06 May 2019

Practical thoughts from a champion on improving your chess

Jennifer Yu had the tournament of her career to recently become the US Women's Chess Champion for 2019. Her candid blog post at chess^summit about the process and how she went about it is worth reading in full, as it provides the perspective of a champion on how to have a successful breakthrough in chess performance - including the good, bad and occasionally ugly.

I'd like to draw attention to some specific things she mentions, which reinforce certain ideas about how you can work to improve your overall chess ability and maximize your performance in a given tournament.
  • She laments the fact that while she started out with a two hour a day goal for prep pre-tournament, that got whittled down to one hour with all the other demands on her time. But she still held the line on consistently training for that period, even if not at the level she ideally wanted to be at. Consistency in having a meaningful level of training time is going to be far better for both your skills and your learning, instead of odd spurts of unsustainable short-term activity.
  • Use of a physical chessboard to improve focus while studying. This is optional rather than mandatory, but I find it has a similar effect on my concentration when going through books. (Although there's no reason to stop looking at computers or using the diagrams in books to help visualize, if you don't have a set handy.)
  • Her warm-up tournament (the national scholastic championship) went OK, but not great. She diagnosed the specific reasons for that and saw how it could actually improve her experience at the US Championship, rather than getting down on herself about it. Each tournament result is its own thing, approach a new tournament with a fresh attitude.
  • Attitude played a significant rule, including an explicit strategic decision to play according to the positions she got, rather than trying to force wins. By being relaxed about the possibility of draws, she actually got far better results. I think that for Class players, trying to force your will on the chessboard is a common failing. So rather than simply looking to play well and understand the needs of the position, we sometimes only focus on what we want to do.
  • Another related decision was to trust herself and her judgment, rather than trying to play head games with her opponent, most notably in the crucial round 10 game with IM Anna Zatonskih. Go with what you know and you're good at, and you're on solid ground. 
  • Finally, she is self-aware about her performance, both positive and negative. It's important to recognize all of the various ways you could do better and mistakes to avoid in the future, but at the same time give yourself credit for when you do play strongly. This kind of double reinforcement I think is what really propels you forward along the path to chess mastery.

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