Chess Psychology (2): Strategies

Preparation before chess games or tournaments is important for players, and it involves the study of psychology. Which opening you choose and whether you intend to play aggressively or solidly, all these factors can be decisive to the result of a game. In addition, the results of previous games or tournaments can also influence players’  mood and morale in the upcoming games or events. In this article, we are going to explore some psychological strategies of preparation and negative aspects that we should avoid.
Preparation before a game
1) adjusting playing styles
Garry Kasparov believes that you can never become a World Champion without adjusting your playing style when necessary. In his World Championship match against Viswanathan Anand in 1995, Kasparov decided to take the risk and change his style in one critical game. Instead of playing the opening he skilled at, he played the Dragon Sicilian as black, which led to very complex position and one must choose the most aggressive variations in order to gain advantage. Anand was surprised to see the Dragon variation, for he did not prepare for this opening, nor he had any experience with it. He played tamely and lost the game.
Anand against Kasparov
Another example Kasparov adjusted his strategies was in the Candidate tournament against Victor Korchnoi in 1983. Korchnoi successfully stopped Kasparov’s attack and won the first game, which made Kasparov rethink of his playing style. In the following games, he changed his aggressive style but played solidly, patiently waiting for his opponent’s mistakes. In this way he won two consecutive games. Korchnoi tried to surprise Kasparov with sharp moves and retake the lead, but this was exactly the territory Kasparov skilled at, and Korchnoi suffered from devastating loss.
Kasparov against Korchnoi
But such adjustment of strategy cannot always be successful. It depends on whether you have a deep understanding of the opening you prepare, whether you are capable of reining a different playing style, whether you know your opponents enough, and whether you are lucky enough. In the last game of the World Championship match in 1985, Kasparov was one point ahead, and Karpov had to win this game in order to retain his World Champion title. Karpov changed his solid style and played aggressively for win. But Karpov did not have enough experience in such a chaotic position, and he missed a good chance of attacking Kasparov’s king. The game soon entered complications Kasparov familiar with, and Kasparov won the game easily and brought home the World Champion.
2) avoiding mental breakdown
Mental breakdown is one of the most common psychological problems for chess players. Not only young kids but also experienced grandmasters have undergone mental breakdown. In the 1894 World Championship match, Wilhelm Steinitz lost a critical game which he was absolutely winning to Emanuel Lasker, which caused his mental breakdown. He continued to lose many games after that and at last lost the whole match.
Mental breakdown
I have also experienced countless heavy blows throughout my chess career. When I was young, my way of learning chess was all plain sailing and I had never experienced failure, until the 2009 National Youth Chess Championship. I did not perform well in the beginning of the Championship, and then I lost three consecutive games. I finished with only 5 points out of 11. My parents and my trainer felt disappointed of me, and they guessed I could never recover from this failure. But I persisted, and tried to find my weakness and adjust the method of training. I finally proved my strength with 6th place in the 2010 National Youth Chess Championship.
In 2011, I experienced such mental breakdown again in the Jiangsu tryout of the National Youth Chess Intelligence Sport. In the sixth round, I lost an absolutely winning game where I was a piece up. I felt terrible, and I lost five consecutive games and finished with only 3.5 points out of 11. My parents persuaded me to give up on chess, because I had spent so much time and energy on chess but had achieved nothing. Still I persisted, and decided to practice more games every week in order to alleviate my disadvantage on time pressure. Such training methods worked well for me, as I kept achieving top 3 in the National Youth Chess Championship and top 6 in the World Youth Chess Championship for many years.
As I grew up, I gradually learned to prevent mental breakdown. When I lost a critical game which I was absolutely winning, I tried to force myself not to think about this game but focus on preparing for the following games. If I failed in a tournament, I would tell myself to cheer up and actively prepare for upcoming tournaments. And I find that more and more of my peers never recovered from mental breakdown and gave up chess forever, but only those who survived in their mental breakdown and persisted remain as top players in China.
3) strategies in team championship
One of the greatest differences between competing for teams and individually is that some weaker teams with better team spirit can be more successful than those with better individuals. Still all games are played individually on each board, but team result is what matters the most. Normally, after being in a totally losing position we resign, out of the respect of our opponent or simply not to waste any more energy for the following rounds. But in team tournaments, a crucial psychological strategy is to keep the board full and result undecided, which gives your teammates the feeling that the game is on and that team is not trailing.
In addition, the relationship between each team member becomes a decisive factor for the result. The captain of the team should coordinate who plays and who rests in a specific round and make every team member satisfied. Also, the encouragement of team members is important when one of them loses a critical game.
One episode in the 2018 Chess Olympiad which really impressed me is that Chinese player GM Li Chao lost to a very weak player in the first round, which, to some extent, influenced the result and morale of Chinese team. But his team members gave him enough encouragement and confidence, and he continued to play a crucial role in the tournament. And miraculously, Chinese team finally won the champion. Such accident that a strong player loses to a much weaker player constantly happens in tournaments, and it is important that the whole team do not exert too much pressure on the player but give him encouragement and confidence and cheer him up.
Chinese team won the Champion of 2018 Chess Olympiad

-Kasparov, G. 2007. How life Imitates Chess.


Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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