Tournament Prep for Older Players

I met a chess player a few weeks back who was about to enter his first tournament in three weeks. He’s in his late forties and sought my advice for getting ready, both for this tournament and future tournaments. “You should consider Tai Chi or another martial art and get cracking with it!” His look of bewilderment said it all. My chess playing friend was of the opinion that chess was a completely mental effort and no physical conditioning was needed. Wrong. If you don’t believe me ask Boris Spassky who blended his chess studies with physical activities! I recommend Tai Chi to my students now because it helps immensely with stamina, concentration, focus and patience. Exercising your mind for many hours cannot be done simply by building your mental muscles because using your brain can be physically draining. We’ve all had a bad case of “brain drain” in which we’re physically exhausted after a long match. You increase your brain function physically as well as intellectually. It’s a case of Yin and Yang.

“Since, I’m not going to become a martial arts master in the three weeks left before my first tournament, what can I do?” Expecting me to say “not much, good luck,” he was taken back when I gave him some ways to increase his stamina in this short time period. Here’s what I suggested:

Change your eating habits to start. Start reducing the amount of sugar and caffeine you take in. While these might give you a boost of energy, that energy is short lived. As they say, what goes up must come down and this is true when ingesting sugar and caffeine based products. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as anything else deemed healthy. Consider the time of day when you’ll be playing to determine the appropriate food to eat. Heavy foods make you sluggish which translates to being sleepy (not good for the tournament player). Eat light and healthy. “Should I start now?” Absolutely! I told my friend that he must start now so his body can adjust to the lack of sugar and caffeine. Sugar and caffeine are treated by the body the same way drugs are which means there is a period of withdrawal. When you introduce a chemical to your body and it’s a substance your body naturally produces, your body will stop producing it. Therefore, when you stop feeding your body that substance, it takes a while for the body to start producing it again. Healthy eating and natural forms of energy acquisition make for better levels of concentration.

Next, I told my friend to regulate his sleep so he is getting the necessary amount of sleep each night. I heard people say they do their best work on little sleep. This is a ego driven myth. We need sleep and most of us don’t get enough due to life’s many surprises. Rather than just getting a good night’s sleep just prior to the tournament, I told my friend that each time he got a good night’s sleep before the tournament was like putting money in the bank of focus and concentration. The longer you put money in, the greater the amount available later on (focus and concentration) when you need to cash out! He needed eight full hours of sleep per night. I asked when the tournament started and he said 10:00 am. Since it was a local tournament less than 30 minutes from his house, I suggested going to bed at 11:00 pm and getting up at 7:30 pm. He mentioned that this added up to 8 ½ hours. I reminded him that it takes people a bit of time to actually fall asleep. Sleep isn’t sleep unless you’re actually sleeping.

Time for some exercise. I didn’t expect him to do ten three minute rounds of boxing with me (something I do three times a week in addition to my other physical activities) but I did expect him to get the blood flowing through his body, feeding a greater amount of oxygen to the brain. I suggested taking long walks every single day, rain or shine. Sitting around hunched over the chess board while studying opening theory looks impressive but you mind can wander easily when you start to get tired. Walking is a good way to get the blood flowing to your brain and isn’t as boring as sitting in a gym doing repetitive exercises (yes, martial arts requires repetitive exercises but they’re a lot more fun than a stair master). I told him to walk two miles a day, downloaded an app to measure his progress and reminded him that I would check the app. Of course, I had to say, quoting a friend, a Chinese Judge who says to young people who stand before her in court in regards to cheating on his exercise “You shame your family honor if you don’t walk the full two miles.” I suspected he was having second thoughts about asking for my advice.

“Well, what about the chess part of this preparation?” My reply was “stick with what you know.” At this point, he got a bit agitated “What?” I explained that he should employ the openings he felt comfortable with rather than trying out something new. If you want to play a new opening at a tournament, you need to put at least six months of serious work into that opening before testing it out in tournament play. “What if my opponent plays an opening I’m not familiar with?” In these case, let the opening principles guide you but not in a mechanical way. Always make moves to improve your position rather than going for premature attacks. If your opponent is tactical, close the position down. Always work with your pawns with an eye towards the endgame. Play both sides not just your own. Pretend to be your opponent and find his best move before he does. Then you can calculate an appropriate response.

“Sometimes my mind wanders while my opponent is thinking about their move.” That comment was worthy of a “shame your family honor” rebuttal, which he got! The time in which your opponent is thinking of possible moves is a gift to you! You should be looking at every single one of the opposition’s pawns and pieces, figuring out where they could move to to create problems for your position. When you have this free “opposition time,” you should use it wisely, examining the position carefully. If you do it right, you’re actually using your opponent’s own clock time against them. I recommend reading The Art of War to get into this way of thinking.

Get to your tournament early which means leaving early. Rushing into a tournament means you’re going into it with added stress. Tournaments can be stressful enough so don’t add to an already stressful situation. So far, my friend is taking my suggestions to heart. While he may not take of Tai Chi, the cure all for everything in my book, he’ll at least avoid some of the pitfalls many players experience when they sit down to play. All this advice is simple common sense but there seems to be a global lack of it these days. 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).