Adult Improvers: Are you mentally ready for battle?
Photo: Tata Steel Chess / Alina L'Ami

Adult Improvers: Are you mentally ready for battle?

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At the end of January Vladimir Kramnik announced his retirement from chess at the age of 43.  In an interview with Marina and Sergey Makarychev he stated the following: “I felt I could no longer give my all. I still, as before, have a real love for chess, but I suddenly began to feel that the result of a game had stopped bothering me as much as it had until only very recently. And with such an attitude, that comes from somewhere within, it’s hard to count on good sporting results.”

I have a number of students who are between 40 and 60 years old and who want to improve their game and rating. They took an important first step by deciding to work with a coach who can see their blind spots and develop an action plan for improvement. In general, this includes:

  • Developing a robust opening repertoire and understand the associated middle game plans;
  • Play and analyze slow OTB games. I ask my students to play at least 50 games a year. Playing and analyzing your own games is one of the most important ways to learn. When you study you are probably at 70% of learning intensity. When playing a game this increases to 100%.
  • Do every day at least 15 to 30 minutes tactics. Analyze an exercise until you know it is correct and then move on. You can not guess in over the board games, so accuracy is more important than speed. It is also generally well known that practicing every day gives better results than doing tactics once a week.
  • Calculation and visualization training. The Russian school of chess training puts a lot of emphasis on calculation training. Identify position characteristics and calculate variations. I give my students a position, ask them to put in in the board and analyze it without moving the pieces. After an hour, write down all the variations that you have seen and believe are critical. Many students find this very difficult and find it especially difficult to consider the moves of the opponent.
  • Get rid of common ‘bad habits’:
    • Playing endless bullet and blitz games online. I will not debate the benefits or detrimental value of blitz. For most of us time is a critical resource. Playing bullet and blitz online is nice entertainment but just not the best use of your time if you want to improve.
    • Analyzing your game with an engine. Analyze your games with your coach and verbalize your thinking while analyzing. This gives your coach the opportunity to work on your misconceptions and in general identify areas for improvement for which he can develop a targeted improvement plan.
    • Getting into time trouble over the board. Whether the root cause is indecisiveness or perfectionism of both, the result is that whole points are put at risk during the time trouble phase.

I could continue with advice on how to train but that was not the objective of this article.  I started with Vladimir Kramnik's quote on his reason for retirement. It was not about his technical abilities, it was because of his mental state of mind.  Let’s assume that you are ‘technically ready’ to enter the arena again, are you also mentally ready? Jonathan Rowson commented that preparing for a chess game is all about preparing you nervous system for battle. To improve in chess and win you also have to be mentally prepared:

  • Confident and determined

When you sit down behind the board you can immediately read your opponents' determination to win and his confidence. If there is a big gap then this will often determine the result of the game. When you play an aspiring teenager who radiates: ‘Old man, I am ready to take you rating points!’, will you be resilient and show the youngster the benefits of your experience?

  • No fear of losing

Chess is emotionally not a zero-sum game. The agony of losing is much stronger than the joy of winning. Can you deal with losing a game while at the same time caring about the result? Are you able to shake a loss off and come back stronger the next game? Think about Gary Kasparov. Whenever he lost a game he would be a brutal force in his next game and often win them. Some players are afraid of losing rating and with that their standing in the chess community. They prefer to sit on the bench instead of playing. In the end we are all mortal, so where will you take take your rating points at the end of our life? Better enjoy the game and play fearlessly!

  • Resilient

As many points are won by brilliant attacks as by tenacious defense. In an interview with the Financial Times Magnus Carlsen called the following game the most satisfying of 2018:

Carlsen blundered in this position with 17.g4?? a piece as after 17... f4 both Be3 and Ng5 are hanging. Carlsen did not resign but decided to continue to fight and eventually won the game! Despite blundering a piece Carlsen probably called this game 'most satisfying' because it was the ultimate proof of the fighting character! Even is there is only a 1% chance of drawing or winning the game, Calrsen will continue to look for ways to complicate the game and pose challenges for his opponent. Move by move, without thinking about the result of the game. 

Often games are not a one-sided affair. You get a better position and then give your advantage away. How will you react by such a turn of events? Will you get discouraged and will this impact your play or will you dig in and decide to outplay your opponent for a second time? 

  • Disciplined and focused

Do you have the discipline to work on improving your chess in a systematic way? Losing weight is also about changing habits and showing discipline. We all know the success rates of people aiming for sustained weight loss.

GM Matthew Sadler and WIM Natascha Regan wrote in 20116 the excellent and very enjoyable book Chess For Life, Understanding how chess skills develop and change with time. It includes interviews with players who continued to play well into their forties and fifties like John Nunn, Yasser Seirawan, Nigel Short, Judith Polgar and Jon Speelman. The book examines the changes that affect players when they get older, which techniques players are using to cope with these changes and which choices these players made to help ‘future-proof’ their game. Personally, I liked the interview with FM Terry Chapman the best. A very honest interviews with a retired CEO who focused on improving in chess and improved his rating from 2161 to 2331.

Some highlights from the advice throughout the book:

  1. Seek out tournaments where you feel comfortable and that you enjoy.

This can be for different reasons, like friends that you can socialize with or because of non-chess related activities in the city that you visit like museums. Personally, I get inspired by playing in tournaments alongside the best players in the world like in Tata Steel Chess, Gibraltar and the Isle Of Man tournament. Compare this to typical US weekend tournaments with 2-3 rounds a day or accelerated play. Choose the time control that you like best and decide how many hours you want to be behind the board a day. USCF Master Fred Wilson always takes byes in US weekend tournaments so he is fresh when facing is opponent. In summary, you perform better when you are happy!

  1. Training strategies
    • Use a training buddy to train new openings over the board. Decide which opening you want to practice, prepare and then play.
    • When you try to understand typical middlegame strategies of openings, look at games between GMs (2600+) and Amateurs (below 2300). The difference in rating makes the plan much clearer.
    • Blunder checking: with age, the consistency of your moves decreases. Make your candidate move in your head first, visualizing the move in your mind’s eye before actually making it on the board and tour the board in your head looking for unprotected pieces, a vulnerable king (check) etc. 
  2. Conserve energy during the tournament 

Your preparation should be 90% before the tournament and very limited in the tournament. Avoid playing 8 hours, then analyzing your games 2 hours and then preparing another 4 hours.  Focus on the basics: eating and sleeping well. Combine some moderate physical activity with your intense mental activity.

Finally, Ben Johnson of  The Perpetual Chess Podcast has a special focus on ambitious adults (Adult Improver Series). They are definitely worth listening to and include a lot of good advice. A recurring theme is the importance of active learning versus passive learning. That theme is aligned with the research on deliberate practice. See my blog: Training as a pro

My favorites in the Adult Improver Series are the following episodes: EP 76. Andrzej Krzywda, EP.86 - USCF Master Fred Wilson, EP.87 - Stacia Pugh and further EP.95 - USCF Master and further Cognitive Scientist Christopher Chabris. Check them out.

Let me close with a reaction from IM Ali Mortazavi on my blog: Sit down at the board and enjoy playing the game. Take each move as it comes and try to play the best move every move. But above all, enjoy being the artist. Don’t spend too much time thinking about just winning.

A great perspective that completes the circle. Kramnik considered himself an artist and often compared himself with a painter. His beautiful creations will be missed.