Many of the most important tournaments in Chess are played in a Round-Robin (all-play-all) format. Even if the game is still the same, the preparation for a Round-Robin tournament can be different from a normal tournament.
In most cases, you will know your opponents before the tournament and thus you have some extra time to prepare for them.
Although you won’t know the colors (usually only drawn on the tournament eve), good pre-tournament preparation can increase the likelihood of success tremendously.
I have won 2/3 closed Swiss Championships I played and usually played very well in an annual Swiss Norm Tournament (4/5 times very good score).
I consider my thorough preparation the Number 1 factor why I tended to play so well in closed tournaments (the exception is the Biel GMT, where my opponents were clearly stronger than me).
In this article, I will share my whole preparation process for a closed tournament. As you will see, there is more to do than just checking some opening lines.
For all of you looking for quick inspiration, here is the super short version:
- Set your Goal and expectations. In order to avoid losing motivation, set 3 goals: The all goes perfect goal, the I play well goal & the avoid catastrophy goal.
- Check out your opponents Repertoires. Take notes of each opponents playing style.
- In case you play several openings, decide one main opening for the tournament. This will ease your memorization & decision process.
- Prepare against yourself. Make sure to know 100% what your opponents will look at and how they might try to prepare against you.
- Start to fix & repeat your openings before the tournament starts! This saves a lot of energy & headaches during tournaments, so that you can enjoy the experience and sit at the board with full energy.
In case you would like to know my general tournament preparation or preparation against a specific opponent, you can check out the respective articles.
#1: Set Your Goals & Expectations
As I describe in my article on tournament preparation, my first step always was to get clear about my expectations for the tournament. What are my goals? And why am I playing in this tournament?
Closed tournaments tend to be very important events, and so my expectations were usually pretty high. But to avoid a lot of stress during the tournament, I tried to be realistic and not expect too much.
It is especially important to understand that not everything is in one’s own control.
What I can control is that I play my best chess. But the exact outcome of the tournament is beyond my control.
6/9 might be an amazing score. Sometimes that score means tournament victory.
But sometimes you only come third with the exact same score and performance. That is why it is important to set goals that are within one’s own control.
Or as my last Coach GM Ragger always said to me:
“You can never be sure to win a closed tournament even if you play your best chess. Top 3 usually lies in your control, but in order to win you also need some luck.”GM Markus Ragger, my former Coach and current World Number 69.
Set 3 Different Goals
Another method that helped me tremendously was developed by my Sport Psychologist. He recommended I not only set 1 result-goal but 3.
What the hell, 3 goals? How should that work, I first thought. If you think so, stick with me, it will all make sense in a few moments.
Danger Of Goalsetting – Loss Of Motivation
The danger with 1 high result goal is that you might lose motivation once that goal is out of reach.
Let’s say you need 6.5/9 for a Norm and that is your goal.
If you now start with 2.5/5 (50% is not so bad and unrealistic…) you’ll need 4 consecutive victories to reach the goal. You might start to over-push and then lose motivation in the whole tournament.
In that instance, 6 points might seem the same failure as 4.5 points, after all the Norm is not achieved.
But if you look at it from a less emotional angle, the difference is huge! 1.5 points are 15 rating points (in case you still have K20 even 30!) and lots of valuable learning opportunities.
But when setting only one goal, it happened several times to me that I lost interest in the whole tournament. I threw away points and learning opportunities, as it was a “do or die” opportunity.
Why 3 Goals Can Help
That is where setting 3 goals can come in handy. Goal #1 is the “everything goes perfectly” goal. That means you feel physically amazing, the preparation is spot on and maybe you get lucky in 1 or 2 games.
In my last Swiss Championship 2019, I set that goal to 7/9 points (I even managed to score 7.5 points, which was truly insane).
The second goal is when things go well, but not amazing. I’m playing well, but not every preparation gets on the board and I’m not profiting from lucky tactics or silly mistakes by my opponents.
That goal was 6.5 points, which was slightly above my rating expectation.
In case things go really bad, the last goal is the most important one! It is the “avoid catastrophe” goal. As my rating was clearly above tournament average, I wanted to still have a plus score even if all things went badly. My third goal was set to 5.5 points.
Now starting with 2.5/5, I would still have a reasonable chance to achieve my goal with 3/4. That not only gives me the motivation to keep pushing but also doesn’t put me in a “now I have to win every game or I failed” situation.
Focus On Your Play, Not Results
I feel it is important to say that result-goals should always only be a guideline. What counts in the end is your process, and how well you played in the tournament. As we all know, we can’t force a win.
If our opponent plays well, a draw is the absolute maximum we can get.
For some of you, it might actually be best to have no result-oriented goal whatsoever.
The important key point is that you don’t only say that, but also believe it deep down.
Saying you have no goal but secretly dreaming every night of lifting the trophy in the tournament and feeling that is the only reason you play that tournament will most likely end in a catastrophe.
Be honest to yourself and your Coach when setting goals for any tournament.
