How to Focus or Concentrate

We live in a world that seems to require our constant attention. Between technological advances, such as the internet, and day to day financial worries, the human mind has a great deal to contend with! After writing an earlier article on concentration and chess, I realized that I didn’t fully address the issue of how to concentrate. While many chess instructors wisely tell their students to focus or concentrate while playing chess, many don’t explain how to go about it! Therefore, I’m going to offer a few ideas that will help you better focus your attention on the task at hand, concentrating on your game.

It’s very easy for an instructor to tell you to clear your mind of all thoughts except the game at hand, but this is much more difficult to actually do. Let’s face it; whether you’re young or old, you have things on your mind. While life should be a pleasant experience, it is often filled with highs and lows, periods of bliss and periods of worry. Therefore, I tell my students, especially adults, to look at their time at the board as a vacation from their problems. Chess can be a wonderful diversion from the day to day grind we often face. During your time at the board, you have an opportunity to have an intellectual vacation from your day to day problems. This helps to get my students into the frame of mind necessary to focus or concentrate on their game. However, it isn’t as simple as this!

We start out with this notion in mind, focusing on our game, and then our minds start to wander a little. This leads to thinking about non chess related problems such as mounting financial issues or overdue homework assignments. Therefore, once we’re sitting in front of our chessboard, we have to take another few steps in our journey towards complete concentration or focus. The next step involves concentrating our field of vision.

In a perfect world, a game of chess might be played in a stark white room with nothing else in it except two chairs, a table, a chessboard and pieces. In other words, there would be no outside distractions. However, in the real world, be it during a casual game or at a chess tournament, there are plenty of visual and auditory distractions that eat away at our concentration. Our first step involves reducing this external interference by shortening our field of vision.

I have my students sit down at the chessboard and take ten to twenty slow breaths. Many chess players become anxious when starting a game. Controlled breathing helps calm them down, centering them. Once the individual has started to reach a calm state, it’s time to focus. To focus on the game at hand, blocking out both visual and auditory distractions, I have my students look at the four center squares on the chessboard. I have them mentally name those squares, d4, d5, e4 and e5. They then look at the squares forming a ring around the central squares and mentally name them. The process continues until all of the board’s squares have been mentally named. Next, the student looks at each of the opposition’s pawns and pieces and names the squares they sit on, doing the same for his or her own pieces. The student then sets the boundary for his or her field of vision which extends to the edges of the chess board. Auditory distractions are a bit more difficult to deal with.

For auditory distractions, I train my students to have a running dialog in their mind that cancels out the external noise. This dialog consists of a running commentary on the game at hand. A student’s mental dialog might sound something like this: “I’ve played 1.e4 and my opponent has played 1…c5. This is the start of the Sicilian Defense. What are my three options for move two?” The idea is to use an internal dialog to cancel out the external dialog or noise. An important point; use complete sentences when carrying on your mental dialog. Instead of saying (mentally to yourself, rather than out loud, which might make you appear to be a nut) “e4 takes d5,” use a complete sentence such as “the pawn on e4 captures the pawn on d5.” This might seem trivial but it forces you to deepen your level of concentration which helps keep you focused on the game. This holds true for every single move. This idea of using complete sentences also forces you to think things through a bit more, slowing down your play. Obviously, this technique doesn’t work for Blitz games.

Some junior players want to use portable music devices and listen to music to drown out exterior noise. I’m not a big proponent of this because good music can send our thoughts in another direction, one that is away from the chessboard. Listening to music can become another auditory distraction. Every effort should be made to concentrate or focus on the game.

Another training method I use is to expose my students to background noise purposely. I do this in small increments to help my students develop their focusing skills. The background noise I start with is general exterior conversations which may or may not interest the student who is trying to concentrate on his or her game. The goal is to be able to raise one’s interior or mental dialog regarding the game at hand to a level that overrides the external conversation. The key is to slowly build up a player’s ability to focus only on their game. Of course, this takes time.

When studying chess, it is important to choose a time when exterior distractions are at a minimum. Pick a time during the day when, for example, no one else is in the house. If there is a constant flow of people in and out of your house, find a quiet place, away from any distractions. I’ve been known to lock myself in the garage to study because it’s quiet in there.

Another important factor is diet. Many young players load up on sugary foods that give them a surge of energy. Unfortunately, these same younger players often suffer from a sugar crash in which the high is quickly replaced by a low. At this low point, they become tired. When you’re tired, you cannot fully concentrate and your game will suffer. You also want to maintain a healthy diet. After all, food feeds the brain and the food you choose will play a critical role in how well your brain functions. Speaking of tired; make sure to get a good night’s sleep prior to playing. While we’ve all heard stories of chess players who barely sleep the night before a big tournament yet went on to win it. However, this is more mythology than reality. Lack of sleep seriously hampers your ability to concentrate. Try some of these techniques and you’ll see improvement. Until next week, here’s a game to enjoy!

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).