isn't, because the forehand (and his speed) are too good, proving that playing to your strength is a viable strategy.  But not everyone is comfortable with trying to push the envelope at one end and leaving the other end "as is".

    Nice discussion!  Thanks!

  • 4 years ago


    Actually, your examples about Tal and Petrosian, for example, are a case in point:

    If either of them were unusually weak in their less preferred types of positions in chess if you will, they would probably have not been world champions. It's true that their strengths are what let them outplay their opponents, but that stuff would only work once they made sure they were making very, very few mistakes.

    The point is, it's better to not make basic, 1400 level mistakes and make ok positional moves, than it is to make 2500 level positional moves but still be vulnerable to blunders. Those high class moves will only be good enough to squeeze every little bit out of the position, but the former will simply keep you from giving your opponents opportunities to beat you easily.

    It's not always easy to ensure the game will have a certain style. It's just very risky -- you might encounter games where you can end everything in the middlegame in an attack, but it's also so possible that your advantage will only be good enough for a better ending, too. If you still have glaring weaknesses, it's not very easy to hide them in chess, because advantages often shift from a positional to a tactical form and vice versa.

    And in your tennis examples (I'm a big fan, by the way), I doubt either of those players would be good if they had some glaring flaw that a beginner might have. For example, having the strongest serve in the world, but having a terrible backhand, and we'll say every other part of this made up person's game is average. That kind of situation encourages a one dimensional style, only trying to win with the serve, and not being able to be aggressive with the backhand when the time calls for it. Of course, if you have a great serve and an ok backhand and forehand, the serve will probably take you far, but if you are constantly running to your forehand to hit every ball, you are giving your opponent an easy strategy. Essentially, you would be telling your opponent "Just return my serve inside the court, on my backhand side, and you'll take over. As long as you get it somewhere over there, you'll be fine."

    As far as studying your wins to still look for improvements, you are absolutely right. In fact, I should rephrase what I said: I don't think studying wins are terrible at all if you are looking for improvements in your play, I just don't agree with the reasons that you had originally gave.

    Once again, I assure you that I mean no disrespect.

  • 4 years ago


    To Elubas (& Hector Perez who "totally agrees" with him):

    I believe you are falling victim to the conventional "wisdom" of: There is only one way to improve and that is to spend lots of time picking apart your losses, uncovering your weaknesses, and working to eliminate them.  That is certainly one way to tackle the "problem" of how to improve.

    But there is another way.

    I don't know if you play or follow tennis at all, but there were two players who were contemporaries, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi.  

    Sampras' strengths were having a huge serve, a big forehand, and coming to the net to hit volleys to win points.  The first two strengths facilitated the third.

    Agassi's strengths were strong returns of serves and winning baseline rallies by not making errors.

    Whenever Sampras lost to Agassi, do you think he said to himself: "I have to practice my baseline rallying.  And he kept hitting to my backhand, so I need to work on that."  I doubt it.  More likely he said: "I wasn't able to impose my will on Agassi today.  I need to work on hitting my serve harder and placing it better and I need work on running around my backhand and hitting more forehands and staying out of long rallies."  In other words, he didn't try to be more like Agassi, he tried to become an even better version of Sampras.

    Of course Sampras could hit a backhand decently and won his share of long rallies, but that wasn't what he preferred to do. He preferred short points: big serve, weak return, move in, crush the forehand, get a weak reply, rush the net, put away the volley for a winner--big serve, big forehand, volley winner--3 shots.  So he perfected that sequence and rode it to the Hall of Fame.

    Agassi was in great physical shape.  He loved hot weather.  He loved to torment his oppenents with long rallies--left, right, left, right--for as long as it took until his opponent made a mistake.  He perfected that sequence and rode it to the Hall of Fame.

    In chess, we had Tal attacking all of the time, befuddling even the great Botvinnik in 1960 to win the World Championship. Why did he attack?  Because he liked it and he was good at it.  Could he play an endgame well? Sure.  Did every one of his wins end with a sacrificial mating attack? No.  But that's what he liked best, so he always aimed for that.

    Petrosian also beat Botvinnik for the World Championship in 1963.  How did he prefer to play? By attacking? No. By preventing his opponents from attacking him.  By taking away play from them, by smothering them.  Did he ever win a game by sacrificing and attacking? Yes.  Was every one of his wins an 80-move python-like crush? No, but that's what he liked best.

