Two Winning Habits at US Championship
I recently competed in the U.S. Championship from May 3-12. It was held at the St. Louis Chess Club which as usual provided excellent conditions. Congrats to Gata Kamsky for winning; Alejandro Ramirez for tying for 1st in the classical games; Kayden Troff and John Bryant for earning norms; and Irina Krush for winning the concurrent Women's Championship. As for me, it was my first U.S. Championship and my best tournament result thus far. I scored 5.5/9 with a performance of about 2670 FIDE, and finished in 5th place. I will share two strategies that helped me to achieve a good performance, with the standard disclaimer that they may not work for others, or be good ideas at all.
I am a big believer in the power of negative thinking.
Consider my results at three training tournaments for the University of Texas at Dallas team:
In both the fall and spring UTD invitationals of the 2011-12 year, I went into the tournament excited and thinking about getting a good result. Then I lost in rounds one and two, and felt awful. I wished that I didn't have to play for the rest tournament and was convinced that it was no longer possible for me to get any kind of decent result. Then in both tournaments, I proceeded to get a GM norm by doing well in the next 7 rounds (even though the performance rating for the norm is measured over all 9 rounds). Also in the UTD Spring Open this year, after an OK start, I lost twice in rounds 5 and 6. Then I won 3 times to finish tied for 3rd.
So looking at these tournaments, the obvious question is, why not skip the double-loss and just start out with the negative attitude at the beginning?
Therefore, I tried to vigilantly avoid thinking optimistic thoughts about my chess during the tournament. Often during a game I would catch myself thinking something like "Wow, I'm totally winning now..." but then I would correct myself by following up with "... but I'm going to totally ---- it up and get a lost position with my next move!" Even away from the board, I tried to keep in mind that I was going to lose the next day. I think that the practice of always telling myself that I am going to make a mistake is helpful to avoid making blunders. It is too easy, especially in a comfortable position, to become relaxed and allow the game to slip away. In the future I will definitely try continuing this attitude, with the possible exception of team tournaments, where it is probably not a good idea to tell my teammates we are going to lose.
In the last round, I lost because I let down my guard and stopped thinking pessimistically. We reached an obviously drawn endgame right after the time control. We both avoided forcing the game to its logical result, instead keeping pieces on and hoping for a mistake by the opponent. On move 64, I decided that I just wanted to make a draw since the position could only be dangerous for Black at that point. At move 76, I thought something like "This guy is really delusional!" since he still did not want to admit a draw in the following position:
It was a mistake to become confident of the draw, no longer telling myself I am going to lose. I should have continued to be vigilant, and maintained a perpetual check, or with a modicum of calculation, spotted an opportunity to exchange queens and eliminate his last pawn. Instead I moved aimlessly and handed my opponent a gift.
My other most important strategy was to eat large quantities of chocolate. My chocolate consumption included oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, dark chocolate malt balls, chocolate-covered almonds, chocolate torte, double chocolate truffles, and peanut butter chocolate truffles. I also brought Oats and Dark Chocolate granola bars, which I often eat in a hurry before a morning round, but I did not eat any during this one-round-per-day tournament.
Chocolate was not only intrinsically powerful due to its chocolatiness; it also helped me by avoiding the need to go out and eat dinner. Each evening I needed both to prepare for the next round and to work on my three take-home finals. By subsisting on chocolate rather than going to the trouble of getting a "real" meal, I freed up additional time for accomplishing my tasks.
I could say more about chocolate, but it is unnecessary since you can taste it for yourself. Good luck to readers in finding your own winning strategies!