Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Prepare for a Big Chess Tournament

"The good fighters of old put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy." ~Sun Tzu
Your humble author (left) in a tournament game.
Photographer: M. McDuffie
We play chess fairly often. There are online games and correspondence games. Over-the-board, we have various tournaments, leagues, and casual play. Every once in a while, though, we have a BIG tournament.  This could be a scholastic championship, your club championship, or a large prize tournament. It's something with a little more significance than your other chess play.

In this article, we will discuss some practical and effective ways to prepare for these tournaments. These methods are useful for chess play in general, but are especially useful when preparing for a tournament that is very important to you.


I've written several times about the importance of sleep and chess improvement. Although sleep is important all the time, in multiple-round tournaments over several days it is vital. With long time controls and two or three rounds in a single day, you can be in a single match for four or five hours and be playing chess for up to ten hours! 

Read Better Sleep for Better Chess for more details, but here are some of the benefits of proper sleep.
  • Increased cognitive functioning.
  • Increased vigilance - e.g. you won't miss as much.
  • Increased attention.
Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep at night and youngsters may need more. This could be the most important preparation for your tournament (assuming you maintain your other chess training).

Tactics Training

I also recommend increased tactical training. International Master Nazi Paikidze noted that she often solved 50-100 tactical problems in preparing for her victorious run at the 2016 U.S. Women's Championship. You don't need to solve as many as Ms. Paikidze, but the idea is to sharpen your tactical sword

I recommend a mix of tactics training, including your traditional tactical problems that you see on Chess Tempo or Chessity, as well checkmate problems and endgame studies to help develop your calculation and visualization skills.

If you already study a lot of tactics, you may not have to increase your volume. For example, if you are doing tactics for an hour a day or more, it may be best to just maintain that and work on some of the other training activities I will mention.


Exercise is good for your body and your mind.
Long tournaments are not just a test of your chess skill, but also a test of your stamina and endurance. Physical activity is important to maintaining your mental effort during the long matches and days. Most of the world champions (particularly the more recent ones) often had very rigorous physical training. Bobby Fischer used to swim many laps underwater to increase his body's ability to utilize oxygen efficiently.

Although any physical activity is better than none, I recommend you emphasize two specific areas in your exercise. 

First, cardiovascular endurance is very important for oxygen utilization by the brain (and body). Basically, any activity that gets your huffing and puffing and sweating will be effective. It could be traditional cardiovascular exercise like running and swimming or training methods such as kettlebells or Crossfit that include a strength component to training the heart and lungs. One Filipino martial arts expert used to run a lot but then he realized he got the same benefits and had more from playing basketball with his boys!

Second, strengthening the core muscles around the lower back and abdominals is important. The reason is that we will be sitting at the board for a long time, and our ability to maintain our posture and be comfortable will keep us from getting distracted. Exercises that strengthen your core include squats, crunches, and planks.

If you are not familiar with exercise, please start slow and with short sessions. Having a physical injury is not helpful for chess, so work within your experience and skill level. 

Also remember that exercise won't make you a grandmaster (at least not overnight), but it will help your energy levels during the fourth and fifth hours of a tournament match.

Your Openings

Reviewing your openings is an essential aspect for tournament preparation. This can be overdone, so I'll just give you a few guidelines.
  • Review lines within your opening repertoire. There are several good tools for assisting in this, including Chessable and Chess Position Trainer. You can read my review of Chessable.
  • As most of my readers are amateurs, I recommend focusing on one response to each of the major openings. For example, you do not need to learn both the French and the Sicilian against 1.e4. Pick one and focus on it and then do this for every major junction in your opening repertoire.
  • Once you are within a month or two of the tournament, I do not recommend learning a totally new system to play in the tournament. Your experience within the systems of your repertoire are as important as the specific lines you play. So play what you know!
  • My only exception to the previous point is if you have a glaring hole in your repertoire. For example, if you don't have a system you are confident in against either 1.e4 or 1.d4, then I would suggest picking one and then studying it, because most likely you will face it in one of your matches.
Being confident with your opening repertoire will help you greatly in the tournament. Tournament time is not time to experiment with new openings. 

Playing with a Purpose

Before the big event, you will probably have several opportunities to play either over-the-board or online. Use this time to work on specific parts of your game that may need some practice.

It is important to review your recent games. I've written several articles about this include the following:
You should start to notice a few habits that you might want to improve in future games. I recommend picking one or two of these aspects and make them practice objectives for your non-tournament games.