    The point is, you'll do a lot better (and have a lot more fun) if you work on methods for steering games into your strengths and away from your "weaknesses" (which may be more dislikes rather than actual weaknesses--like Sampras' decent backhand).  The way I do that is to study the opening variations I like more deeply and exactly in order to more efficiently wrest away the initiative and begin attacking--which is what I prefer to do.  Do I ever grind out a win in a pawn-up endgame?  Sure.  Do I aim for endgames? No.  Do I trade down to a slightly better endgame when I have the chance?  Not if I think I still have attacking chances.

    So I study my wins to see if in fact my opponent had a better defense.  Maybe what I thought was a clean win wasn't as clean as I thought.  Maybe I had a win, but not with the move order I played.  Maybe that advantage I got out of the opening should not have been there if my opponent had played differently.  I look in the books and see I had a better move one move earlier and I would have gotten an even bigger advantage based on some unseen tactic.

    So you CAN learn from your WINS, not only the losses.  That is where you are making the common mistake.  You think: "A loss necessarily contains a mistake which can be found and corrected.  Wins are mistake-free (that's why you won, right?) and therefore have no study value."  That is wrong. By studying wins, you can learn to "strengthen your strengths" and keep games away from positions you don't like.  That's what I do.  It's more fun, it gives you  positive feeling (a not insignificant point), and it works.  Who wants to re-live losses? Not me!

    I know this revelation will be shocking to you, evidenced by your first word (Woah!....).  "Did he just challenge the wisdom of the ages?  My head is exploding!" But you should try it, have some fun, and learn all at the same time!


  • 4 years ago


    Totally agree.

  • 4 years ago


    Woah... I was reading through these comments, and I came across something very surprising: spassky in one of his comments is making a case for going over his wins to learn his strengths, rather than his weaknesses.

    I mean absolutely no disrespect here, but I think, in terms of improvement, that's a terrible idea, and probably more likely to be an excuse to look at something that gives you comfort. I used to do that myself, because when I looked at stuff I did well it made me feel good. The problem with looking at your strengths (and perhaps, trying to make them even better) is that your lack of an exceptional strength is rarely where your losses are located; on the other hand, just having one weakness can ruin an entire game of good work.

    In my case, I had very strong positional play -- I was great at methodically moving my pieces forward in a closed position. The problem is, no matter how strongly I played for a large portion of the game in this respect, I would keep blowing all of it with my weaknesses. Weaknesses give your opponent hope that, even if they are struggling, you will eventually give them a really easy opening (whether it's a blunder, or an obvious positional or endgame mistake). When you don't have any noticeable weaknesses on the other hand, there is something special that arises: The only way you can lose the game, is if your opponent finds creative ways to give you problems. He can't just hope you will make an obvious mistake in a phase of the game anymore, which amateurs including you and myself so often do.

    Was it always fun to look at what I did wrong and the source of it with a passion? No, but how can you expect to improve without drastically changing the way you play? It's impossible. Thinking you don't have to do that is the equivalent to playing exactly the same way and expecting different results. And that oftens means you have to try to throw away bad habits, and to do that, you have to look for them.

    As foreshadowed, I see what you mean about knowing your strengths serving as a way to know what openings are good for you, but I think that's an excuse because you don't have to go over wins to find that out. What you're good at is probably obvious to you as you play, and even in your losses, there are probably certain aspects of the game you handle well.

    I am an improving player, currently in the 1900s, slightly lower than you, from a much, much younger generation, so hopefully I have a long way yet to go Smile. I just wanted to let you know what caused my droughts. Of course, the older you get, the more difficult it is to improve at the game.

    Best Regards.

  • 4 years ago


    thanks for the tip :violence-fencing: :violence-flak: :violence-glob: :violence-guntoting: :violence-hammer: :violence-impact:if you want these emotions go on

    :violence-instagib: :violence-minigun: :violence-pistol: :violence-pistoldouble: :violence-plasma: :violence-rambo: :violence-rapidfire: :violence-ripper: :violence-rocket: :violence-shock: :violence-shootself: :violence-sniperdark: :violence-sniperprone: :violence-snipersmiley: :violence-stickwhack: :violence-swords: :violence-telefrag: :violence-torch: :violence-uzi: :violence-xloc:

  • 4 years ago


    Spassky, you need to be realistic with yourself; your chess ability is lame and uninspiring. If you were a true good player, you would not waste your time on such self-embellishing article.

  • 4 years ago


    Here's a thought:  amateur players frequently stay away from GM analysis because it's incoherent and unmanageable.  Whether Bruce's analysis is perfect or not is irrelevant.  Yeah, I said it, irrelevant.  Why?

    There are not enough instances of mid- to high-tier amateurs posting their games with thoughtful analysis on this site.  Many amateurs (including myself, until a year or so ago) post interesting games, but do nothing beyond a surface analysis or pointing out obvious ideas.

