Stamina and Chess

Who said chess wasn’t a sport? Since 1999, chess has been identified as a sport by the International Olympics Committee – but what about our game is athletic? Let’s take a look at a recent example from Norway Chess 2015:

Hammer – Topalov (Norway Chess, 2015)

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After 6 hours of play, Jon Ludvig Hammer looked ready to draw his round 5 game against tournament leader Veselin Topalov. In a position where 74. f5 would be enough to liquidate the game, Hammer thought he could win the game with 74. Kc6?? aiming to push the bishop and promote the a-pawn. Unfortunately, after 74… Ke6 Topalov saw an immediate resignation from the Norwegian as the black king was ready to move to f5 and win White’s kingside pawns. 0-1

A disgusted Hammer looks on post-mortem, as a draw is no longer within reach against the Bulgarian Grandmaster. Hammer’s lone win of Norway Chess was against reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

This game gave Topalov a crucial half-point, that eventually helped put him in first place. I remember watching the live broadcast for the event, and the reaction was obviously that of shock for a 2600 rated player to make such a mistake in a high level game. While as a spectator, its easy to see such errors and take them for granted, as a player I can also relate to the issue of endurance. When I first broke 2000, I started competing against a much harder level of competition, which really pushed my mental stamina. After winning the last round of the 2014 Virginia Closed Chess Championships, I went from October 2014 to April 2015 without winning the final round of a chess tournament. Its not fair to compare my level of play to that of a Grandmaster, but I feel like at some point, every player struggles with endurance – and even at the highest level we are constantly reminded by the intensity of the game. Here are a couple gaffes of my own:

Steincamp – Wu (National Chess Congress, 2015)

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45. Nxd3 Draw offer and my opponent quickly agreed. I had gotten an overwhelming advantage in the opening, but lost it trying to evade time trouble. Now five hours into the match with only 15 minute left on my clock, I offered a draw, trusting that the rook endgame was equal. However, here it’s not too difficult to see that after 45… Rxd3 46. Ke1 Escaping the checkmate threat of …Rd3-d1# 46…bxc6 47. bxc6 that I have a passed pawn and a much more active king. While I am not winning, this position could easily be reached, and White would have a risk-free (and better) position. Unfortunately with draw offers, they can be seen as a “way out” – and that’s the disappointing decision I made here.

Rajasekaran – Steincamp (Potomac Open, 2015)

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In this position, I am strategically better. Playing the reigning 2-year Virginia Scholastic State Chess Champion, I’d managed to surprise my opponent in the opening, gaining a massive advantage and subduing him into passive play. However, things hadn’t been going my either. I had drawn three of my four games, and I just finished my morning game an hour earlier, where I had managed to blow a significant advantage with the white pieces. Needless to say, I really wanted to win and chose the un-calculated thrust 21… f4? which lead to unclear play and me losing material. If I had just relaxed and played the natural 21…b6 (or a move like it), White would be out of options, and there would be no queenside counterplay. A basic rule of thumb before attacking is to develop all of your pieces, and here I uncharacteristically jumped on an unrealistic attack before developing my bishop on c8 and my rook on a8.

If you read my article, Catching Up – A Season in a Post, I also mentioned my three round collapse at the World Open, where I started 4/6, but then finished 4/9 and actually lost a rating point in the event. So what can we do to avoid these moments?

Well, I have to believe that practicing for longer time periods with a consistent intensity never hurts. When I was a scholastic player, my dad always told me to “practice the way you play”, and while he was never was a great chess player or anything, there is a little bit of truth to that. Another aspect of my game that I have been working on is my athletic training and regular exercise. While I’m not exactly sure how much this has contributed to my game, running regularly and eating healthy certainly cannot hurt.

How do you improve your chess endurance? Feel free to comment below!

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