Tournament preparation

Tournament preparation

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Are you not ready for tournaments and always lose badly? Here, this tips from can help.

Tournament Preparation for Amateurs

Recently on several chess discussion forums, players have asked how to prepare for tournaments. As a result of this, I have provided some common sense tips for players which I think most amateurs can apply to their own preparation.

First, I want to mention that preparing for tournaments is a little different than playing a casual game with a friend or blitz games on the internet. There are more players involved and the stakes are usually higher. Therefore, players may get a little more nervous than usual when playing. Therefore, some of my recommendations revolve around this aspect. In any case, here are my recommendations.

Before the Tournament

1. Tactics: I believe that this is perhaps the best thing that a beginning or intermediate player can practice before a tournament (or anytime). Usually, I try to do 20-30 minutes of tactical problems (mating problems, tactical motifs, short endgame problems) daily. A week or so before a tournament, I usually try to do twice the amount. This is the equivalent of batting practice before a baseball game or shooting free-throws before a basketball game. One reason for this is that during these tournament games, we are nervous, but so is our opponent. Small tactical shots can be easily missed. During one of my recent tournament games, I built up a beautiful position only to hang a pawn and end up drawing a game I should have won. I'm sure you have similar anecdotes. Terrence Chapman reportedly did 800 tactical problems in preparation for playing Garry Kasparov in their recent odds match. GM Kevin Spraggett on his interesting web site professes to doing at least two hours of tactics training before tournaments. So study and train tactics before the tournament.

2. Conditioning: The great Botvinnik was one of the first masters to involve exercise regularly as part of his chess training. If you look at pictures of Kramnik when he was one of Kasparov's trainers for Kasparov's 1995 match against Vishy Anand and compare them to his current photos you will notice two things: he has a better haircut now and he is a lot slimmer. He trained rigorously with the physical trainer for the Russian Basketball Team before his match with Kasparov (and you saw where that got him). Kasparov himself has always been somewhat of a gymrat. I love how he described his training regimen for matches: "...I would do an hour or two of rowing or swimming, then perhaps a little gym or boxing..." If you exercise regularly, great. If not, perhaps consider taking a 20-30 minute walk before your chess study. Of course, don't overdo it. Like any sport or competition, rest before the event is also necessary (see my next recommendation). Exercise does several things which are beneficial to the chess player. First, it increase the level of blood and oxygen to the brain. Secondly, your body will be able to endure stress more effectively with more conditioning. Thirdly, improved endurance is especially important for longer time controls.

3. Rest: Proper rest is necessary for the mind and body to function most effectively. In addition to the amount of sleep the body requires, regularity in sleep times is also important before a tournament. Try to sleep and rise at the same time regularly before the tournament. Give your body a week or so to adjust to the sleeping schedule (if it is different than your usual schedule). One example of this is when I played in the World Open in 2000. I had a difficult time the first day because the first game started at 11 a.m. and the second game ended (potentially) around midnight. I normally sleep much earlier (10 p.m.) and rise much earlier (6-7 a.m.). Therefore, I needed to get used to getting up a little later and sleeping later. If you practice this beforehand, your body will be adjusted.

4. Openings: Many amateurs study the opening way too much (I know I do). However, before the tournament, it may be a good idea to know what you will be playing before a tournament. For example, if you regularly employ several defenses to 1.e4, you may consider cutting down to one or two for the tournament to reduce study time. In the United States, most big tournaments are Swiss System tournaments implying that you will not play the same opponent twice. You do not need to worry about your opponent's "preparation" for a return game if you defeat him earlier. Also, don't worry too much about the openings except in areas you find in recent games which are deficient (recent games are important because they are fresher in your memory and emotions). Studying your opening play in these games will be more beneficial because you will remember them better (especially if you lost the game).

5. Put it in perspective: Perhaps the last bit of advice I can give is one given to me by a friend (who also happens to be a chess master). "In the end, it is just a game. Have fun! You'll play better also." Remember, you can be serious and have fun at the same time! It's much better to the alternative: Being serious and not having fun.

During the Tournament

Just a couple tidbits to remember when you're already in the tournament.

1. Before your game, consider taking a 5-10 minute walk. This will help you get some fresh air (see my note on conditioning) and it shouldn't be long enough to tire you out. Also, it will help you relax and clear your mind before your match. During the game, occassionally leave your seat to stretch or get some fresh air (but not too much; see below).

2. Diet: Make sure to eat during long tournament days. A grumbling stomach can be quite distracting. Also, your mind and body need the nourishment. However, don't pig out! I saw a guy eat a large pizza between rounds at the World Open. I don't know how he did, but I'm sure the pizza did not help.

3. Clock Management: Use your opponent's time. Although I recommend occassionally getting up to stretch or get some fresh air, at least 95% of your opponent's time should be spent at the board. At tournaments with long time controls, it is surprising to see players get up and catch a smoke or watch the baseball game at the bar during a game. One time an opponent of mine got up after reaching the first time control and he didn't come back for half an hour. I made my move about five minutes after he left, so he lost 25 minutes of his own clock! However, I'm talking about using your opponent's clock. During this time, you can evaluate the general position (e.g. pawn structure, weak squares, etc.) and spend more time evaluating concrete variations and continuations on your time when your opponent has made a move. I have improved much in my tournament results since following this advice.


I have given some common sense recommendations for ways you can prepare for tournaments. You may have noticed that several of my recommendations involved the conditioning aspects of chess. This is the main difference between tournament chess and casual play. A tournament is a competition, and preparation for it is different than playing your friends on the internet. Just as an athlete may prepare differently for a championship competition than for pre-season competition, chess players can do the same. I have found these practices to help me have more successful and enjoyable tournament experiences.

This was not written by me, it was written by Brian Castro.

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