Preparing for a tournament

IM Juraldo
Mar 29, 2016, 2:24 AM |

I frequently get asked – How do I prepare for a tournament? There are tons of books, articles, videos, bases etc. With such abundance of information it is understandable that an inexperienced player does not find his way around to setting up a proper chess training routine. One of the more reliable advices on how to work at home could come from an experienced coach or a chess friend above your level. Try to work in couples with a player of similar strength and you might learn from each other. The second common question I tend to get is – How long do I need to prepare for a tournament? My answer is: As soon as you finish the previous tournament. Right after you finish the tournament (partly also during the tournament) you should analyze your games and try to discover not only the mistakes you are making but why are you making them. Especially when you start to become more serious with chess, I advise against solely consulting an engine to help you with the game analysis. Try to ask a coach for an opinion or ask your opponent to analyze the game after you finished so you can see his or her insight into your game. To sum up, I would advise you to do many things around chess – play, analyze, study etc. The more knowledge you acquire, the more interesting study of chess becomes.

1. Solve tactics

Solving tactics is especially beneficial for beginners, as many games decide with one of the sides blundering a piece or a tactical motif, while the positional game is often in second plan. Avoid solving tactics which give you too many information, for example mate in 3 moves. Ideal would be to solve problems without hints as that is the closest approximation to a real chess game. Concentrate on simple tactics first, as complex problems are just a combination of elementary tactical motifs. I would suggest you take a sheet of paper with printed diagrams and solve it with pen and paper without moving the pieces on the board. Solving tactics on the computer (there are many online tactics trainers nowadays) is useful to some extend but you need good self-control. You should work out all the lines on the first move, not just guessing moves one by one and going along with computers suggestions. That way you do not train deep calculation in your head without moving pieces on the board. During a chess game you will be limited with time, so its useful to solve tactics with limited time control. A general advice for beginner to intermediate level would be - take 30min every day and solve mates, short endgames, tactical motifs etc.

2. Take care of your physical shape.

Chess players are more and more aware of the importance of being in a good physical shape as one of the main factors to play chess on the highest level possible for several hours. Exercise increases blood flow and improves the flow of oxygen in your brain which helps you with big mental and physical stresses during a chess game. One of the first who underlined the importance of exercise and incorporating it into daily training was ex World champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Nowadays most top chess players pay special attention to good physical shape – Kramnik supposedly worked with the coach of Russian basketball team and changed coffee and chocolate for tea and nuts while Carlsen supposedly spends almost every day in a gym working out on a treadmill. Especially active was Kasparov, who during the chess preparation camp rowed for an hour or two in the morning and followed it with gym or boxing in the afternoon. However during the tournament we should not exaggerate with exercise, since that can lead to tiredness during the game. Even a half an hour walk before the game can help a great deal with better concentration behind the board.

3. Get enough rest

Rest is essential for efficient mind and body. We all know we need enough sleep every night, but just as important is a sleeping routine. Before the tournament it makes sense to adjust your waking and sleeping hours to the tournament schedule. Enough sleep is maybe the most important part of preparing for the game outside of chess preparations. You can only play 4 or 5 hours on a high level when you are fully rested. Even good opening preparation will hardly help when you start to lose energy in the second hour of the game. I would also advise you to take rest from chess few days before the tournament to recharge your batteries. Nowadays many tournament are played with double rounds in one day and in that case, rest is even more important. Plan activities outside of the chess hall and try to switch your brain off from constantly thinking about chess. It is also important to take care of any work or other obligations before the tournament so you can solely focus on the tournament and the game you are playing.

