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2004 Dr. Leo Stefurak.

Ask DR. LEO February 2004


Could you please discuss appropriate tournament preparation and game day practices designed to generate positive scholastic chess performance?


Preparation in chess is primarily mental and motivational in nature. Apart from specific chess training and study in openings, tactics, strategy, and endgame play, a student does well to come to each chess game mentally and emotionally ready, willing and able to play their best. Chess instruction, chess club participation, and chess study (including game review and chess puzzle solving) are all designed to improve student skill and increase the ability of competitive students of chess. Emotional and physical readiness and willingness in generating quality chess play are quite distinct from the quantity of cognitive knowledge and experience chess players use during play to inform their game. "A genius is a talented person who does their homework." Thomas Edison

Attitude is aptitude. Chess players do best when their attitude is positive, opportunistic, and focused on the present moment.  Chess players, as human beings, engage in "self-talk." It is of paramount importance to chess excellence for the player to direct this self-talk into positive and victory oriented avenues both before and during the game. The confident player has their eyes open and believes that good things will come their way during play. In scholastic play, it is not a question of 'if' an opportunity will arise during play, but rather 'when' in a game the student's chance for a significant advantage will arrive. "Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity." Oprah Winfrey

A positive, aware, and alert attitude during play makes possible the detection, identification, and exploitation of potentially advantageous moves, moments, and circumstances. The champion player will not tire of seeking such fortune during play: it is the source of every victory!  Chess is a game of opportunity: even the greatest chess champions can not win a game if their opponent makes no mistake during play. The champion player expects opportunity to come, is looking for it and anticipates victory by vigilant seeking and finding on every move. In the words of Louis Pasteur, "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind."

One metaphor for chess play can be seen in the example of two side-by-side tightrope walkers each carrying a bag of gold coins from one end of their ropes to the other end. To be most successful, these tightrope walkers want to do two things: 1. Not drop any of their own gold coins as they walk ahead on their own rope and 2. Grab any gold coins that the other tightrope walker may drop as they walk along their separate ropes towards the end.  In chess, the ropes represent the lines of play each player chooses to follow and the gold coins represent opportunities in material, time, space, pawn structure or King safety that could arise during play. Tightrope walking, as with other sports, is encouraged by positive mental imagery. It would not be good to imagine oneself falling off the rope before or during the task! Rather, it is helpful to create the mental image of successfully traversing the path and achieving one's aim!

Playing successful chess is an exercise in humility and a reality check on our own humanity. No one is perfect! The ability of a chess player to admit this fact, to recognize both the brilliance and the blunders in their own play, and to accept full responsibility for the result of their game is crucial to both their development as a player and to maintaining the proper attitude during play. A well grounded chess player recognizes that mistakes will happen during play, that a fair share will indeed come their way, and that a patient and expectant attitude, prepared to maintain balance in the game until such an opportunity arises, will be rewarded. "A good plan executed right now is far better than a perfect plan executed next week." George S. Patton

Good play is made possible by the prior reduction or elimination of obstacles and impediments to best performance. Each chess player is assigned an opponent to play: a chess player should not be their own, second, opponent! Chess players often need to get out of their own way and let their inventive ingenuity and creative brilliance shine forth!  "Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan." Tom Landry

Chess players need to come to the board with the following game-enhancing advantages:

  1. Be well rested: sleep long and deep the night before a tournament
  2. Fuel your brain: eat before the first round and then eat lunch later
  3. Ignore your opponent's rating: do not make an obstacle of it
  4. Know that you are in control of your moves and play
  5. Know your strengths: patience, clarity, endurance, and persistence
  6. Desire to play and to play well
  7. Resolution to play at your own pace
  8. A tenacity to solve problems which arise during play
  9. Ingenuity in setting immediate problems for your opponent
  10. A commitment to play your best on every move
  11. A pledge to play the game however many moves it takes
  12. An awake and alert attitude dedicated to finding opportunities
  13. A willingness to take measured chances in search of victory
  14. A skeptical attitude that does not accept your opponent's logic
  15. Realization that each game is decided on its own merits
  16. Focus on the present game and release of any past regrets
  17. Readiness to listen to the workings of your own mind
  18. The ability to play out of hope and joy while rejecting fear
  19. A mind free from outside concerns or worries
  20. A belief that moves, not personality, win chess games.

Chess players do well to put other things out of their mind while they play chess. Successful chess players create positive images of excellent chess performance. Champion chess players prepare their minds for competition, before each and every game, by visualizing successful and constructive chess behaviors. To succeed at chess create and sustain the following positive imagery:

  1. See yourself playing slowly and deliberately
  2. See your eyes scanning the chessboard looking for opportunities
  3. See yourself looking for checks, captures and threats on every move
  4. See yourself finding a good move...and then seeking for a better one
  5. See yourself sitting quietly at your board thinking
  6. See yourself finding the flaw in your opponent's play
  7. Hear your mind constructing a variation
  8. Hear your pieces quietly talking to you
  9. See your pieces moving around to different squares on their own
  10. See your pieces just beaming over to their best square
  11. See yourself getting tough when the going gets tough
  12. Hear yourself questioning the accuracy of your opponent's move
  13. When you are winning, see the pieces being traded off
  14. When in trouble, see yourself setting up obstacles for your opponent
  15. See your pieces working together and making something good happen
  16. See yourself watching yourself and listening to yourself during play
  17. See yourself moving at a slow, steady pace which you set yourself
  18. See yourself remaining emotionally calm during play
  19. See your mind reaching out and making an effort on every move
  20. See yourself being gracious in victory and silent in defeat.

Successful chess players find positive things to think about: if you lose, you will next play someone who has also lost; if you just had Black, you will most likely get White next game; if you want to win, there will be a next game; if you lose, you have a chance to set things right in the next game. Be positive and avoid the negative: expect the best, prepare for the best, and you will more often obtain it! "Well done is better than well said." Benjamin Franklin

Most chess games are lost not because the position is lost but, rather, because the player thinks themself lost, gives up mentally, and 'forces' themself to lose the game by making additional mistakes. Strong chess players know the difference between a bad position and a lost position.  Do not give up mentally or emotionally on your bad positions: rise to the occasion and be extra tough when in a tough situation. In the words of Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Emotional regularity is often needed during chess play.  Students should avoid becoming upset, exultant or despondent before or during play. Chess is a game of reason and rationality. The successful chess player harnesses their emotions to contribute consistent motivation for the purpose of executing the necessary sub-tasks of chess play: seeing, thinking, being patient, imagination, invention, visualization, calculation and evaluation. "I think the one lesson I have learned is that there is no substitute for paying attention." Diane Sawyer

Please come to the chess board with an attitude of 'Zen mind, beginner's mind': each game is a new opportunity to have fun, get lucky, and pursue the journey of chess, regardless of our final destination. Chess players may also be advised not to 'drive' or potentially bias their minds by undue physical influences. Caffeine in soft drinks, sugar 'highs' from candy, or physical and mental exhaustion from doing too much between rounds may need to be avoided to produce the best chess results.

Student chess players have, and need to have, the three most powerful forces in the universe on their side during play: 1. Belief in yourself; 2. Your own child imagination; and 3. Ideas whose time has come. These three forces regularly move mountains and they are the ultimate source of chess strength and accomplishment. Please exercise these mental and emotional muscles regularly and make a habit of their use during chess play. Imagine yourself a champion, visualize yourself doing the tasks needed to win, and focus on the opportunities in front of you! "To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are." Muhammad Ali

Dr. Leo wishes you graciousness in victory and serenity in defeat!