Avoiding Pressure

Let’s face it, we all have to deal with pressure. Whether at home, school or work, we’re all under some sort of pressure. Try as we may to avoid it, something always occurs that puts us under the gun, so to speak. While chess is wonderful way to exercise the mind, playing it can be stressful, especially during tournaments. Chess is a challenge in which two minds face off against one another and where the mind does battle so does the ego. When losing a game of chess, we often feel an emotional sting, perhaps the bruising of our ego? Add to this equation the idea that people generally like to win rather than lose and you create a recipe for pressure.

While pressure is a fact of life for nearly everyone and a little pressure can have positive effects, too much pressure can actually lead to health problems. The game of chess should be enjoyed whether you win, lose or draw. However, some people get really wound up before they play the game and it becomes a slightly nerve-racking experience. If you feel pressure before playing and that pressure is taking away from enjoying the game, read further for some tips on removing stress before playing.

Tip number one, and this should be apparent to everyone, be prepared! Be prepared to play. What do I mean by this? You need to be warmed up and in the zone. Before I play shows with my various bands, I spend a lot of time prior to those shows warming up. This means practicing. Sure, I could not practice and play songs I’ve played for years without making any mistakes. However, I might feel a little stress for not having warmed up. I might not play as well as I would had I practiced. Stress equals pressure. As for chess, if you’re about to play an important match, be it against a rival or at a tournament, you need to warm up. You have to play a lot of chess prior to that important game so that you’re in a strong mental state. Playing a lot of chess doesn’t mean playing as many games as humanly possible as quickly as possible. This is a matter of quality over quantity. It’s better to play ten games of chess in which you’re concentrating and making good moves than fifty games in which your simply playing as fast as you can which equates to less concentration and bad moves. If you have a few months before that important game or match, use than time to prepare yourself by simply playing chess.

Avoid suddenly changing your opening right before an important game or match. If you decide to change things up at the last minute, you’ll pay a dreadful price. Concentrate on what you already know. Consider variations against your opening that you haven’t already explored. By doing so, you’ll be less likely to freeze up when your opponent makes that unexpected move. If your opponent makes an opening move you were not prepared for, don’t panic. Use the opening principles to guide your decision making process. These principles will steer you in the right direction.

Another tip, get a lot of rest. Not just the night before your game or match but during the weeks leading up to it. If you stay up late and get up early, operating on little sleep, three weeks prior to the game or match and then decide to go to bed early the night before, you’ll gain no benefit. The effects of good sleeping habits are cumulative so you have to start resting up at least a month before your game or match. Getting a good night’s sleep also helps to reduce your stress levels. Think of your brain as an engine. If you try and run an engine twenty four hours a day, day after day, week after week, the engine will break down. Give your brain a break. This means not playing chess constantly but allotting a period of time each day for your practice. Too much playing will cause you to start losing focus. As I previously mentioned, you want to play lot of chess but it’s quality over quantity.

Of course, engines require fuel to run and so does your brain. Eat healthy and do so way in advance of your game or match. Eating healthily is also a cumulative process. If you live on junk food and then eat a bunch of fresh fruit and vegetables the night before your game or match, you’ll receive no benefits. Start eating healthy at least two weeks prior to the game or match. Avoid sugar based products because sugar will give you a sudden surge or energy that quickly goes away leaving you feeling tired. The same things goes for caffeine. I’m not saying give up coffee or tea (I wouldn’t). I’m saying to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. The problem with caffeine is that it amps you up with artificial energy and what goes up must come down. You don’t want to suffer a caffeine crash in the middle of a chess game.

Probably the biggest stress reducer is exercise. It’s also the one thing most people don’t want to do. However, you don’t have to go to a gym and pump iron until you look like a body builder. Try taking walks which are an excellent way of getting the blood flowing. Your brain needs oxygen and that oxygen is carried in the blood stream. Walking gets the blood pumping to where you need it, namely the brain! Walking is a great way to relieve stress (unless you choose to walk in a demilitarized zone). Tai Chi is a great way to improve both body and mind. Try bicycling or anything that gets the blood flowing. Start exercising at least a month prior to playing.

So there are some tips for relieving the pressure of life and the pressure of chess. Chess can be stressful no matter how much you love the game. It’s a mental workout but it doesn’t have to be a stressful wokout. Speaking of workouts, here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).