How to prepare for a chess tournament? A 25 step guide!

If you are thinking of entering your first chess tournament then you probably have some anxiety. Doing anything for the first time have that added nervousness to it. Don’t worry this is normal.

Chess tournaments are one of the most physically and mentally draining competitions someone can participate in. A proper tournament preparation can allow a player to unleash their full potential.

After finishing my first tournament I realize that I am taking things too seriously. Overall it is a fun experience and it doesn’t have to feel like a business presentation. However there are things that I wish I know before entering my first tournament.

I’ve learned that preparation is important not only for maximum experience but also for maximum enjoyment of the tournament experience overall. If you don’t prepare properly not only will you perform poorly but you probably wouldn’t enjoy the event.

This guide will show you the things that I have learned, and also how I approach the other tournaments that I have participated in. I know that this will be helpful, let’s get going then.

Descending Importance when preparing for a chess tournament

Each individual step in a particular preparation always has a varying degree of importance.

Some have greater effects than others and would have to be fulfilled first. These are usually things that would have a heavy impact on the other steps if not done correctly.

A priority list is a smart idea in order to ensure that you get the best use of your time. The following steps are arranged to be just like that in order to make full use of our efforts before the tourney.

1.) Avoid physical injuries when preparing for a chess tournament

You might be surprised that this comes first on the list. After all, isn’t chess a mental game? Why would we need to focus on physical aspects first? You see, mental acuity is a reflection of someone that is physically healthy.

The best way to ensure that a player can acquire, improve, and sustain mental strength is by having a good body.

The following are the body parts that would intensely afflict the player’s ability to compete:
● Fingers- especially the dominant ones, most people can’t play comfortably if their favorite fingers get injured.
● Hands- fingers reside on the hands, having a bad one can cause unease.
● Feet/Leg- a lot of chess tournaments are staged on long distances; minor things can get complicated if the player is unable to walk.
● Throat- especially in classical games, drinking water allows the player to refresh physically and mentally, having a bad throat doesn’t help.
● Head- having a physical injury on the head (not even mental) could cause headaches and confusion.

All it takes is any simple physical injury to understand how incapable you can become. Easy everyday things can become a task.

This is also true in chess preparations. Failing to take care of your body physically first would make it significantly harder to do the rest.

2.) Get 7-9 hours of sleep before the chess tournament

This doesn’t just apply to chess matches, but challenges in general that require high performance.

Time and time again, lack of sleep has shown a degenerative result on both mind and body. What that means for us is we need to fulfill this first before anything.

Sleep after all clears the mental above the physical.

Now of course, sleep deprivation also causes undesirable physical side effects. But most important to us is the mental! It’s just hard to intake those lessons and strategies when you want to sleep. A range of 7 to 9 hours of sleep is the average for most adults.

You could spend a lot of time getting things done without actually moving the needle since you would you are slightly engaged in passive (short-lasting) learning.

If you just spend an extra hour or two to take care of yourself, it would not only give better results, it would also prevent you from hating the tournament just from the beginning.

3.) Encourage yourself psychologically when preparing for a chess tournament

A lot of players treat chess as a sort of objective problem solving rather than psychological. And this makes sense since you win games by making good moves not just believing in yourself. Or is it?

I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.” -Bobby Fischer

Chess about all is a competition. You can’t perform on your peak strength if you don’t believe you can win! This is why it is easier to play if the opponent’s rating is unknown (there is of course a special exception to this).

Even Bobby Fischer (former world champion) who says that psychology doesn’t matter, burst mental games every time.

Plus, the guy believes he can win all of his games. We can take a lesson or two in improving our psychological strength before the tournament since the mindset and attitude for the game will directly bring us results.

4.) Make a specific goal before the chess tournament

The keyword here is “specific”. Make little agendas that can be more realistically accomplished than a broad top of the mountain objectives.

What I mean by that is instead of thinking “I should win this tournament”, maybe you could switch that to “I have to study for the next 4 hours”.

These shifts in mindsets allow you to focus on what can be done at the moment.

Fun fact: New year’s resolutions should be “I’ll now exercise 5 days a week” not “I will lose weight next year”.

Now, it’s important to make goals that are directed to the main objective (winning the tournament). But I don’t want you to go looking too far then end up forgetting what you can do about it.

This makes everything else you do much more manageable.

