How To Win Chess Tournaments: 7 Key Principles
After winning the Armenian Championship, GM Gabuzyan shares 7 key principles for winning chess tournaments, along with his story of the event.
After winning the Armenian Championship, GM Gabuzyan shares 7 key principles for winning chess tournaments, along with his story of the event.
Some players have a high rating, and win many games – but struggle to win chess tournaments. Are they unlucky? Or is there something else at play?
In my opinion, winning chess tournaments is a skill that anyone can learn – you just need to follow a few key principles.
Before coronavirus, I used them to win many chess tournaments:
2018 - 7th Annual Washington International
2018 - U.S. Masters
2018 - Fall Chess Classic B 2018
2018 - Kings Island Open
2019 - 10th Annual Southwest Class Championship
2019 - Dallas TX
2019 - U.S. Masters
2019 - 29th Annual North American Open
And most recently, I managed to win the Armenian Championship! ?
Now that I’m the champion, I’ve decided to share these principles and many tips with you, telling the whole story of the tournament along the way ?
This was not an easy chess tournament to win. In fact, it was one of the strongest chess tournaments in the Armenian Championship history. The average rating of the players was 2,577!
(Image from chess-results.com)
Let’s guess. You’re probably expecting to read a story about months of opening preparation, a training plan, an exercise plan, blah, blah, blah. But that’s not me! ? I've not been playing chess professionally since 2019.
Today, most of my time is spent working on ChessMood or coaching my private students. Of course, that does help me to stay in shape – but I’m sure others in the tournament put many hours into their preparation.
I knew that I could have also prepared in the same way, but I didn't want to. I just wanted to enjoy the tournament, relax, and play good chess.
It’s not advice I would give to you, and you shouldn’t do that. It was just a decision I made this time based on my circumstances.
While most chess players are normally nervous before important competitions, I was the opposite. Quiet, calm, and relaxed. I believe this was one of the things that led me to victory.
In the first round, I was playing against GM Manuel Petrosian, the second of GM Levon Aronian.
I arrived at the tournament with good preparation of ChessMood openings and variations. How? Because during the last year I had been recording courses and playing against strong Grandmasters using the ChessMood opening repertoire.
But I decided, why go for 1.e4 and see whose home preparation is better, and whose computer is stronger? So, I decided to surprise him on the first move by playing 1.b3!? ?
One of my aims was to confuse my future opponents, so they wouldn’t know what to expect from me and it would be much harder to prepare. Was I going to use ChessMood openings, or was I going to play some sidelines?
There are many Grandmasters who always play the same openings. Nowadays, with chess engines becoming stronger and stronger, on high levels it's a very dangerous strategy.
Your opponents can sit in front of their laptops and analyze everything before the game, and often you'll find yourself in trouble. (Especially if you're playing sharp openings)
So I played 1.b3!? with the intention to just play chess.
Because of the virus, I hadn’t played over the board for a whole year. I was slightly nervous and had an interesting position in the very first game.
I had several thoughts but I noticed an interesting sacrifice. I was unsure about it but I told myself, just relax and enjoy the process, you have nothing to lose!
I took a deep breath, took my Rook on d1, and...bam!
After a very long and complex battle, the game ended in a draw.
But I gained something really important. Confidence!
The feeling which allowed me to enjoy the tournament!
I was playing White in the second round as well.
This time I played 1.e4 and my opponent very quickly went to the Scotch 4...Nf6 variation.
I wanted to take on c6 and after 5...bc6 6.e5 Qe7 7.Qe2 Nd5 go for 8.h4!? - a variation covered in the Scotch course that I had successfully played for a long time.
But suddenly I got the feeling that my opponent was well prepared against ChessMood variations so again, I decided to unleash a surprise.
I went for 5.Nc6 bc6 6.Nc3 Bb4 7.Bd3 d5 8.Bd2!? – an interesting move that isn’t very developed in theory yet. (We might add it in the course)
Soon I got a slightly better endgame and I managed to win a very solid classical battle on move 68!
(By the way, you can find all of these commented games in my ChessMood course “In Gabuzyan’s Mind”.)
After the game, I called my friend GM Avetik.
"Have you ever watched a horror movie? Usually, beasts appear from nowhere that are always super hungry…"
I discovered that I have such a beast inside me and I need to feed it ? I told him I had a strong feeling that I’ll win the tournament – my beast was hungry! This mental state was a big advantage for me.
This was one of the most important games as I was playing against the top-seed, another ChessMood contributor, GM Robert Hovhannisyan a.k.a. Robert_ChessMood.
I was playing with the Black pieces and the game went into a complicated Sicilian battle.
On move 17, the following position occurred:
The last move Robert played was 17.e5!? With a pawn sacrifice, he wanted to limit my strong Bishop on g7. Soon I also found his other intention. After 17...de5 18.g5 Nd7 19.Nd5! he would win an exchange.
What to do?
I noticed 17...0-0!? with the idea to sacrifice the Knight.
Did I calculate for long before doing it?