    Fine, maybe Bruce strokes his ego a little bit.  Why the hell do you care?  The man won a tournament, give him some credit.  Okay, some of the opposition was weak.  Cool.  two of the five wins, however, WERE against close opposition, and these were the ones I looked at most.

    Yoni's being a jerk, pay no attention.   Haters gon' hate.  Looking forward to seeing some of his analysis soon!

  • 4 years ago


    Most of the commentators say that this article is *****
    I agree. Here, in Spain A LOT of old people do the same:

    They´ve 2100 but, in this stages of life, you don´t want points, you want MONEY. Therefore they lose on purpose to lose Elo and to have <2000.

    Then, the rest in (>2000 tournaments) its a pice of cake unless young kids beat them... thats a horror for them...but not for us ;-) 

    Great article, "Spassky"!

  • 4 years ago



    Nicely said. "Spassky" 's arguments seem rediculous after reading both of your comments.

    @ "spassky":

    There is no reason for anyone to see my games,since those games are not educational or instructive to ANYONE,novice or expert. I do guarantee that my games are higher level than yours. Still those are not instructive!

    Also i am not going to explain the obvious to you. I am just going to give you a list of facts,which might (or actually probably might NOT,because of your ego) enlighten you:


    1. Unlike your first sentence in this article,You DID NOT play well.

    2. the best way to improve in chess,is to play against BETTER players than you. Not the same level. Not worse. Better. And yes,it does involve losing a lot of games.

    3.about my own tournament :Unlike the official tournament result,there were no 2 rated draws. Instead there were supposed to be two "byes". And I won another game against my opponent after the tournament was over.

    I asked the TD to fix it,and to submit my win,and he agreed. Should be on the website in the next few days. So a much better performance than yours,against better opposition (both Average-wise and Max rating-wise) and yet look at fact 4:

    4.I AM NOT PROUD OF WINNING A TOUGHER TOURNAMENT,neither am i going to publish my not-instructive games. I think that if anyone wants to study,learn from Capa,Botvinnik,Alekhine,Anand,Karpov,Kasparov,Fischer or Spassky-BUT THE REAL ONE. over the last 20 years,i doubt that you seriosuly studied  more than 500 games of all of the above. And you preach others how to study!...

    5. I am a better chess player than you. My CFC and Israeli ratings are higher than your rating,both average and max. But I know that i am a weak player,and i want to improve my game and become an IM. Even if i won't achieve that,i will die trying. I think it is a better state of mind than your "win some small U2000 tournament and tell about it".

    I strongly suggest that you will stop wasting other amateurs time by posting silly articles like this one.


  • 4 years ago


    Bruce Till:

    I don't have anything against you, but the truth is evident in the way you react to not so positive comments on your game level. Let me tell you something for good: There will always be people who criticize you, and maybe you know that really good, but you really look bad answering and reacting the way you did to those negative comments. With those reactions you had demonstrate the high but fragile ego you have. You are a 4-time amateur chess champion in Maryland and it's quite amazing; but just look at your reaction to zdigyigy 's comment. It wasn't offensive nor a threat, but it seems you really took it personal, it threatened your fragile ego and you reacted certainly like a teenager. Common! a guy your age should be more wise and calm when reacting to negative comments people make against you. By the way, I will say two more things: 1.- Excuse me everyone if my writing isn't neat, but english ain't my native language. 2.- I can bet you will get pissed off by my comments, and is likely you will either answer it in angry and agressive mood or trying to hide the fact that it bothers you... Or more likely is you won't even answer it. Whatever, I just wanted to advice you on it. Congrats for the good article, thanks for the eventual feedback Wink

  • 4 years ago


    Below GM strength? you don't have the strength of a FM. I take that back an expert.

  • 4 years ago


    Congrats - very inspiring!

  • 4 years ago


    Hello, I think it is wonderful that we the audience have the opportunity to digest the insights, opinions, and thoughts of an experienced player of Mr. Till level. I appreciate anything a player rated much higher than myself has to offer. I and others appreciate the obvious time Mr. Till put in to creating this artical. 

    If an individual is reading a post and they believe their level of chess is superior to the author, the thing to do would be to choose not to read the post or, if the must speak, offer constructive criticism of the article or chess being played. 

    It may be declared that Mr. Till is not strong enough a chess player to be a writer in the articles section of, but to me, his lower rating is an asset to his writing. He can offer content that no grandmaster can because of his perspective.


    To Mr. Till,

    I dont believe you need to defend your playing level, you certainly offer content of a quality high enough for this forum. I also think that your username is part of what attracts the trolls.

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