Should I Play Tournaments? Advice for New Chess Players, Part 3

Is competition the next step in your chess endeavors?

Czech Open Pardubice
The Czech Open, held annually in Pardubice, CZE.

Playing in a few tournaments does not commit you to becoming a “serious” chess player. There is no requirement to study extra (or at all) if you don’t want to.

I recommend trying at least a couple of events to see if you like it. I tell kids that they should try at least one tournament — if they hate it, they never have to compete again. You can even drop out early if you really want to!

 

Do choose the tournaments you play in wisely, however! We’ll discuss how, below.

 

What are your ambitions?

Obviously, if you want a chess title like Expert or Master, you need to play in tournaments. Likewise if you want to be recognized as Champion of a particular event. Otherwise, there’s no need if you don’t want to.

But if you don’t play in official, rated tournaments, you’ll never know for sure how good (or not) you really are. Crossing the barrier from casual player to tournament competitor is a serious step the overwhelming majority of chess players on Earth will never take.

 

Small tournaments vs. Big tournaments

Some players live for huge tournaments like the World Open, U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur Team East or, for scholastic players, NationalsI imagine it gives them a big adrenaline rush, and they like to socialize with other chess players.

Others prefer small club events perhaps because of friendly rivalries and familiar surroundings.

I guess I’m somewhere in the middle.

I am not as fond of smaller events because people who know you can observe your play and it can feel like they are judging you — even when they’re probably not! On the other hand, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in a huge playing hall with several hundred players.

 

Choose your time control

Note: I will only discuss standard (regular) time controls here. Rapid and blitz are separate categories.

If you want to play in American tournaments — those sanctioned by the United States Chess Federation (USCF). the games must be played with a minimum of 30 minutes (per player) for the contest, or slower. Most commonly, this is achieved with a minimum time control of 25 minutes plus a 5 second time delay.

Delay provides free seconds before your main thinking time begins to count down. Based on a 60-move game, a player would receive an extra five minutes of thinknig time, which is why “G/25 d5” counts as a 30 minute game.

There are also events that can go as long as 40 moves in 120 minutes, followed by 60 minutes to finish the game (if it goes past move 40). This is often written as “40/120, SD/60” or “40/2, SD/1.”

And everything in between! Experiment and play the time controls you like.

It’s very unlikely a new player would compete in a FIDE (international) competition but, allowing for a few technicalities, the minimum time control for such events is 90 minutes (per player) for the entire game with a 30 second increment starting from move 1.

Increment (or “bonus”) adds time to your clock after you have completed your move — it is possible, for example, to finish a game with more time than you started with.

 

Choose your section

If you’re rated, my advice is to stay in your section, or play up no more than one section. If you’re a 1400-rated player, it doesn’t make sense to play in the Open section “with the big dogs.” You’re not there yet. Play in Under 1600 or Under 1700 instead.

Similarly, if you’re unrated, play in the lowest section you can, or no more than one section higher than that.

Please note: if you have a rating from another country, you must disclose that to the tournament director. Don’t worry about any online ratings you may have; they’re meaningless.

 

Handling wins and losses

You won’t know how you’ll deal with this in games that count until you experience it. So study hard, and then get out there and play! If you do, you’ll already be ahead of a vast majority of the world’s chess population that will never step into the arena.

 

Questions? Comments? Leave them below!

How to Defeat a Superior Opponent! Advice for New Chess Players, Part 2

If you read my earlier post on Edmar Mednis, you know that How to Defeat a Superior Opponent is the title of the Hall of Fame Grandmaster’s 1989 book (effectively a reprint of his 1978 title How to Beat the Russians).

The idea of defeating a stronger player appealed to a “weakie” like me, so I devoured Superior Opponent in my early years. Unfortunately, I did not score upsets that often…

But over the years I learned a lot. Now that I have more experience, I’ll give you some of my own advice on beating players better than you.

 

Good psychology only goes so far.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you there is a formula to consistently beat players rated 500 points higher than you. Exception: anything goes if we’re talking about players rated under 1000.

The tips I’ll discuss can give you a slightly better chance against such opposition, but luck is your best friend here: hope the opponent underestimates you, miscalculates something, or has a bad game.

If you are a massive underdog, just play the best moves you can … for as long as you can … and don’t get too far behind on the clock. This last guideline is important: an experienced, higher-rated player will just keep the game going in your time pressure, shuffling pieces until you collapse.

For the rest of these tips, I’m going to assume you’re facing someone rated 1000+ and roughly 200 points higher than you. This is a steep hill, but not an impossible one: statistically you should score about 25% against such a player (one win and three losses in four games, or two draws and two losses).

For context, with a 300-point rating difference you’re expected to score 1 point out of 10.

 

Don’t change your playing style.

You have certain strengths as a chess player. Don’t abandon your strongest weapons based on who you’re paired against. If you’re an attacker, attack. If you’re a good endgame player, trade. If you know a certain opening well, play it — don’t be afraid of the opponent knowing it better than you do. Sidebar: targeting the weaknesses of a peer or an inferior opponent is often a good idea!

 

Believe in your ideas, and don’t try too hard.

