12 April 2012

Tournament Preparation: Mental Toughness

This companion post to Tournament Preparation: Chess Skills discusses some techniques that players can use to mentally prepare themselves for success at a tournament.  Most importantly in practical terms, mental toughness and improved focus will enable a player to better leverage their existing chess skills, which in turn will lead to a higher performance level.  Furthermore, good mental preparation will help form a bulwark against negative thinking and results, while also helping one recover more quickly from a bad outcome.

Below is a set of conscious decisions that can be made, or attitudes that can be adopted, regarding your chess game.  Using these techniques has assisted me in combating negative and unproductive modes of thinking.  In fact, I credit them as being a key part of my improved chess performance since this blog was started, which has included beating the strongest opponent (2100+) faced in my chess career.  I believe that the techniques listed here will all contribute to a player becoming mentally tougher at the board, as they address (directly or indirectly) a number of the unhelpful fears, anxieties and fantasies we may have about our tournament performance.
  • Treat each game as an individual chance to excel at an activity you enjoy, while accepting the fact that you may lose.  If you lose, take away lessons from it both in terms of chess skill and mental preparation.  Do not waste energy on excuses, whether or not they are justified.  If you win, enjoy your victory but be sure to identify what your opponent did to allow it, since you did not win the game alone.  In this way, each game will become another stepping stone on your path to mastery.
  • Consider every opponent as worthy, but able to be defeated.  Do not worry about your opponent's rating during the game, as this becomes a source of fear and loathing.
  • Go into a game with the objective of playing well and looking to win, rather than to play perfectly; no one plays perfectly, so do not bother to attempt it.  Having an understandable winning plan or spotting a crucial tactic is what is needed for victory, not what your computer engine says afterwards is the best move.  (This is also a key underlying premise of Chess for Tigers.)
  • Resolve to play what the position demands.  If your opponent's position is vulnerable to an attack, then go on the offensive; do not play passively.  If your opponent's attack will end up coming first, or your attack has failed and and a counterattack is imminent, find the mental coolness necessary to defend well.  It requires mental courage for both attack and defense.
  • Do not deliberately aim for a draw from the start of a game, regardless of your opponent's rating or your tournament standing.  If you play your best and press any advantages you are able to obtain, you are more likely to achieve what you need and may in fact win.
  • Resolve not to offer a draw to your opponent unless the position on the board is in fact completely drawn.  This will contribute to a winning mindset and to not being afraid to play out any position.
  • Do not think about the probable future result of the game while it is in progress; think about what you (and your opponent) can do with the position on the board.  There is a big difference between what should be a winning position and what is actually a won position; do not confuse the two.
  • Do not think about your current or future tournament standing during the game.  The position in front of you is not affected by your current score or by how many future points you may fantasize about winning.
  • Consciously accept your overall limitations while playing in the tournament, so that you are not distracted by your perceived failings as a chessplayer; address them later as part of your long-term training program.  During a tournament, you will not be able to remember by rote all of your opening lines; this is normal and will not make you ignorant and helpless.  You are also unlikely to make major new breakthroughs in middlegame or endgame knowledge while the tournament is in progress; instead, recognize that what you know gives you enough skills to play well and win against comparable opposition.
These practices can of course be difficult to adhere to, especially the ones where you resolve to not think or do something. The point here is to have a conscious goal of ignoring certain things which will only serve to distract you from the central activity of playing chess to the best of your ability.  When these distractions do occur, with your additional mental toughness you can identify them and then mentally set them aside, thereby returning to a more productive thought process that is focused on the position in front of you.  Again, perfection in thought is not the goal, just as perfection in play is not attainable.  However, an end result of more productive behavior and thinking at the chessboard (or computer, for online tournaments) is quite attainable.

There are also broader practices involving mental strengthening and stimulation which can be applied to chess.  I find especially helpful ones which help calm the mind and allow you to perceive situations more objectively, which improves your analysis and judgment at the board.  One should follow the dictates of the position, whether it tells you to attack or defend.  It is a great deal easier to hear what it is telling you when your mind is not generating extra noise.  For more on this, along with some of my own observations on cross-training and the Kung Fu of chess, it's worth highlighting that GM Nigel Davies has made some parallel observations on his Chess Improver blog.


  1. Awesome post. I highly recommend reading the Amateur's Mind if you find yourself being psyched out during many of your chess games. Of course being psyched out doesn't mean you curl up in a ball and play passive moves; more often then not it showed class players lashing out against their opponents King in order to feel some modicum of control. I think there's a whole chapter devoted to this sort of thing called the "Mindless King Hunter" or something.

    Being just a mental sport I'd say confidence means a ton in chess. Be sure to have it against even much higher rated players. I've lost to a couple people in the C class so I'm positive an expert/master could lose to me as well. Remember we all lose, fight like hell even if you know your losing and now and then they will crack depending on how good they are. If not you can hold your head up high, review why you loss probably with that stronger player and move on with your day. Good post!

    1. It's true that some players to want to attack all the time, regardless of what is going on; that's a good point about the desire to feel in control (if only for a move or two until the attack peters out). I've certainly benefited from that phenomenon on the other side of the board, such as when an opponent has been under pressure and then decides to sac a piece for a pawn or two, which just ends up hurrying the loss.

  2. These are all great. One other thing I try to do is really treat the game as a sporting contest between two fallible individuals, rather than as a series of logic puzzles where I am destined to fail at some point or another. This fits well with your note that "perfection in play is not attainable".

    1. Your point about failure is spot on, since if we try to aim for perfect play, then we will inevitably view ourselves as failures to some extent. This is in practical terms kind of ridiculous - no one is ever 100% perfect at anything in the long term - but can be an easy mental trap to fall into, especially now that use of strong computer engines for post-mortem analysis is ubiquitous.

  3. This was a tremendous post! Thank you very much for posting it! This is a post I'll keep coming back to to read.

    1. Thanks for the comment. One of the reasons I post these types of things is to get it all down on (virtual) paper, in order to review them for reinforcement purposes myself.

  4. Great post on an important, yet often neglected topic : chess is a very mental/psychological activity, and this can easily supersede the technical aspects of the game


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