How to get in the flow during your chess game

By | 4 janvier 2018

Have you ever found yourself astray in your thoughts during a chess game, so much that you lost track of time and forgot about the outside world?

Being fully immersed in an activity like that is a state of mind called flow.

As a chess player, entering this flow mode will give you a higher sense of control over the board and the extra attention you need to play at your best.

Interesting, isn’t it?

If you are not entirely absorbed by your reading right now, let’s fix that by seeing how exactly you can get in the flow.

The concept of flow

The concept of flow was first introduced by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. According to his research, you experience flow when you evaluate what you are doing as challenging but accomplishable by means of your own skills.

When you are not sufficiently defied, you will unconsciously become disengaged. In contrast, if the task exceeds your skill level, you will end up anxious.

It is exactly between stress and boredom that the flow navigates, giving you extra power to accomplish your goals efficiently.

What happens when you are “in the flow”

What kind of extra power am I talking about? Here is the list:

  • You are extremely focused effortlessly
  • You are in control of your task or of the situation
  • You benefit from enhanced creativity
  • You have a sense of heightened awareness of here and now, forgetting both time and the world around you.

You got it. Not only will all these benefits peak your productivity at work, but also and overall they will represent a clear advantage over the chess board.

3 steps to get into flow mode during your chess game

Good news is that Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s studies[i] provide evidence that playing chess actually induces flow. That said, entering the flow mode systematically is certainly not that easy.

So, here are 3 steps that should help you experience regular flows during the game and on top of that, make them last longer

1. Every chess game is a challenge

It can be easy to fall into the classic trap of underestimating your opponent (boredom) or in contrast being paralyzed by his/her strength (stress). Being in the zone requires assigning tasks according to your skill set. Thus, in case you don’t face a player of equal strength, it is essential to play with other sources of motivation.

Against a tougher opponent (more than 100 Elo difference), simply see the game as a good way to learn and improve or a perfect chance to make the performance of your life.

If you play against a weaker player, try to find a way to increase the challenge. For instance, maybe it is a good occasion to finally try a new opening or focus more on your time management.

2. Find your ‘focus’ activity and develop your own routine before the zone

Do you remember any specific activity when you felt really focused? These moments where you had no notion of time and were just in phase with what you were doing? There are certainly moments like that in your everyday life even if you are were not especially aware of it until now. It can be while taking a shower, doing some sport or any other activity you like doing.

Once that ‘focus’ activity determined, all you have to do then is to define a specific routine which will precede and use it every time of course. By doing so, you will gradually internalize the ritual and associate it with being in the zone. You can do meditation, listen to some music or simply take your favorite pen with you. There is no perfect routine, it is only yours.

I personally use my 5 minutes ritual before I start writing as it is the moment when I feel most alert. It helps me condition my brain adequately to its next challenge. And this is the exact same ritual I will use for my chess games.

 3. Fully absorbed focus

You know what your challenge is and can now get prepared to be efficient by keeping the focus during your activity. Don’t blame yourself if your mind wanders as it is totally normal. Gently get back to what you are doing and try to stay as intensely engaged every time.

As proposed by Josh Waitzkin in his book The art of Learning, you can start using your ritual for other selected activities – such as your chess game of course – after roughly one month of deliberate practice.

After this period, if you play and have trouble entering (again) in flow mode, don’t hesitate to take a refreshing break to get you back on track. Being in the flow constantly can be physically exhausting.

Keep practicing

Being a form of mindfulness, getting in the flow comes with exercise and experience. So the best way you can develop this skill is to practice again and again. Follow the 3 steps suggested above and reproduce the setting which leads to your moment of flow as often as you can.

A mental state of effortless attention is certainly a must for any chess player but like the game, it needs training to be mastered.

A last thing before you leave, Csikszentmihalyi’s research also showed that activities that let you experience flow are the ones that will make you the happiest.

It’s another good reason to start or keep practicing, don’t you think?




[i] Abuhamdeh, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation orientations in the

competitive context: An examination of person-situation interactions. Journal of Personality, 77(5),


Abuhamdeh, S., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2012). The importance of challenge for the enjoyment of

intrinsically-motivated, goal-directed activities. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(3),