How to prepare for a major tournament

Preparing for a tournament can sometimes feel like preparing for a major exam. This is more evident when you have been practicing online and now you are going to meet a live opponent over the board. The pressure of winning is usually daunting and can make you not sure about yourself.

Just like any other sport, chess requires one to be physically and mentally prepared when going into a tournament. Here are some tips to help you navigate the experience especially if it is your first tournament.

Weeks before the tournament:
Prepare your opening repertoire. 

Many people have heard the adage that you should “Play the opening like a book, the middle game like a magician, and the endgame like a machine.” Let us break this statement down to see what, in my opinion, Spielmann meant. First of all it should be noted that Spielmann was a contemporary of the likes of Alexander AlekhineJosé Raúl CapablancaEmanuel LaskerSiegbert TarraschAkiba RubinsteinAron Nimzowitsch, and Savielly Tartakower. He was one of few people who had an even score against Capablanca. So, he was one of the world’s top players at the time.

The opening must be memorized. All the major variations. That is why I advocate for spending more time on the opening. Many people suggest the endgame is where we should allocate more time but the advent of computers has made it easy to come up with innovations in the opening. Thus, you might not get a chance to demonstrate your endgame prowess if you don’t get there. A good knowledge of the opening helps you avoid traps and get into a good middle game and perhaps endgame position. Certainly it will put you in more familiar territory if you have practiced and will spend less time on moves. Finally, when you do get to the endgame you will have spent less energy and therefore you can play the “…endgame like a machine”-without getting tired.

Plan your trip!

Nothing is as disastrous as spending weeks preparing to go for a tournament then coming to discover that your travel visa will be released AFTER the tournament! If you are going to play the tournament in a different country then you need to know how you will get there and what are the requirements for entry. It will also cost you much less if you book hotels and flights early. Make a plan to go to one major tournament in a different country every year. The experience will leave a long-lasting impact not only on your chess play but also on your life in general.

Nutrition and exercise

This is as important as studying the moves. If you have no energy on the day of your tournament then you cannot outlast your opponent when it comes to those complicated endgame positions that require more endurance than anything else. As this quote by David Bronstein illustrates, it’s not just the cleverest person who wins the chessgame:

Days before the tournament
Play practice games in the designated time control!

Time management is one of the major aspects of the game and time pressure has been studied in experiments to see why experts are less likely to get into time pressure than the rest of us. One of the conclusions is that experts practice a lot more than other players. If you play practice games you will get a correct feel of how long the time control really is and adapt to it. You may also see some weaknesses in your play that need to be fixed so they don’t happen in the game. Get a sparring partner if you can. They will most likely put you in the right frame of mind for an over the board tournament more than online games can.

A good way to play practice games is to join one of the Lighthouse Focus Tournaments in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kampala. As the name suggests they are smaller tournaments that will help you focus on improving your game.

It is very helpful if you analyse your games with your opponent after the game to understand their thinking and improve on your game.


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