Finding a "formula" for chess success: Invent your own dictums
I'm having one of those aha! moments. One of those moments where an assortment of scrawled notes until now somewhat haphazardly placed in dusty mental shelves suddenly finds harmony: a victory of mental housekeeping (and, in turn...drum roll...of chessdom). And this is the (constantly evolving, yet, at least for now, temporarily cystallized) product.
This is all about what I'll call here auto-dictums. That's right, they're dictums that you make up and that apply to you. They're your own personal philosophy, the result of painstaking work and reflection. In other words, they rule in the kingdown of your mind and self. And, just as our experiences and thought processes differ, it's unlikely that you'll find two sets of identical auto-dictums across any given sample of human souls (unless peple are copying and pasting from chess blogs and the like).
Though initially informal (now crystallizing), my auto-dictums have served me well. Since I've been using them, out of my last 9 tournament games, 6 have been victories, 2 draws, and 1 loss (::knock on wood::). Using my auto-dictums, I look forward to seeing this trend continue, and I won't accept "stop" for an answer.
My auto-dictums are simple, even obvious. This is their strength: auto-dictums force us to boil everything down to the essence of what matters to us. Conversely, they force us to avoid distracting, extraneous, and downright frivolous thoughts in the heat of battle. Just as a strong chess player cannot thrive in the long run by cannibalizing the ideas of others -- indeed, chess ideas are meant to be borrowed, recycled, repurposed, but, as Alekhine described, vision is essential, as is will-power (see: Korchnoi), and thus the will to constantly create and implement one's vision in the face of a rival trying to persuade you otherwise -- the fruits of one's dictum-originality are far sweeter. They are highly personalized, tweaked as needed, meaningful, and thus they carry that much more force. Yet they necessarily borrow from the dictums of others, floating around in various parts of chessdom, as well as keen observations of friends and foes across the board and otherwise in your journey of chess and of life.
How do you come up with them? Who cares? It doesn't matter. There is no boilerplate recipe for success! I imagine we all know that by now. (Trying to mimic Capablanca will get you somewhere, though; oh, and study Rubenstein's rook endings, of course; and don't forget to put on your pants one leg at a time.) But the key, in my opinion, is that you must be brutally honest with yourself, you must play lots and lots of games (preferably serious ones where something is at stake other than just your ego, e.g., a $250 entry fee), you must annotate your games and include a frank narrative about what went wrong and how to improve upon it, you must solicit this advice from other strong players to ensure that your analysis is not overly influenced by the hottest engine, you must read a lot about chess, etc., etc. (Remember what I said about there not being any boilerplate recipe for success? Good. Now disregard everything I have said. Then use your chessy analytical powers to put it all together and start drafting some victorious auto-dictums.)
These are my (core) auto-dictums for the moment:
1. Insist on finding the best move, every move.
2. Put everything you have into every game.
So simple, right? You may think, "How are these going to help?" or, more likely, "duh." But I've found that there is immense power in codifying such simple (yet highly personalized, based on your current needs at the moment) concepts into auto-dictums.
For instance, if I tell myself that I need to find the best move every move, soon I'll start to believe it. Then I'll start doing it. Then it'll become a habit, and that'll be even better. Not to mention the practical value of constantly looking for best moves: it'll give you something productive to do, rather than, say, looking at your friend's game. And it'll guarantee that you never make any move "in passing" (that's for pawns, they rarely do it, and when they do, it's usually a good thing...or so their pusher thinks).
As for "Put everything you have into every game," that matters, too. It's easy to play a lazy game. Especially against a lower rated opponent. When you put everything you've got into every game, when you bring an immense amount of energy to the board (think: Kaspy, Tal, Fischer, Lasker, Korchnoi, etc.), you'll guarantee that Caissa will see your greatest intellectual effort on a consistent basis. And if you happen to lose that way, well then you sure as hell know you died trying and left nothing behind. Which I think is something to be damn proud of.