10 April 2012

Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills

After long and sometimes hard experience, I've come to the conclusion that the most effective pre-tournament preparation consists of sharpening and focusing what you are (or should be) doing for your longer-term training efforts.  This contrasts with the more common pre-tournament routine in which over the space of a week or two (at best) or a couple days (more often) players mostly spend time on openings and doing tactical drills, then put everything aside until the next tournament.

This type of staccato and rushed approach resulted in little success for me as an adult player.  During the scholastic phase of my career, I played in tournaments quite often, so without really trying I had constant exposure to new chess concepts and practical lessons, even though my (self-taught) training was not systematic.  There's a lot to be said for simply playing a lot of longer time control games, which looking back on it now was probably my best chess improvement practice.

Now with only sporadic participation in tournaments and a longer-term goal of improving my overall game, I've had to come up with something different for a training regimen, which has also meant a revised approach to pre-tournament prep work.  The primary principle I use both for long-term training and in preparing for tournaments will be a familiar one to many: train the way you fight, then fight the way you train.  This means that any training method used should accurately reflect, at least in part, the tournament game experience.  Conversely, it also means that when in a tournament game, a player should rely on their training when making decisions, rather than impulsively "winging it" when faced with an unclear situation.  One common example of this phenomenon is choosing to abandon your opening preparation when faced with a particular opponent.  This typically occurs when there is a large ratings gap and a player feels that their openings aren't good enough (if the opponent is higher-rated) or that the opponent (if lower-rated) can be easily beaten in an unfamiliar line.

Although I've codified things in a checklist format below and have indicated my own particular preferences, I want to clearly distinguish between the "what" and the "how" of tournament preparation.  This means that it is more important for a player to train the various skill sets before a tournament, rather than how exactly they go about it.  So within each category there will naturally be a number of options available regarding the materials and tools to be used for training.  Methods can also vary greatly from player to player; the below is simply what has proven to work best for me.

Pre-Tournament Checklist
  1. Tactical exercises.  Perform at least one set of exercises for 10-15 minutes a day, or multiple sets if desired, with breaks in between them.  Important: the exercises' objectives should be randomized.  This means avoiding sets of "mate in 3" problems or the like.  Your thought process will benefit most from having to figure out the best move from an original position, with no hints, as this is the reality of a tournament game situation.  Limiting the time spent on individual sessions helps keep the mind active and engaged throughout the process (a state of "mindfulness"), aiding in the longer-term retention of tactical concepts and patterns.  Finally, focus on relatively simple (up to three-move) combinations and motifs, as this is what you will see the overwhelming majority of the time during actual play.  I primarily use the Chess Tactics Server, since it meets all of the above criteria.

  2. Training games.  Play at least one slow (60 5 or 45 45 or higher time control) game per week against opposition of generally comparable strength.  Tournament rules should apply (game clock, touch move, no takebacks allowed).  Colors should be varied, either randomized each time or generally alternating over several games (no more than two Whites in a row, for example).  Early resignation is not allowed, except for clearly losing circumstances (loss of a major piece, or a minor piece with no compensation whatsoever).  I use Chessmaster: Grandmaster Edition for my computer opponents, playing in rated game mode and always playing the recommended next opponent after a game, a practice which adjusts their playing strength according to your performance.  The Chessmaster opponents' Elo ratings are not always good reflections of their practical performance, but I've found that my own rating generated by the program is remarkably accurate.

  3. Opening preparation.  Critically review all of your opening repertoire lines, concentrating on: a) the variations most likely to be played by your upcoming opposition; b) the most theoretically critical ones; and c) the most dangerous ones if you don't know/remember the theory.  All of the above are reviewed using chess books and articles (including videos), as well as database searches, so that ideas can be studied and not just lists of moves.  Taking the Caro-Kann variations as an example, I focus on the Main Line and the Advance Variation, with some attention paid to the Panov-Botvinnik Attack and the Exchange Variation (relatively common at the Class level), and finally the Fantasy Variation (as a potentially dangerous line).  All the others get at least one run-through in my repertoire database so that I can be reminded of key ideas and concepts of play.

  4. "Big think" activities.  While I'd consider the above three items to be fundamental, there's also an important role to be played by other activities that will energize your chess mind for the tournament experience.  Going over master-level annotated games (preferably ones played by the author) is one example, as you are thereby directly exposed to winning concepts and effective thought processes via the game commentary.  Other examples would include tackling middlegame and endgame books in a serious frame of mind, with the goal being to work through one particular book before the tournament.  The lessons will then be fresh in your mind and you are more likely to see opportunities to immediately apply them in your games.
Ideally an improving player is already doing all of the above types of things as part of a long-term training program.  In that case, preparing for a tournament becomes more a question of choosing to increase the focus on certain priority items over a shorter time period.

On a related note, I believe that a balanced approach to training chess skills will be the most productive for achieving good tournament results, rather than concentrating solely on one aspect such as tactical training or opening preparation, even if someone only has a short time period to put in the effort.  This is because successful tournament play demands a broad range of skills and practical preparation, rather than just knowledge of chess theory or performing well in rote drills.  As part of a balanced approach to pre-tournament preparation, it's also worth mentioning that players can choose to undertake certain mental preparations, which can be just as critical to one's tournament results as pure chess skill.  This is the subject of a companion post on mental toughness.

Finally, as with training in general, I believe people can and should have different approaches for tournament preparation, based on their learning styles and life circumstances.  One of the things I appreciate about the chess improvement community is the opportunity that it offers to better understand and then compare/contrast others' best practices, so I can incorporate them (or modified versions of them) into my own program.  So new ideas - at least ones that are new to me - and informed commentary about tournament preparation are always welcome.

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