#2: Check Out Opponents Opening Repertoires
After I sorted out my intentions for the tournament, I was ready to focus on the Chess preparation. I would start with the highest-rated player of the tournament and check out his opening repertoire.
In case you did not see yet how I prepare against a specific opponent, read my article on it.
I always created a Word Document, where I wrote down the most important things. That could look like that:
- White: Nearly always plays 1.e4. Always Rossolimo against Sveshnikov, 3.Nd2 against French, Main Line with 5.d4 6.Bd3 against Petrov.
- Black: Against 1.d4 mainly KID, a lot of experience and many possible lines against both 5.h3 and 6.Be3.
- Tendencies: Has a very fixed repertoire and is rarely playing different things than his Main Lines. Preparation has a high likelihood to happen on the Board.
As you see, I would already try to see some tendencies of a player. If I knew the player personally, I would certainly take his character and our previous games into account.
Make sure to also check out if any of the players play something you did not analyze yet.
It is better to do that work BEFORE the tournament, and not in a hurry the night before the game when you should rather sleep and recharge your batteries.
Some questions that might lead you to opponents tendencies are:
- Is he/she playing different openings against stronger/weaker opponents?
- Is he/she playing many different lines during 1 single tournament? –> sometimes players play different openings, but have a main opening during 1 tournament. More to that later on.
- Is he/she going for Main Line preparations? Or does he/she prefer to play games and avoid big preparation battles?
Once I created this Word Document with information on every opponent, it was time to decide my opening strategy for the tournament.
#3: Decide Main Opening Repertoire For The Tournament
In case you play different openings but are maybe not as experienced as Magnus Carlsen, I recommend you to decide the Main Opening repertoire for each closed tournament.
Because this will simplify a lot of things.
- You will only need to repeat one specific opening before and during the tournament. In later games you will profit from repetitions done before earlier games. This saves time & energy.
- If you still have some holes in your repertoire, it is much easier to fix one opening rather than 5.
- You don’t need to take a decision before every game. Having a clear plan helps you keep things simple during the tournament. It is a great feeling going into a tournament with a plan.
I always based that decision on several factors:
- How good do I feel in any of my possible openings?
- What tendencies do my opponents have? What should work best against them?
- Do I want to be very solid or create chances in every game?
The biggest choice I had was in my black repertoire against 1.e4. I could play Sveshnikov, Classical Sicilian, French, or Petrov Defense.
As a tendency, I preferred to play the Petrov (or occasionally Sveshnikov) against stronger opponents (keep it solid!), and choose between the other two in tournaments where I was favorite and also wanted to create chances with black.
It does make sense to be flexible in case there is a wide variety of opponents in the tournament.
On the other hand, being full of energy might give you better winning chances against the one much weaker opponent than switching from Petrov to classical Sicilian.
Keep Options Open Against Very Limited Repertoires
Even though I took a general decision, I still had some flexibility, especially against people with a very slim repertoire.
If a Player (nearly) always plays the same opening, a concrete preparation can come in very handy. Make sure to define that target already BEFORE the tournament and analyze the given line.
You don’t have to exploit the fact with a very special preparation. But it is nice to already have the analysis done before the tournament.
Now before the game against these specific opponents, you have a choice: do you want to play your main repertoire or your targeted preparation?
This decision will strongly depend on how each of you is doing in the tournament.
If you feel great and your opponent already got some losses, it is likely smart to surprise him. With your confidence, you will manage to play an unknown position.
And the fact that your opponent gets targeted once more will upset him and make him feel scared of your super prep.
On the other hand, if you don’t feel that well and maybe have some bad results, I would urge you to stick to what you know best.
In situations with low self-confidence, it is usually a mistake to try out new things.
Get a good night’s sleep, clear your head with a nice walk and play what you know best.
#4: Prepare Against Yourself
I vividly remember a period when most GMs played 1.c4 against me. I was confused and even complained about it.
Why the heck is everybody playing 1.c4, even if they nearly never played it before? What is going on?
Only when I started to prepare against myself did I realize that my score against 1.c4 was HORRIBLE. There was a time when I scored 50% or better against 1.e4 and 1.d4 but only scored around 30% against 1.c4.
Every GM that had some ideas in 1.c4 was certainly very tempted to try it out! If I had known that earlier I would maybe invest more in my 1.c4 Repertoire, expecting that people will surprise me with it.
That is why it is SO IMPORTANT to prepare against yourself.
What games of you are in the database? Are you scoring horribly against some openings? And do you have a very wide repertoire on one move, but a super slim and targettable on another one?
Most importantly: did you improve on every single game that is in the database?
In 2021 that task got even a bit more complex. As many online games are available in Databases, or people might find out your Chess.com/Lichess profiles, you need to up your prophylaxis even further.
In the Swiss Qualification for the World Cup, there was a funny incident:
Player A played all his new ideas on Lichess with a friend. When he proudly played his supposed novelty in Round 1, his opponent (player B) just kept blitzing.
Player A was feeling very “unlucky” that Player B “remembered that opening without preparing it”.
But in fact, Player B nearly ONLY prepared that opening, as he found over 50 training games on Lichess of Player A.