4. Work on your opening repertoire.

Define the openings you will play at the tournament beforehand. During the tournament is not the best time to change and learn completely new openings. That does not mean you have to play exactly as the games you previously play, but rather find new ideas in the openings you are already playing. Repeat the main lines and explore additional side lines you could use. More than moves themselves try imagine playing positions you analyze at home and see if they fit your style. Accompany studying opening moves with studying middlegame pawn structures and endgame transpositions. It is good to refresh the lines you already play and check new games from top players if there were any new ideas you could use or prepare against. Especially focus on most forcing and tactical openings, since margin for error is the smallest in those kind of openings. For opening study I would mainly suggest working with a chess program like Chessbase since that is the fastest and most efficient way to study and repeat openings. You can use additional information, which can be found in articles, opening books etc. Nowadays most elite chess players dedicate up to 90% of their chess study to openings, since they can create good positions from the get go. With chess engines and bases with millions of games studying openings has become easier than ever and good opening preparation can put your opponent in a difficult situation from the start of the game. They usually spend 2-4 hours preparing for a game during the tournament, before the tournament they may have intensive one week preparations, where they could work up to 10 hours per day. Before engines even elite players played some questionable openings and gambits but nowadays you can easily prepare for that with an engine, so risky gambits are usually a thing of a one game surprise. That is way I would suggest you to build a sound opening repertoire, which can last a lifetime and your opponent cannot refute before the game. So how to choose solid openings and build a sound opening repertoire? One advice would be to check what the elite players are playing, since those openings cannot be bad in general. Sound openings can also be tactical (like grunfeld) but you have to study those kind of openings much more in depth than for example classical openings (like queen`s gambit) since they are usually much more forcing. So far we discussed opening preparation focusing mainly on strong amateur or master level players. Beginners however usually spend way too much time on openings, when the games are still mainly decided by blunders. Another mistake beginners are making is studying certain lines way to deep (until move 25) and completely disregard less common openings. They also tend to not focus on understanding positons and plans, while only knowing the moves themselves leaves many holes in understanding. As the saying goes – the chain is as strong as it weakest link, we can understand why strong players usually out prepare weaker players and find their weaknesses. There are no shortcuts to studying openings, you should study moves, structures, classical games and modern approaches and novelties.

5. Analyze past tournaments.

Analyzing your games is perhaps the most important part of chess study. After the tournament check your games with help of a computer engine and coach or friend and try to figure out the moments, where mistakes have been made. It is useful to write down the list of mistakes on a piece of paper (for example; bad time management, insufficient opening knowledge etc.) and try to work on those mistakes. Preparation for the next tournament starts immediately after you finish the current tournament. If you play a lot, you are forced to work on your repertoire even if you training schedule is not very consistent. Therefore playing slow chess is one of the best ways of improving your chess.

6. Play training games.

During the tournament preparation try to incorporate some training games with a longer time control (at least 1 hour per player) with an opponent of similar strength. The best approximation of a tournament chess game is of course to play over the board training games, but nowadays we have a lot of good alternatives; you can play online against other players or try playing certain opening structures against an engine, which you can usually set to your level. I cannot emphasize the importance of quality of the games over quantity, enough. Playing bullet chess and to some extend blitz chess online should be played deliberately. Especially bullet chess can do more harm than good for a chess player. Playing without checking your games (especially openings) afterwards brings little to no benefit, so make an effort to look at your games immediately after the session or a tournament (even rapid and blitz games). Playing games is of course important for progress. You can put into practice what you have learned, think critically, test your openings and ideas. Nevertheless you should be careful with balancing playing and studying time.

7. Prepare for your opponents.

Before playing a berger (round robin) tournament or a small swiss system (open) tournament, you can prepare to some extend; especially against players who will be a challenge for you to face. This type of pre-tournament preparation is especially important nowadays with shorter time controls (when you have little thinking time to face your opponent`s preparation) and 2 rounds per day, when you have little time to prepare during the rounds.

8. Set a goal

Set yourself a clear goal before the tournament, which does not have to be only connected with a result or performance (how many rating points can I gain) but also more specific, for example I will try to avoid time control, spend more time behind the board and less time walking around. A goal can also be better preparation for the game or a healthy lifestyle during the tournament (exercise, regular sleep routine etc.).

9. Sit at the chess board

Chess is a game which is obviously played at the chess board, so it makes sense to spend some time training over the board and not only on a computer so you get accustomed to the real life situation. That does not mean you should disregard studying chess with a computer, after all it makes studying openings and games much faster and easier than studying from books, while playing the moves over the board. Nevertheless, I would recommend (especially for beginner level) more time studying chess from books and playing over the board, and after you reach strong amateur or master level you could transfer more to computer work.

