Top 10 things I learned on chess improvement when relying exclusively on physical and mental preparation

By | 10 décembre 2017

When I launched my project one year ago, I wanted first to experiment something totally different in terms of chess improvement. I decided to stop any form of chess training and rely exclusively on new habits that would boost my physical and mental form.

The idea was first to find out how these non-chess habits would affect the way I play and eventually help me progress.

A second objective I had in mind was to bring appropriate solutions to those non-chess-related factors that can easily disturb players and prevent them from fulfilling their chess potential.

Throughout my chess journey, I had frequently observed players (myself included) cracking only because of stress, fear or even lack of energy. Not to mention time trouble.

From drinking more water to getting my mind free, I ended up including 25 new habits in my daily life and had the occasion to measure their effects on my game during the tournament I participated in, in early November[i]. And here are the top 10 things I learned.

1) Sleep should be your number one priority

It doesn’t come as a surprise, but I confirm the best booster for performing well over the board is without a doubt sleep. If you don’t get your hours as well as a quality night, your brain won’t perform as you like. Your alertness will diminish, your memory will let you down and calculating variants could quickly become torture.

I thankfully didn’t suffer any sleep trouble during the tournament, but I remember once when I was younger I had played a terrible game, eventually letting the flag fall, only because of extreme fatigue. Yes, being a bit tired can actually increase your creative abilities, but overstepping the mark with sleep is definitely not an option.

Talking about a good rest, I also highly suggest you take a quick nap before your game. You will be surprised how it can kick start your brain functions and decrease the afternoon slump most of us tend to suffer from.

Consider finally doing a relaxing activity one to two hours before falling asleep. Especially in tournament situation, it will help relieve tension from the past game, let your mind decompress and be totally ready to shut down when the lights go off.

2) Drink, eat and move strategically

Apart from sleep, I quickly realized what you drink, eat and how often you work out are the main influencers impacting your overall form. During the last 3 months of the experiment, I really wanted to master my energy levels and thus started testing different formulas while tracking my energy levels during the day. More specifically, I worked out at least 5 hours a week,  drank only water and stopped eating any form of bad sugar (chocolate, biscuits, ice creams…). I then tried to progressively adapt my schedule to manage at best my downtimes and here is what I globally learned:

  • Water is definitely the best drinking option and is sufficient to sustain your energy levels during the game. If you make sure to drink regularly and ideally by little sips, relying on other beverages such as coffee or tea is not a necessity. The trick is not to wait until you’re thirsty.
  • Bad sugar from drinks and food are really not advised snacking options. The crashing effects are not worth the instant pleasure. Make sure you have a well-balanced meal prior to the game and prepare a snack like nuts or fruits for instance. You can also try eating smaller portions more frequently (every 2 hours for instance) as it will refuel your body progressively, even though I agree it is not very convenient while playing.
  • Moving your body when you feel a little slump works really well, especially if you go for some fresh air outside. Try a fast walk for a few minutes during your breaks and you should feel the difference.

3) Higher level of concentration and the adrenaline of competition compensate for lack of energy

No matter how hard I tried to be energized the whole day, I must admit there were moments when I felt a certain decline. What I actually realized is that being fully focused on the game as well as the adrenaline of the competition tended to surpass this type of fatigue.

Despite having failed to do my final 40 hours of meditation (I was not entirely ready  for such an extreme process and ended up wandering a lot more than I meditated), I noted increased attention on a daily basis, which helped me get through all the games feeling vigorous.

4) Taking real breaks can inspire you

Even if I was well concentrated during the games and regularly experiencing some flow, I sometimes suffered from a lack of clarity in my thought process. I guess we all experience it as some positions talk to us more than others. To face this problem and get new ideas, the best way I found was to totally disconnect from the game, by taking a refreshing break and even sometimes thinking about something completely different. Coming back after 5 minutes can be tricky considering the time constraints, but can be really valuable when you feel the need.

5) Learning to deal with stressful situations helps a lot

Fear of your opponent, time pressure, necessity to win… All these elements can lead to dangerous stress during the game, making you lose control of your game. During my experiment, I actually understood that dealing with pressure is a skill that can be learnt like any other thing. Meditation was again especially helpful for me, as well as learning to manage the clock better.

6) Affirmations can be a good reminder

One of the habits I started was doing some affirmations. To be honest, this idea of self-talk was quite weird to me at first and I must admit it doesn’t work for every affirmation I put on the list. I don’t know exactly why but I imagine my mind put some barriers up for statements which are harder for me to believe in. But in the end, I must say I progressively recognized its value as I surprised myself respecting a good 50% of my affirmations on a daily basis. For instance, I rarely miss a chance to take advantage of the 2’ rule, which consists of doing something instantly if you know it will take less than 2 minutes, something which was quite difficult for me to respect before I started to read my affirmations aloud every day. It certainly also helped me drink water more frequently and become more resilient in my everyday life, as well as over the board.

