by Shiv Dhar (2P) Justyn Lae (2D) Ethan Aw (3E)
The intense focus that binds us to what we are doing, the adrenaline that pumps through our veins, motivating us to give our very best and the beads of perspiration that form down our back – these are the very aspects of sports that lure all athletes back into the game. We play sports not only to let loose and have fun, but also to hone our skills, train ourselves and compete with one another to emerge the best at the sports we enjoy. Many enjoy sports that involve strength, speed, control and physical skills, but sometimes people want to go beyond the brawn and train their brains to be faster and more accurate.
For this reason, we play mind sports.
In these games, we must outthink our opponent to succeed. Each move we make must be carefully planned and crafted based on what we think our opponent will do next. In the great myriad of mind sports, the greatest and most popular one of all time is Chess.
The game of Chess, played by millions worldwide, involves but the movement of a few small pieces, yet an incredible amount of thought must be put into each move made due to the variety of different strategies that could be used at any point, each with its own risks. Chess trains a sensitive acuity to understand and predict potential movements of your opponents, much like how physical training conditions a resilience to strain. Chess is not just a game of wits and smarts, but is also a psychological battle that takes place before the chessboard. With such great and multi-faceted demands as these, there are only few who can meet them and excel in the game.
To learn more about chess, we talked to Cyrus Low and Ashvin Sivakumar, members of the Year 2 and 3 cohorts respectively, and outstanding chess players in the Raffles Institution Chess Club. Having participated, and excelled, in many national and international tournaments, they gave us some fascinating insights into their training and competitive play.
Training and the Competition
Training for chess competitions has been a rather obscure art. How do players competing on a national and even international scale prepare themselves? Do they cram all sorts of openings and counter-strategies? Do they go onto Chess.com and play countless casual games with others and the computer online? Do they spend hours on end, poring over books and browsing the web for articles detailing historic manoeuvres and blunders by famous Grandmasters?
Ashvin told us that they would first have a 45 minute lecture by their coach, and then would play sparring games with each other. During more serious pre-competition practice, he would often try and find out as much as he could about his opponent so as to prepare variations on his usual strategies for the match, while Cyrus added that he would usually revise his opening repertoire and do a lot more exercises than normal. ‘The training makes me sharper and more clear headed,’ Cyrus noted, ‘allowing me to use my time more economically and also allowing me to see more.’ He also looks back on his past serious training games and identifies his weaknesses and mistakes, which he then proceeds to improve upon.
Following which, we were interested in knowing more about the competitions themselves. We asked them about what strategies they like to use in different kinds of situations. Cyrus’ take on this was that he prefers to try out new strategies and experiment when competing against weaker opponents, but revert to tried and tested strategies against stronger ones as they are more likely to work.
On the contrary, Ashvin said, ‘If it is a must win game in the tournament, I will usually try to mix things up a bit so as to create a complicated position different from my usual gameplay such that my opponent’s preparation for me would not be as effective.’ For him, this comes naturally to him as he prefers to play according to the board instead of using an exclusive set of manoeuvres. He is also most comfortable when on the front foot and being able to constantly attack and threaten enemy pieces; one of his favourite tactics is called the ‘Greek Gift’, which involves sacrificing many pieces to checkmate a weakly protected king.
It is generally very mentally taxing to focus in a competitive game. Cyrus also believes he should be much more cautious and careful of the way he played during competitions as compared to when playing for recreation, where he took on a less serious approach, and Ashvin added that there was also much more stress and a greater flow of emotions in competitive matches, explaining, ‘In the competitive match, there is adrenaline flowing and a desire to win, and emotions and psychology come into play.’
We also asked them about how they controlled their emotions during a match. Cyrus told us that managing emotions is actually extremely difficult in the face of such stress. He, however, found comfort in knowing that he had substantial experience in the field of chess, and felt that this made him more sure of himself and he could thus calm his emotions more easily.
For Ashvin, he said although he had played numerous tournaments, feeling nervous at the beginning of each tournament was inevitable. ‘I usually calm myself down by talking and joking around with my friends. Also, like in other sports, self-talk is extremely important in chess and in doing well in tournaments. I will motivate myself internally and give myself pep talks during the tournament.’ He also emphasizes the value of support from his friends who watch him. ‘If I get too emotional or depressed over a loss, my friends are always there for me during a tournament.’
So, the next time you see two players bent over a heated game of chess, do think about the pains and mental toils they take under the otherwise silent and concentrating demeanour. Imagine the intellectual duel clashing under the chessboard, unbeknownst to us, and consider the insights gained from these two chess players so that we could all better understand the life of chess players and their hard work to gain glory of our school. We hope this article will help to inspire other students in the near future to have an interest in playing chess.