Many chess players struggle with solving tactics, remembering opening lines, analyzing their losses, you name it. But some have difficulty with something seemingly super easy: taking a rest.
In this article, I want to show you how important rest is for your health & improvement and how you rest the right way.
The Power of Rest
Do you know when muscle growth happens?
No, not when working out. Most of it happens when you are asleep. That’s why the rest period is essential when you want to build up muscles. A general rule is to have 48 hours between two gym sessions for the same muscle group. So you have a high-intensity workout, then rest, and that leads to growth.
The same goes for our brains.
“When you learn something new, the best way to remember it is to sleep on it. That’s because sleeping helps strengthen memories you’ve formed throughout the day. It also helps to link new memories to earlier ones. You might even come up with creative new ideas while you slumber.”
Sleep is the ultimate form of rest. But not the only one you should use. There are four very common ways to rest you should absolutely use if you want to improve your chess.
- Take breaks during training
- Shortly rest during long games (Classical) or in between games (Blitz/Rapid)
- Take a full day of rest every week
- Before & after a tournament, take some days off to recharge your batteries
Below, I will show you why & how you should use all these ways of rest to get better results and live a healthier life.
Mastering the Art of Productive Breaks During Chess Training
This is what happens with your focus when you study for 5 hours without breaks. By the end of the 5 hours, you are totally depleted and nearly don’t pick up any new information anymore. That is a waste of time & energy.
Instead, you should train with high quality for 30-60 Minutes before taking a 5-15 Minute break. Then your brain will be ready for another intense and highly informative study session.
Sometimes my students get stuck when trying to solve a position, and we both take a break. Coming back fresh, they immediately spot the right line and say, “How could I miss this before”. The answer is: your brain was tired!
I usually work with a timer to make breaks the norm and not the exception. Once the timer rings, it is time to take a break. I recommend doing the same, at least until you get used to taking frequent breaks.
The only question remaining might be: “What should I do on breaks?”
And the answer is as little as possible! Give your brain time to process the study, and don’t feed new information. My favorite way is to get some fresh air, maybe walk a few steps and get some water for the next session. If needed, I visit the bathroom, and the 15 minutes are soon over.
I sadly still fall for the temptation to scroll social media on my phone or watch a YouTube video during a break. This is not only a general time waster but also prevents your brain from recharging fully.
The next session after such a break is usually horribly disorganized and without good focus.
Action Point 1: Take Breaks During Training
- Train for 30-60 Minutes before taking a 5 to 15-minute break
- Set a timer to make taking breaks a habit
- During a break, avoid using screens or generally any input
- Get some fresh air, visit the bathroom, and prepare water for the next session
Resting While Playing: The Potential Game-Changer
The above-seen graph also applies to tournament games. If you sit at your board for 3+ hours without standing up and decompressing once, you will most likely blunder something.
You most likely aren’t able to take full 15-minute breaks, but that’s fine. Sometimes just standing up, walking some steps, and drinking water can help your brain return to a focused state. During a tournament, you have adrenaline pumping, which helps you focus better.
If you know the response to your opponent’s most logical move and your opponent thinks for more than 5 minutes, you should leave the board.
Additional calculations won’t yield much, and you will probably get some minutes of break.
Again, the question is what you should do in this break. This is where I see many mistakes. Chess players love to go watch the GMs play or glance over their friends’ shoulders. This is fun but not fully relaxing for your brain.
If you care about your results, you should avoid looking at other chess boards during your short break.
I’m not telling you to never check on your friend’s positions anymore, just be aware it isn’t the best way to spend your break if you want to get a positive result yourself.
When you play a longer online session or an OTB Blitz or Rapid tournament, take breaks in between the rounds. The same principles apply here: if you constantly talk about chess with your friends and never give your brain time to relax, your focus will slowly diminish throughout the day.
Make sure to at least sometimes get a proper break by walking outside and enjoying the silence. This might sound less fun than talking to your buddies, but it works.
You can skip some tips. Just be aware it will cost you in terms of less focus later on.
Action Point 2: Rest During the Games
- Take short breaks whenever your opponent is thinking, and you have a response against their most logical move
- Avoid overloading your brain with too many other chess positions during a break
- When playing several Blitz or Rapid games in a row, take a proper break in between the rounds
Embracing a Weekly Chess Sabbath: The Power of a Day Off
In a fantastic interview with Tim Ferriss, Joshua Waitzkin, the former Chess prodigy, said something along the lines of ‘If you can’t go to 0%, you can’t get to 100%.’