Relating to chess, it allowed me to not repeat for a third time this mistake (and thus avoid another painful loss): playing what I thought was the perfect and most beautiful move, instead of opting for a simpler, but still winning variant.

7) Your memory is better than you think

During a game in the tournament, I was totally caught off guard by my opponent (roughly 2100 Elo) as he played e4, whereas his last 10 games or so with white all started with d4.

My lack of experience in opening theory against a potential adversary preparation kind of forced me to answer with e5, which I had never tried before in an official game. To be honest, I had almost never played it even in blitz so the only knowledge I had was coming from all these top games I had the occasion to see and my younger period, when I was playing e4 myself with white.

After analyzing my game, I was positively astonished I “only” made 2 mistakes in the middlegame that my opponent mustn’t have seen as the game ended in a draw.

The point here is not to applaud myself, but rather to emphasize our unsuspected memory abilities. I’m convinced I would have never escaped the opening if I hadn’t relied on all these games I had seen in the past. It therefore means that I had integrated many patterns and ideas, while I never played, studied or analyzed consciously any game starting with e4-e5.

As I explained in my last article about memory, our brains have more potential than what we think; everyone with a bit of technique and perseverance can achieve amazing memorization performances.

8) No chess practice makes you lose reflexes

As these first 6 months of experiment involved no chess training of any type, as well as not playing blitz , I had to expect negative effects on my game. I would say that my general understanding of the game didn’t decrease as seen my performance which was quite close to my actual Elo. However, I do think my good concentration and energy helped me save one or two games. Nevertheless, I definitely remarked that I lost some chess reflexes.

One thing which was really hard was calculating. The lack of practice made this exercise really painful, certainly more during the 6th game when I lost almost 50 minutes on one move. To my discharge, I was rapidly out of my preparation and suffered an early critical decision to make, in order to survive.

I wouldn’t say I totally lost my tactical eye but the blitz during the mid-tournament confirmed that my intuition this had taken a toll on my intuition. I guess blitzing was my way of tactical training.

9) You need to train your chess as well

As explained above, I can say for sure my mental preparation and my good shape during the tournament helped me maintain a sensible level and compensate in some way the lack of practice. While I learned a lot in the process, especially in terms of productivity, I have to admit I wasn’t expecting to progress in chess. What I do believe however is all this accumulated knowledge will serve as a good basis for elaborating my chess training and supporting my chess improvement from now on.

10) Enjoy playing chess first, play for the win after

I didn’t mention it previously, but I suffered a bad counter-performance in the first round.

I blundered a pawn after only 7 moves and never managed to recover from losing it. This was certainly my worse game in terms of quality, but it had at least the merit of waking me up. Adding to the fact that it was the fourth loss in a row, I started thinking about what was going wrong.

It didn’t take me too long to understand that depriving myself of chess play during 6 months as well as forcing me to play only new lines I never played before generated too much frustration. I was so focused in the experiment and the possible outcomes that I forgot how to enjoy chess.

I realized all of a sudden that I had to adapt things because in the end, what I wanted was to progress and without enjoying my games chances are I would have kept on performing poorly the whole tournament.

So the same night, I started writing this article as I knew I already had most of the conclusions I was looking for. I then decided to release the tension with a piece of chocolate and a football game. I know it is cliché but as I hadn’t eaten any sugar during 3 months, this served as a trigger to break the blockage I had unconsciously created.

I finally completed the process by subscribing in the mid-tournament blitz and giving myself one unique objective for the rest of the tournament: enjoying the games. (For some of you who wonder, yes I put the phrase in my affirmations too!)

If there is something to retain out of all this, it is that you must never forget to enjoy playing chess first. Then only will you create a positive mindset leading to victories.


During these 6 months, I cannot say I progressed in my chess play. However, I built strong habits which certainly reinforced my physical form and allowed me to prepare mentally at best for a chess game. In any case, I can still enjoy the benefits of a boosted productivity in my daily work.

I have to say that I will quit some habits; some because I simply didn’t like doing them, others because they consumed a lot of my time without bringing me what I had expected. At the end of the day, I effectively learned that everyone is different and some routines, however good they are,  may simply not suit you.

That said, I ended up finding in the process most of the external factors that can affect a chess player – eventually experiencing some of them myself – and writing about appropriate solutions to fight against them.

I hope these answers will serve you as much as they served me.

Here I am now, having reached the end of the first part of my experiment and ready to embrace a new challenge: finding the best chess training method to improve my chess in a limited timeframe. See you soon for new chess articles!


[i] Here are the results of my tournament.

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