So be very careful and find out exactly which information’s your opponents will have. And stop playing your serious openings on public Lichess/Chess.com accounts…
#5: Repeat Repertoire Already Before The Tournament
Playing well in tournaments has a lot to do with your self-confidence & energy levels. Both can be drastically improved by checking and remembering your repertoire already before the tournament starts.
I know repeating your opening lines is not the sexiest chess training out there. To be honest, I really disliked it. If you are like me, then considering the following scenario might help you do the right thing:
Scenario #1: Well Prepared: Life Is Good
You already took the decision of the opening before the tournament, so you have no stress in the evening before the game. You will watch a nice film and go to sleep early.
The next morning you spend 1-2 hours checking the lines you already checked beforehand and then go chill by the pool or take a nice walk. You even have time for a small siesta before the game.
You thoroughly enjoy the tournament experience without too much stress. Going out to eat with friends is no problem because you already know what you’ll do in the next game. Everything is ready.
Scenario #2: Unprepared: Tournaments Are Pure Stress
You are spending most of your energy before the game. As you were lazy to check out your opponents before the tournament (“I don’t want to prepare against 2 colors..”), you check out some games immediately after your earlier game finishes.
No time for a big break, the next game is already looming.
The chance is high your opponent plays several openings. So it takes you a while to figure even your first move out.
Once you decide on your opening, you find out some holes in your analysis. What seems a very small hole, suddenly turns into a major problem and you’re up fixing your opening until 4 AM.
Relieved to have finally found a solution, you get some sleep. Only to wake up in the morning with terror: How in the world am I going to remember all my analysis now?
You’re clicking furiously through some lines, knowing well that you won’t remember it all. There is also a good chance your opponent simply decides to surprise you and all work will be in vain.
Now my question: on which side would you rather be?
SO MOVE YOUR ASS AND FIX YOUR OPENING REPERTOIRE BEFORE THE TOURNAMENT.
This already starts with a smart tournament plan. Leave some space in between tournaments so you can fix your openings and work on the memorization part. Remember, QUALITY>QUANTITY applies also to tournaments, not only to Chess Training.
Have Fun And Focus On The Process
No matter how the results go, remember to have fun in these tense tournaments as well. Yes for most players playing Round-Robin Chess feels like more than a simple hobby. Even if you do it professionally it is key to still have some fun.
You will have some bad tournaments, but such is life. By preparing well you increase your chances for a great tournament and heavily decrease the probability of a disaster.
Once you did the full preparation process, make sure to take notes on what helped and what still needs improvement. Come up with your personal way. The more conscious you are about your preparation, the fewer headaches on the tournament.
Good luck and enjoy the privilege to play in such a high-stakes tournament.
Aha, so the goals are made to deal with or clarify expectations. Of course I am not free of ambition as well. And ambition is a superb motor for training no? My advice to the youngsters usually is: “Ambitition in the training and coolness in the competition”. In order to be able to meet pressure with relaxation and joy. Easier said than done of course..
I start understanding better the fact a Grandmaster is climbing in heights where air is thin and margins are very small Noel. Probably on this level an attitude like ” Okay my ambititions is max and I will try to forget it when playing” won’t do the job…
Exactly. As you try to push yourself to train well & hard, you most likely have some goal or expectations. Yet, most of us are not 100% clear what exactly those expectations are when playing a tournament. In my case, I needed to work every day on my mindset in order to get clear that short-term results aren’t that important and that I should focus on the process. My instincts were always “win or die” at the board and so a loss was hurting very badly. This leads only to energy & motivation loss and to other bad results… I actually met some sportsmen who seem to have a natural way of coping well with short-term bad results, but they are the exception.
Thanks for those insights Noel. Most average players hardly ever play Round-Robin tournaments. In my only one, I went unprepared..and did very bad indeed…
Still, I do not get the point of setting goals. When the anticipation of the result is disturbing actual play, why not taking round after round and move after move?
Also the element of surprise seems not to be a factor on Grandmaster level. Like you not only do not mention to prepare something you never played bevore. Also it was surprising that you need 1-2 hours to recheck the lines before the round. I clearly underestimate the quantity of lines a Grandmaster must be aware of! Like when Florian Jenny beat Caruana with the Marshall and I asked him why he doesnt play Marshall more often. He was like ” Everytime I play it, I got to check all those lines again..”
You are welcome, Thomas! If you can be fully free of expectations and goals, that could be ideal for you. But most players (me included) have some expectations when playing a Round-Robin tournament. Either you play for a title, or for a Norm. The goal-setting process should help to understand these expectations and be clear with oneself. Having secret expectations and not writing them down is the most common, but the worst case.
My approach was always to understand the positions better than my opponents. Thus I was not really afraid of some preparation. Having said that, if you play in tournaments with 2600+ Grandmasters, it will be smart to add some little surprises. The quantity of lines is always increasing. That is also why I recommend sticking to what you know. If you want to surprise your opponents with a new opening, then it should happen BEFORE the tournament. Like this, you have enough time to play training games and start the memorization of the lines.