Chess Habits

Written by Evan Rabin

Chess Habits

“Hikaru [Nakamura] is a quick learner, and no and again he surprises us with a positional masterpiece.” 

-Anish Giri. 

Chess players exhibit many habits- pet openings, playing style, study methods, tournament types, etc. To improve the most, its to get out of one’s comfort zone and change habits, which can be a mixture of good and bad. Dr. Sylvie Heyman’s “Make it a Habit” book gives lots of suggestions on how to create and change them.

Some chess habits like playing style can be a double-edged sword; while it’s important for a master to develop a style, he needs to be flexible and deviate from it when the position calls for it. While most know the former World Champion Mikhail Tal for his sharp tactical slugfests, many of his games were positional masterpieces.

Others like algebraic chess notation are what Sylvie would call a “keystone habit”, which “empower[s] other behaviors to be tagged along. Every chess coach’s nightmare is when he is reviewing a game with a student and cannot determine the moves because of horrific notation. In the 2018 Middle School Nationals, one of my students Xavier had a great tournament and won a trophy with a score of 5/7. What was interesting though is that we could not play through the two games he lost as his scoresheets were illegible. We were able to easily go through the five games he won.   

To change a habit like bad notation, “you’ll need awareness, mindfulness and readiness, the triple mindset”. Firstly you need either yourself or an accountability partner like a coach to point out the issue. Then you need to understand the ramifications of bad notation; e.g, lack of focus, insufficient proof, etc.   Then you need to actually start doing actions that will help you notate better and reap the benefit. That is way I constantly reminds students to always write down their opponent’s move before even starting to consider where they are going to play next. Not only will student be assured their notation is accurate but they will also naturally process his opponent’s move and why he did it. Before coming up with a good move, it’s imperative to know what your opponent is trying to do. 

It’s important to not just tell mentees to change a habit as they are ingrained in their lives. Just like it would be tough to get a smoker to suddenly stop tobacco usage, “doctors must take a more active part in helping patients find programs that provide weight-loss and habit forming strategies.” Two years ago National Chess Expert and Jeopardy Champion Jonathan Corbblah and I coached PS 166 and Trinity at the 2017 New York State Championships. We got a little frustrated when we kept telling students to take their time and would often see them come back to the team room within minutes after the round. The time control for the tournament was sixty minutes per player. Often students would say that had 57 or 58 minutes remaining on the clock. 

Rather than to continue knocking on a dead wall, I decided to be creative and figure out a solution that would help students manage their time. Rather than just tell them to take their time, I decided to divide the time control by the length of an average chess game , which is 40 moves. That allowed me to students that they should be spending at least 1.5 minutes on each move. As the tournament progressed, we saw more and more kids coming back later in the rounds, meaning they were spending more time coming up with the best moves. One student Alejandro scored 5/6 points and finished in 3rd place in his section. 

My coach, former World Championship Candidate Grandmaster Leonid Yudasin identified one of my major chess habits; playing in tournaments for the sake of lack of better things to do. When I was in high school, I would play at the Marshall Chess Club 2-3 times per week on average, to a point where I did not have a chance to review all of my games and learn from my mistakes. Most often I would play a tournament just because I didn’t have any other plans that day. With Yudasin’s mentorship, I created a rule for myself that I could never play a tournament if either I haven’t had a chance to review the prior  tournament’s games or if I didn’t plan going beforehand. Whether it be a chess habit like bad notation or a life habit like procrastinating or eating unhealthy food, we all have ones that we should improve on.

Make it a point to take one habit and change it for the better

-By Premier Chess CEO Evan Rabin

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