Joshua was a Master of taking rest and subsequent high-intensity activities. His fabulous book ‘The Art of Learning’ describes his way of getting to the top in different spheres, Chess & Martial arts.
In today’s society, taking a day off might seem weak. That’s what people think that end up burning out in their 20s. To succeed, you must have a consistent, sustainable routine. Any routine that involves too little or no rest is bound to fail.
A rest day for your chess training will help you in three different ways:
- Increase intensity & motivation of the other 6 days
- Lower the stress levels & pressure always to perform
- Improve your ability to focus and think clearly when it matters most
Many of my students have difficulty following this simple advice of taking a day off every week. But once they do, they report back nearly unbelievable results.
They usually outperform on the day following a rest day, they suddenly stick to their other training sessions and find it easier to push themselves because they know that soon they’ll have a day to recharge fully.
If you are really committed to improving your chess, you absolutely should take a day off. Now that I hopefully convinced you, let’s examine what that means shortly.
Day Off means No Chess
Some of my clever students try to take days off without really taking a day off. They don’t schedule training but “repeat some things of the past week” or “play some games.”
That semi-training usually makes things only worse. The reason is that they still have expectations to do something that makes them a little stronger without really putting in the effort.
That means they don’t get the benefit of rest, nor do they get the benefit of real training.
So a day off really means no chess. It means saying goodbye to your chessable streak and not reading any chess book for semi-fun and semi-improvement.
I would even encourage you to avoid watching games of Grandmasters. This will really help you recharge mentally for more intense and meaningful training sessions in the upcoming six training days.
Resting well becomes even more important before and after an OTB tournament. With this tournament in sight, many chess players go in the wrong direction and train harder. This leads to feeling burnt out during the games, which is a worst-case scenario.
Action point 3: Take a Day Off Chess every Week
- Schedule your day off at the beginning of the week
- Don’t let your mind trick you into semi-training on this day
- Remember that to go to 100%, you need to be able to go to 0%
Maximizing Performance with Pre and Post-Tournament Rest Days
Last-minute cramming doesn’t help at all. You usually just overwhelm yourself and occasionally burn out. The most effective ‘training’ you can do the days before a tournament is getting excellent sleep and resting your brain.
Many Amateurs play double-round tournaments, where being fit is even more important. Make sure to consistently do the training in the months leading up to a tournament so you feel confident to take some days off chess just before a tournament.
Professional Athletes do the same. They do the hard lifting in the off-season before they reduce the training intensity during the season. Leading up to an important game, Athletes usually take some rest or, at most, have a very light training session.
They need their energy during the game, so wasting them on some super hard training before the game day would be nonsense.
If you want to improve your chess consistently, you should start to see yourself as an Athlete. There are countless benefits to that. As an Athlete, you:
- Focus on getting good sleep
- Care about what you eat & drink
- Understand that high-intensity training is part of the game
- Rest before an important game
- Think long-term and thus aim to avoid burnout at all costs
Not only before but also after a tournament, you should give yourself some time to rest. You used all your mental energy on the games and now need some distance before you can understand what you can do even better next time.
A rule I applied myself was the following:
For three days of tournament play take one day off before & after the tournament
If the tournament featured double rounds, I would usually add one rest day because of the extreme intensity of double-round tournaments.
The best would be to avoid working on those days, but I understand this is impossible for many Amateur players. So make sure to give your brain some chess-rest before and after each tournament you play, and you’ll feel the difference immediately.
Action Point 4: Take some Rest Days Before & After Each OTB Tournament
- For every three days of tournament play, take at least one day’s rest before and after the tournament.
- Increase the rest days if a tournament features double rounds
- Avoid doing any chess work or training on those rest days
Final Thoughts: Embrace Rest to Improve Your Chess
Rest is essential for high performance.
By neglecting your recovery, you risk destroying all your hard training. You will not only play worse when it matters but also risk burning out and quitting chess improvement altogether.
If you have trouble taking enough time to rest, use this moment to schedule your first official rest day from chess. Go through the four action points and make sure you follow them.
Soon enough, you will feel a massive difference in your play, focus & motivation. Then, you won’t need more convincing from me to rest yourself to success.