5.) Read the chess tournament rules

Now, this is a common trap that most beginners fall into in their first tournament. They go without actually learning the regulations of the event! You could be the best player but still lose games due to minor technical stuff.

I promise this is not the best feeling when it happens. You would be left with a lot of frustration and anger from your days of practice only to lose by technical.

The tournament rules can vary from one federation to the other but generally follow the same principles. Usually, they follow similar guidelines with minor differences.

You would be shocked how different a formal chess competition is from street games!

6.) Play with a board and a clock (not online) when preparing for a chess tournament

There are of course exceptions to this (playing online), but most tournaments are probably held over the board. At this stage of the preparation, you need to ensure some touch for physical chess.

Especially when just starting, it is actually intimidating to move pieces than from online games You need to practice moving pieces fast and efficiently to your intended squares.

There are lots of cases where the pieces get placed on squares not intended to be played.

You don’t want to make that mistake, so it is absolutely important to get that done now.

Learn how the chess clock works when preparing for a chess tournament

One of my regrets from my first tournament was not knowing how the chess clock functions. I’ve got a rough time just starting the timer on the thing. I literally ask my opponent to set the time for me.

And even worse, during games, it was hard to pay attention to your own clock. Especially when you’re used to online games where the clock is literally in front of your face.

This could get you in a lot of time troubles that could heavenly degenerate your play.

So get this thing done now or regret later!

7.) Plan your studies when preparing for a chess tournament

After getting used to the board, never skip this step. Every activity should be organized and your studies must make full use of your limited time. Your schedule might be different depending on your own personal responsibilities.

But you have to plan it all out to get a clear picture of the things that need to be done You might get surprised how tight your schedule is, or even how much free time you actually have.

Not only that, you should plan what studies you actually conduct at what specific time. This makes it easier to secure that you’re not missing anything from things you’ve set to do.

This makes studying very systematic and allows you to be aware of the gaps that need to be taken care of.

8.) Strategically find books and lectures from areas you’re lacking

Don’t make the mistake of randomly picking studies that you won’t even use! Depending on where you are right now as a player should be the thing that dictates what you need to prioritize the most.

You don’t get to study how the Sicilian line works without first knowing basic openings.

Wasting time on things that don’t bring you results is the worst idea when preparing. Now, if you don’t want to spend money on books and lectures that is completely fine!

There are lots of free stuff on the internet that could very well might just work for you. Spending money is just a second option if you want to get to the next level.

But still, even going for free rides, don’t take information that is not useful to you. Be more strategic and think of your shortcomings and work on those first.

9.) Find someone who have played in a chess tournament before

This is a pro tip of what I wish I’ve done before I entered my first tournament. Find someone who has already accomplished the things you’ve set to do!

It just makes it easy to learn the specific things in your unique situation both on the technical, and the study part.

This individual could also give you special tricks to make things more smooth for you.

Every chess master was once a beginner”. -Irving Chernev

The best way to skyrocket to learning is to find a mentor! Not even someone who will stick long, just someone you could talk to, in order to share your concerns.

I guess I qualify from those characteristics. But whoever you’ve found, make sure that there is at least someone to begin with.

10.) Study and update your openings before the chess tournament

Now that all the preparations are in place, it’s now time to do the actual studying. You might wonder why openings first? Why not go for endgames immediately?

I want your preparation to go in a more organizational flow. Since the openings are what starts the game, it will most likely dictate your chosen endings. Of course, it is unlikely to predict every single lineup to the ending.

But still just gives a very good idea of what to expect (ex. pawn structure, pieces left). Now, if you are a beginner just like most people, predicting lines may not be the best course for you.

But just having a correct knowledge of the opening you’ll play will give you a manageable position. We don’t want to get trapped and lose early after all. And if you have some opening knowledge already, it’s maybe time to update that.

11.) Analyze your past games when preparing for a chess tournament

This is what most beginners overlook while the pros got obsessed with. It’s analyzing your own games! Learn from your mistakes, that is always the best way to learn.

If you have an online account somewhere, it’s maybe time to choose the analysis board and look for your flaws. The good thing about this online tool is its engine valuation.

The thing actually tells what you did wrong and why. This would give you powerful insights into what things to improve later down the road.