It’s tempting to make “extra” efforts to beat stronger players, but I think the best you can do in this area is to make sure your concentration is as good as it can be for the game.

If you think you’ve found a good move or plan, and don’t see any flaws, go for it. Maybe you’re wrong and missed something, but don’t assume this is the case! That’s called “seeing ghosts.”

 

Calculate until the evaluation is clear.

chess symbols
The most common chess evaluation symbols, for moves and positions. Image: lichess.org

If you’re a good calculator, this is not a problem. For others, like me, calculation is not our strong suit.

Don’t go crazy trying to see everything till the end, unless mate or a decisive material balance is at stake. Otherwise, just use the Chess Informant classification that I discussed previously.

 

Don’t offer draws to higher-rated players.

I’m not one of those coaches who says you should always “play till bare kings!” There are a number of situations in which offering or accepting a draw makes sense, or when aiming for a more drawish position is a good idea.

However, there is almost never a good reason to offer a draw to a higher-rated player. There are two rather obvious reasons for this:

If you have the advantage, you shouldn’t be offering a draw! Doing so communicates fear and increases the confidence of your opponent, who might be on the ropes. If you’re really afraid of messing up when better against a higher-rated, you can play solidly and safely, avoiding risk. Just strike a confident pose at the board while doing so!

If you are worse — or even equal — your opponent won’t accept your draw offer. Moreover, it again shows weakness. Whether your opponent is torturing you or merely shuffling pieces back and forth, just keep finding the best moves you can while not showing any frustration. Imagine you are at a picnic on a warm summer day!

Wait for the higher-rated player to offer the draw (or, if you’re playing against a peer, the player with the superior position has the “right” to make the peace offering). Only when you’re playing against a lower-rated player can you offer a draw in an inferior position.

 

Experienced players: are there any other general tips I didn’t mention? Leave a comment!

How to Defeat Kids in Chess Tournaments

The Impact of Scholastic Chess

Children usually have more time to devote to chess improvement.

Kids have been taking over chess for a long time now. This is great for the game in the long term, but what about the adults who have to face these youths in tournaments?

A kid or teenager is usually still improving; if an adult is getting better, it’s typically at a slower rate. I’ve never been convinced that this is because of “younger vs. older brains.” Older players simply have more life responsibilities which require focus and energy that cannot be spent on chess.

Given two players of the same rating facing off, I would bet on the younger player in the absence of other information.

All is not lost, however.

Understand Your Adversary

I have played in many quads over the years where all of my opponents were kids or teens rated similarly to me, that is, in the 2000-2100 range. Bearing in mind everyone has a different style, here are some things I learned:

Home prep can make a huge difference

Kids stick to their openings and either don’t suspect or don’t respect prepared variations.

Research! If you know what openings your rival plays, do some pre-tournament work and find wrinkles to set them challenges. You can really make hay if you regularly face the same set of opponents and can develop a game plan against them.

Also, especially in Swiss tournaments, remember to go for a walk early in your rounds to see what potential opponents are playing. On a related note …

Put your thinking cap on

In one event, I noticed in the first two rounds that a player I was due to meet in the final round displayed impressive middlegame and endgame play, both tactical and strategic. His openings were quite refined as well. I asked myself: “Why is he under 2100 and not 2200+?”

I concluded the reason was likely psychological. Probably, he gets nervous and doesn’t handle pressure on par with other players of his rating class.

When we faced off, he got a definite advantage with the White pieces, though Black has some counterplay:

Trusting my scouting report, I played 21…Nd5 confidently and … offered him a draw!

Mind you, the clock wasn’t an issue for either of us.

He started to think … and think … and think. He began turning red and looked ill.

Soon he did what I expected, and agreed to the draw. I could tell he knew he shouldn’t do it, but he didn’t have the stomach to play on. I understood his emotions, because I’ve been there!

Target their Weaknesses

I faced one Expert kid five times. I lost the first game, drew the second from a much better position, and then won the last three encounters!

What happened?

In the first game I went for a slow, maneuvering Chigorin Ruy Lopez as Black, with the idea that young players are generally more comfortable with livelier positions. I was outplayed and lost the game, but I got to watch some of his other games in that event and others before we met again.

In our second game I went for a kingside attack, after observing that he didn’t handle direct attacks very well. I had great winning chances, but couldn’t crash through and drew.

After seeing more of my adversary’s games, I was able to prepare effectively for the final three battles and went for aggressive play. Our fourth game began with the sequence 1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 e5 (I knew he played this line) and now 4.Nf3 Nbd7 5.g4!? which had been popularized by Alexei Shirov.

I won in 17 moves.

I’m not a great attacker, but judged that he was an even worse defender.

Don’t be a Hero

Conversely, another Expert I often faced became my angstgegner. This was in large part because I was stubborn and kept trying — and failing — to refute his opening. But at a certain point, I felt I was doomed against him no matter what I did, and it affected my play. The final tally: one win, one draw, and four losses.

The bottom line: learn as much as you can about your young opponents’ playing style, openings, and likes/dislikes. Prepare well, establish a blueprint for your games in advance when possible, and trust your skills!

Good luck!