Chess Beyond Tactics and Strategy: My Epic Journey to Mental Strength On and Off the Board

Chess Beyond Tactics and Strategy: My Epic Journey to Mental Strength On and Off the Board

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“In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety” – Abraham Maslow

How do you keep your competitive spirit alive when life happens, and you’re in the deepest dark? Many people don’t. But let me share my recent tournament experience and the transformation I went through, which not only yielded results but changed my perspective on chess and life in general. I hope this blog will challenge your views on your capabilities and potential as well!

At the end of last February, while attending the FIDE Candidates 2024 kickoffs, my friend, Adie, told me about the upcoming Canadian Women’s Zonal Championship, held here in Toronto from March 28 to April 2. “You should play,” she said.

My instant thought was, “No way! I just recovered from a 6-week illness that left me physically and emotionally drained. I barely spent time with my kids, and my end-of-term assignments are due in the first week of April (I’m studying copywriting at UofT). I was also set to volunteer for the FIDE Candidates event in the first week of April. And, chess? I haven’t played much chess since September!  

These negative thoughts were interrupted by Adie dropping a bomb: “They are giving out WCM titles if you score 50%”.



Can I make it? I went home that night and looked it up:

WCM title requirements at the Zonals

My mind raced with excuses as to why I was in terrible shape to compete in a 9-round classical tournament over the course of 6 days, but my heart whispered: “Challenge accepted.” And so, I signed up.


A miracle had to happen for me to actually be able to physically sit through those 4 to 6-hour games fully focused. Something had to change within the sluggish, exhausted me, but what?

And then … the answer fell right into my hands! (This is almost movie worthy!)

On March 12, a timely Chessmood email popped up in my mailbox, with a Subject: “Inspiring Insights on Mental Strength with Amy Morin.” In that email, there’s a link to Chessmood’s GM Avetik Grigoryan podcast with Amy Morin about the 13 things mentally strong people don’t do.

I listened.

This was exactly what I needed and it turned my thinking and perspective around.

13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do:

Amy Morin's 13 Things

With that in mind and all the expert advice on high performance that I’ve accumulated over the years, I came up with the following plan for the 2 weeks prior to my tournament. Here is what I did:

1. Physical training (weights and cardio) - because a strong body fuels the mind.

2. Cold showers - because nothing wakes you up like icy water and a few screams.

3. Brisk morning walks - catching early sunlight releases and regulates some important hormones that play a role in your wakefulness.

4. Digital detox - removing all my social media apps on the phone created incredible space and peace in my head.

5. Pre-wrote all my end-of-term assignments and pre-read all the school material.

6. Followed Amy Morin’s principles when in doubt.

7. Practiced Anat Baniel’s “Slow” essential as a form of mediation. (This means, you are meditating while extremely slowly moving one or two parts of your body. Your whole focus is not on your forever-elusive-breath-that-I-can-never-stay-focused-on but on your slow movements. 100% meditative focus with ease guaranteed!)

8. Stopped questioning my decisions and simply moved forward day by day.

9. Dusted off my Boris (AI chessboard) and played some slow games whenever anxiety of bombing this tournament crept in.


And just as I thought I was getting back into great shape, physically and mentally, fate added a plot twist and got me into a  ... car accident

That's roughly what my rear-end collision looked like


Red light. Major intersection. I’m breaking to stop my car but it keeps rolling. There is black ice underneath, there is a car standing in front of me, there are cars all around me. I have to stop, but it’s not working. I know I will crush.

My 7-year-old daughter is in the back seat, celebrating the 1st and 2nd place that her dance troupe won that morning at a dance competition. My mom is in the passenger seat.

And I’m heading straight into a car in front of me.



I don’t recall the last time I felt so helpless and at the mercy of external circumstances. I don’t recall the last time I questioned the fragility of life. One wrong move, one wrong turn, and your life changes. And it isn't even your fault.

Black ice.


Miraculously, no one got physically hurt. Just the cars got wrecked. But on the inside … I was hurt. I was devastated.

I considered withdrawing from the tournament which was only 5 days away. I was a traumatized, battle-worn Knight without his horsey. But, luckily, I was already practicing Amy Morin’s principles: don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself, don’t focus on things you can’t control, and don’t dwell on the past.

And so, I refused to be checkmated and moved forward. 

The Zonals

Reading Amy Morin's 13 Things in between rounds at the Canadian Zonals. Hart House, UofT.

The tournament was tough, I’m not gonna lie. But I was set to achieve my 50% goal. And I did! I got exactly 4.5/9 points.

It’s worth pointing out that 7/9 of my opponents were young girls under 20 (a safe assumption I hope), full of bursting energy, enthusiasm, and fighting spirit. And then there’s me – one tired middle-aged mom. Ha!

Yet, I was happy with many of my games. I definitely saw a huge improvement in my chess since the last tournament. Here is what I improved on:

1.       Showed fighting spirit. From the start, I fought for the center (finally!)

2.       Delivered some blows as opposed to constantly defending my position.

3.       Felt comfortable with the openings I played.

4.       Was actualy able to find and execute some winning lines.

But I also blundered. Twice veeery badly!

I don’t have any “special” games to brag about, so there’s nothing to showcase. But I will show you one game I played against WCM Morgen Mills. I chose this game because Morgen’s first move, 1… b6, threw me off right away. I’ve been playing the English Opening for 3 years now and it’s the first time I saw this move!

But I was able to fight for the center and figure out what to play nonetheless. And for me, that’s a huge progress!

I’m also showing you this game because it’s the most “human-in-all-its-glory” game I played. After a long, difficult fight, Morgen and I reached a theoretical draw. I knew there was no way for her to win. I relaxed. And … I blundered.


So, that’s the windy, difficult road I took to achieve my first norm for the WCM title. Now I just need 100 FIDE rating points and the title is mine!

At the Canadian Women's Zonals 2024

I hope you too, will implement some of Amy Morin’s principles and move forward with confidence.

Cheers to embracing life on and off the board, with courage and a touch of madness!

My best wishes to you all,

Olya K.

Former Canadian Girls Chess Champion (1999 tied for 1st, 2001 1st place)

Busy mom of two

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