12.) Avoid Chess studies that don’t move the needle

Now, this is a trap! And a trap I don’t want you to fall into. This is a very common mistake to make in any pursuits that we love. And that is studying things that don’t matter.

Immersing in chess history and how Bobby Fischer conquered the world will not win you the tournament! It’s a very cool thing though if I say so myself. But save that documentary for later.

It’s time to get our hands dirty. We need to avoid passive learning that doesn’t move the needle (doesn’t get things done.)

13.) Don’t study too many things at once before the chess tournament

Earlier, we’ve talked about studying the opening first before the end game. This runs on the same principle of learning things one at a time. Instead of focusing on the width (quantity of things to learn), I want you to instead be aware of the depth (quality).

Not only that you will master the few things you really focus on, but it also prevents you from learning unnecessary things that you will not use. If you’ve done a good job at planning where you’re lacking (step 8) then you will have an easier job on this one.

Another analogy that I will bring here is instead of choosing a shotgun to kill the boar and waste a handful amount of bullets doing so. Be a sniper, very targeted, and focused that will still give you the boar, only with a single bullet.

Minimum effort maximum results.

14.)Work equally on Opening, Middlegame, and Endings

Targeted is great, and allows us to really work on our shortcomings. But we don’t want to go the other way around and only be great at so little things. There is a gradient here, where we need to be good in a lot of things, with a lot of depth.

Especially for someone who does not have high ratings, we need to work on all phases of the game. Maybe not exactly as equal as we have a different learning curve for each, but should be enough to learn something from all of them.

Chess after all is played in three phases not just one, all of which we need some to be successful.

After a bad opening, there is hope for the middle game. After a bad middle game, there is hope for the endgame. But once you are in the endgame, the moment of truth has arrived.” – Edmar Mednis

It is hard to be very good at all three stages. There will always be one that favors your style and one that doesn’t. This is why it’s a good idea to get knowledge from all three since other phases that makes you comfortable will save you from the ones that don’t.

15.) Study tactical patterns when preparing for a chess tournament

This stage comes after doing all the lectures and knowledge immersions. It’s time to do exercises! In particular, tactical patterns. Tactics in chess are defined as short-term combinations that grant some positional or material advantage.

This is a very good way to strengthen a player’s ability to find the right moves and sometimes even flashy ones. However, note that this a “short term” quick shots. There would be a lot of positions where this does not apply.

It’s to help you develop the vision to identify when they do appear. Because tactics will come, just not as often as you think. So is still just a great thing to add to your repertoire.

16.) Smartly play with opponents online before the chess tournament

In the old days of chess, it’s hard to find opponents suited for your desired exercises. That is no longer the case today! You could connect with anyone in any part of the world from your phone, laptop, or the internet in general.

Not just play with anybody, but play smartly. If you’re playing a five-minute blitz tournament, play blitz games! If you’re up against 30 minutes somewhat long game, then play classical chess on online platforms!

You don’t like your opponent’s rating? Play other opponents. Some online chess medium allows you to play against the opponent with a rating of your choices.

This is gold since you’ll get to play with anyone in your intended rating, in a way that would fit your schedule.

Back then you can’t since you’ve got to travel and find the opponents that would be willing to play with you. We’ve got to take advantage of this opportunity.

17.) Play positional puzzles before the chess tournament

Another exercise to take advantage of is what we call long-term position puzzles. Now you might think, how does this differ from tactics? Well it’s different since it’s strategy!

Strategy refers to “long-term” planning that usually doesn’t bring any results right off the bat. This will more likely appear in your games than tactics, hence why it is so important. Improving position after position is the signature of all chess games.

Therefore increasing our capabilities in this area would polish a lot of our chess skills in general. Puzzles in particular are very focused to teach certain aspects of strategic planning rather than a broad general infographic.

Plus executing is learning, solving puzzles will make it easier to incorporate those ideas into real games. They are quick to do and very effective so there is just no reason to not work on them.

18.) Take wise breaks before the chess tournament

At this point, you would have an efficient schedule designed to maximize most of your time. What we need to avoid is getting so exhausted that we enter burnout. Burnouts are the worst, it does not only compromise your health but your working time as well.

In general, taking breaks from any project or work can dramatically increase productivity. However, we don’t want to turn the other way around and use that as an excuse for procrastination.

There is a level of tolerance here, where you want to take rest, but not too much that it will drive you away into doing something else altogether.