Here is the process I use:

  • Identify the objectives to focus on. I write these down on an index card, and usually have no more than one or two.
  • Play the game, being mindful of these objectives during my play.
  • After the game, review my progress and success in accomplishing the objectives.

For example, I recently had noticed that I was playing passively in the endgame, particularly with my rook. In the last several games, one of my objectives was to have "Active pieces in the endgame." The following game is a demonstration of that habit I have been developing (from a recent tournament).

Mental and Emotional Training

The final area that you might want to include in your tournament preparation is some type of mental and emotional training. This involves learning to control your emotions as well as learning to be present in your games. Here are a few of the chess benefits of training your mind and emotions:
  • Focus and attention during deep calculation
  • Resilience when under pressure
  • Bouncing back from setbacks
How does one train one's mind and emotions? There are many methods and I am not an expert, but here are a few methods I have used to improve myself in this area.
  • Meditation: It doesn't have to be complicated. I use Headspace as well as general breath awareness meditation.
  • Deep breathing: This is related but also separate from meditation. Learning to breath well can help you keep calm and provide your body and mind with oxygen. This is especially helpful during tense chess positions!
  • Visualization: I visualize myself playing confidently and calmly. I play some classical music in the background and imagine myself at the board playing against a tough opponent. There is a lot of information out there on visualization but again, you don't have to make it complicated. See yourself and the qualities you want to have when you are playing. A few minutes a day can do a lot!
  • Journaling: I have journaled for years, and I find it very helpful in terms of getting thoughts out of my head and onto paper (or more recently, onto the computer). If you try this, I would recommend writing down your goals and ambitions surrounding the big event, and also your fears and worries about it. When you see it written in front of you, you can start to think rationally about it and see that a lot of your fears and worries are either without warrant, or something you can overcome with preparation.
If you are more interested in mental training and sports psychology, I would recommend checking out the books of Bob Rotella and anything by psychologist Michael Gervais.

Preparing for Success

Hopefully, your chess training has been consistent and steady for a long time before your big events. A solid foundation of chess knowledge and practice is essential for success. These tips are not meant to replace the hours spent studying and practicing and can't make up for neglecting that training.

However, tournament chess is different than playing online or casual games with your friends. The amount of focus and effort your opponent will be exerting will be much higher and you need to be ready to meet the challenge. Similarly, the pressure you put on yourself will be greater. More intense preparation is often helpful to bridge the gap from your everyday chess play and the rigors of tournament play.

Follow these tips and you'll find yourself in the best place mentally, physically, and emotionally to tackle the challenges of your next big tournament!

Good luck!

Your Turn

How do you prepare for tournaments?

Do you have a big tournament coming up?

Share in the comments!

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  1. One way to divide chess training would be A) improving access to what you already know and B) fundamentally changing your understanding. I like that you focus primarily on A for getting ready for a big tournament. B is important, but it takes weeks if not months to make these kind of improvements. If you have one week before a tournament, the knowledge you bring into that tournament will basically be the knowledge you have right now, for better or worse. It's best to focus on things like getting enough sleep to make sure you can use what you know effectively.

    1. That is an important delineation to make that I don't make fully clear in the article. Thanks for the distinction!

  2. A week before a tournament, in the ideal scenario of a perfect world, I would put the priorities like this: 1)Exercise, sleep, sleeping habits.
    2)Tactics study.

    After this it gets gray. Ideal would be some endgame study. Opening study can be quite practical, and can improve your results. The problem with opening study is that it should be ongoing rather than part of preparing for a tournament, particularly because it will often interfere with 1) and 2) above.

    Your main opening lines deserve some study from time to time. The problem is that hardly anyone does where there are lots of tournaments because people spend all their chess time playing and never getting openings study in. Openings study tends to be a very neglected area, I'd say, because so many Masters have talked it down for so long, and then some lower-rated player has great results against higher-rateds because they put in the openings study!

    1. You make some great points.

      I think right before the tournament it's important to review not only specific opening lines but also the general plans of the opening (particularly in openings you don't play often but may see in a tournament).

      It also depends on a player's level. As ratings go up, it is more likely that you'll see yourself playing a main line of an opening.

      I think after the first two points you make - sleep/exercise and tactics - a lot depends on a player's specific needs. As Nate mentioned, one you're a week or so away, you "know what you know."

      This is where I think the focus is coming in rested and confident, which is where the sleep and mental training comes in.

      Thank you for your comments and for reading the article!