10. Solve positional puzzles.

Strategic puzzles are often in the shadow of tactics, but they are very important nevertheless. Positional puzzles are often taken from real games and they challenge a player in a simillar way that a game would. You traing logical thinking, coming up with plans, preventing opponents counterplay, maneouvre the pieces, provoke weaknesses, prepare an attack, defend against an attack etc. We should try to split strategic study in two parts: teoretical learning (where we can see examples on a certain topic) and practical problem solving (where we try to use the knowledge we gained in the theoretical part). Most quality chess books are made that way, and this process should also be used in a chess school or during an individual training.

11. Do not overdo the training.

Chess study should be optimized. Too many information or exercises on a certain topic might be counterproductive. Only working on theory of a theme without solving exercises will not be enough as well. For progress you should be very selective with choosing the right quality books and videos, avoiding studying anything you get your hands on without filtering.

12. Organize

Unorganized study is a common reason for stagnation, even with strong amateurs and masters. People often lose time studying some small parts of different chess literature without really working deliberately on mistakes they are making during the games. One solution to finding good literature would be to follow routines of well-known players and chess schools.

13. Avoid passive learning

Reading chess history, looking at random chess videos, clicking on chess forums, playing blitz games online etc. often takes a big chunk of an average chess player`s study routine. It can be fun, but that does not mean it is effective. Deliberate work means active work. When you start working on a new theme, ask yourself questions; why did the player choose this move over that one, try to dig deep. Take more time for a position and really try to understand it. Once again, its quality of the study that is more important than quantity.

14. Choose quality books and lectures.

A topic we already discussed but I want to emphasize the importance of it. Studying same themes from different books can vary a lot. Quality books will emphasize a theme (openings, strategic concepts etc.) from an objective stand point with all its positives and drawbacks. Often you can find authors that only praise a certain opening for example and they suggest it without being objective about it. Inexperienced players might fall for it, just because it sounds so good and easy. Nevertheless, that kind of subjectivity can be very bad for the progress of a chess player, who is not really aware of the objective assessment on the topic. That is why I recommend you to be very careful when you choose your literature, try to learn from experienced strong players and coaches and ask your coach or a chess friend about the quality of a certain book. Book reviews on popular shopping sites can often be misleading as most people commenting on the book are not really in a position where they could say what is good or not. It might help you if people review the book as easy to read etc. but I would always consult an expert on the quality of the lecture I am choosing, since studying second rate literature is like playing tennis with a second rate rocket. It might get the job done, but we want to get maximum from our equipment.

15. Have fun studying chess.

Sometimes we work hard on our chess but the results are just not going our way so that might put us a in bad state of mind, in which we may feel negative about chess as whole. In that case I would suggest you to take a step back, try to remember how much joy has chess has brought you over the years and pick up your favorite books or magazines from the past, try to watch some interesting motivational chess videos, find some interesting studies to solve etc. This kind of relaxed approach should make you feel better about your future deliberate work on chess.

16. Take care of your psychological preparation.

Psychological preparation is often a neglected part of tournament preparation, but can play a big role at level of your games. It helps to study some articles from sports psychologists, biographies of famous athletes etc. That can you give some insight in how other people prepare for competitions and deal with stresses connected with performing under pressure. For starters, a suggestion many experts give is to try and relax before the competition (or a chess game), take some deep breaths and focus solely on the game in front.

17. Work on all parts of the game.

Sometimes the best advice for tournament preparation can be simple. Strengthen the knowledge you acquired before the tournament (going through some articles on strategy, solving tactics, looking at high level games from openings you play etc.). This kind of advice often contradicts with what chess players usually try to do before the tournament - they try to squeeze in as much knowledge on opening theory in the shortest possible time frame, without really understanding the positions and plans at hand. That can often slow down progress, especially with beginners.

18. Train like Rocky.

Train as you fight, fight as you train. We should take every training as seriously as a chess game we will play, maintaining focus for the entire duration of it. If you can spend 4 hours concentrating during a chess game, you should be able to spend the same amount of time on training. Good, focused training is crucial, as unfocused training is often a time waster, and we might forget most of what we learned shortly after the training session.