When you notice your brain flying to that time in high school, then yes it is time to take a break. But when you’re binging YouTube videos for hours, then you know it’s time to work.

19.) Learn your opponents before the chess tournament

We already have everything nailed down for what we can do to our own chess skills. It’s time to learn the opposition. Chess is a multiplayer game after all, there is an opponent!

One doesn’t have to play well, it’s enough to play better than your opponent”. -Siegbert Tarrasch

No matter how much you improve through yourself, there will always be special situations where it may not apply to your opponents. That is why it’s important to know them, not their achievements, but their play style.

This would help you to gain a wider insight of the competition and in turn how to prepare against them. This gives a lot of things to do, ex. preparing lines, mastering a part of the game they lack or deciding to play active versus passive.

If you were just starting to learn chess, this may not be as important to you. It’s better to just improve on yourself and not think of the opponent. That is why it is placed much later in this step-by-step guide. But it is still a very nice thing to consider.

20.) Prepare with an engine before the chess tournament

Almost everything about you has been into some work at this point. It is now time to improve! Doing self-analysis can be a good thing, but the best way to get the best insights is with a chess engine!

Even the best players in the world could not dominate the top engines that we can download on our smartphones, we need to make use of that. Maybe it’s from an opponent’s game, your own, or some chess study you want to dig deep into.

Whatever it is, what chess engine brings to the table should be taken advantage of by the player.

21.) Find inspiration from family, friends, or colleagues before the chess tournament

This is an easy one to get passed by.

Becoming a chess player is difficult! You would face a lot of criticism from some people thinking that you’re just wasting your time, or you should have done these other things instead, even when you’re just doing this for fun.

This would give a lot of stress before the actual tournament. It is nice to have someone that can pat you on the back and say that it is okay. This lift of burden will make it easier for you to go all out on your pursuit of this victory.

Even if one person got a lot to say about you, you just need five people to counter that for example. This is also good psychological preparation.

22.) Observe the best players before the chess tournament

You’ve done all the work, then you must’ve reached the time where it’s just best to watch. After studying a lot, you would now be in your peak strength, able to see and learn from watching others.

It’s important to only do this after accomplishing the initial steps, it would not be so effective otherwise. As you need to be able to actually context the moves these best people play. That is something you cannot do without sharpening your knife first.

With all the knowledge and experience from your studies, high-level chess should take you to the next level.

23.) Test play with real people when preparing for a chess tournament

This is something that is easy to overlook before the tournament. We are so engaged in chess studies and online that we forget to play with real people. It is very important especially if it’s not an online competition.

Whether we like it or not, chess is a psychological game, pressure will be on the line. Your opponents also got some time to prepare something themselves, you need to get yours ready, especially dealing with social cues.

Things like when players look in the eye, the way they move the pieces, or how they press the clock, whatever it is. You need some experience to not get thrown off by these normal movements! The way to do that is to play with real people, not just online.

24.) Review like you’re in the military before the chess tournament

The tournament is fast approaching, and while I do believe that resting is a must, reviews also are. Make sure you don’t forget some things that you prepared from the initial days. Refresh your mind a bit, and treat yourself like your in the military!

Discipline my friends, this is when there is not much time left. No watching YouTube videos, no scrolling Facebook trends, you must review and do it fast.

Think of yourself as a soldier, and you are going to war!

25.) Have fun when preparing for a chess tournament

This I think is the most important of all that also apply throughout the learning process. Think of this as the missing piece, something that is in the beginning and end of all things.

But seriously, no matter how serious and how you’ve worked, never forget to have fun!

Essentially chess is a game after all, the point is entertainment. Now, you’re here for competition, but it would be better for everything when you’re having fun doing the thing.

Because if you lose, you’ll be thinking like “all that incredible time to study has been such a waste” instead of “at least I get to enjoy”.

Losses would devastate you in the actual tournament if you have so much pressure on your head. Lift up and just enjoy, trust everything that you work up until now.

Be happy, and if you’ve read and followed everything here, then you are more than prepared. So go out there and crush some fellas.

Final thoughts

Entering a tournament is a very fun experience. Winning the deed is even more exciting. Bringing victory requires a lot of smart preparation, dedication, and hard work.

It can be a life-changing experience, so prepare well and enjoy your chess tournament.