No ? I was sure that after 17.ef6 Bf6, with such a strong Bishop and the "b" line for my Rooks – White would not survive.
I said in my mind "Let’s go!" and played 17...0-0!
After thinking for a While Robert played 18.Na2 Ra4 19.Nc3.
I saw the option to play 19...Rb8 and offer an exchange sacrifice.
But I decided to check what my opponent’s intentions were first. So I played 19...Rb4 20.Na2 Ra4 21.Nc3
It’s a very complex tactical spot. My Rook is under attack and if I play 21...Rb4 it would be a draw by threefold repetition.
Should I accept the draw offer, or play 21...Rb8 and continue this bloody fight?
In such situations, I see a typical mistake that many chess players make. They start the tournament well, they play against the top seed with the Black pieces and think "Okay, a draw with the Black pieces is not a bad result. Let’s not risk it."
But the truth is:
So, I didn’t wobble much.
Also, you know, when you have a hungry beast inside and you want to win a tournament you can’t just make draws and feel happy about it. I decided to continue the game and played...
After a long battle, I eventually won a very important game on move 83!
In the 4th round, I was facing one of the most talented youngsters of Armenia, GM Martirosyan.
If I played 1.e4, I was sure I would face huge opening preparation. For that reason, I made an opening choice that allowed me to play chess with a bit more freedom.
I felt that I was in good shape, but still, I wanted to avoid engaging him in fierce play and sharp lines during the opening.
So instead, I opted for a quiet opening – 1.c4.
I think it’s really important to trust your instincts.
Believing that I can outplay my opponents, I was going for different kinds of battles, avoiding deep-opening preparation and possible draws.
This game went very smoothly. I took the advantage from the beginning and won another important game. (The full game is commented in my course.)
In this round, I was playing against the only International Master playing in the tournament, IM Gharibyan Mamikon.
By this point, I had 3.5 out of 4 and was playing with the Black pieces so a draw would not be a bad result. But I had a clear goal in my mind to win.
Not because I was playing an IM, but I believed that in order to win the tournament I should take all my chances! Everything was going very well, I was in very good shape, my confidence couldn’t be higher and I was in the right mood too.
Again, I wanted to surprise my opponent.
So what did I decide to play against 1.d4?
The Benko Gambit!
We have a course about the Benko Gambit, and I’ve played it a lot during the streams. But I thought that he wouldn’t expect that in such an important game, I would play it.
It worked well. He spent lots of time in the opening and then made a few mistakes which gave me the advantage. Later my opponent was defending very creatively in a tough spot, but eventually, I won.
I took the lead and went into the first rest day of the tournament with 4.5 out of 5, and a performance rating higher over 2,800.
Initially, I wasn’t sure how to spend this day. I wanted to get some rest, but at the same time, I wanted to keep my mind in good shape.
Eventually, I found the right balance! I decided to set up a class with my student at the same time that the tournament usually starts so my brain would stay in an active mood at that time of the day!
Important tip: When you prepare for a tournament, try to train at the same time of day that you’re due to play.
In the next two rounds, I was going to face some of the toughest opponents of my career. Against GM Ter-Sahakyan and GM Andriasian, I had very bad results (both are team members of ChessMood).
In such situations, I see many chess players make a big psychological mistake. They overwhelm themselves with negative thoughts and keep memories of their previous bad encounters in their mind.
Important Tip: Anytime you toss a coin in the air, there’s a 50-50 chance of which side it lands on, no matter the outcome of any of the previous throws. You should treat your next game like this and forget about what has happened before.
In the 6th round, against GM Ter-Sahakyan, after a complex battle in the opening (this time I surprised my opponent playing 1.f4!?), I managed to get a huge advantage but eventually drew the game.
In round 7, against GM Andriasian, while playing with Black pieces, he offered me a draw in the below position:
Opposite color Bishops, equal pawns…
Also against a GM, against whom I had a very negative score.
Let’s agree to a draw and go home?
No! ? What about the momentum I had built up?
In other circumstances, I might accept it but not this time, this day, this tournament! I said no and was soon rewarded with a full point!
In the next round, I would be faced with an opponent who had been just half a point behind me for most of the tournament – GM Arman Pashikyan.
This could be the decisive fight.
My opponent was in 2nd place, 1 point behind me.
(Photo by Mikayel Andriasyan)
A draw would not be a bad result, as I would maintain my distance from 2nd place. Clearly, Arman was going to push all-in, as it was his only practical chance to win the tournament.
If I won the game, I would almost guarantee first place. And that was the problem...
These kinds of thoughts are very bad while playing. When you’re playing chess, the only thing you should be concentrating only on is the game!
I went away from the playing board for a moment and promised myself only one thing. To play as good chess as I can, and not to think about anything else.
On move 36 we got to the following position:
I was not sure if I was winning or not, but at least I knew my opponent was in danger.
I was threatening 37.Qc8 but also 37.Nf5 and then 38.b6.
At the same time, my opponent was in big-time trouble…
But Pashikyan found a nice move and saved the game.
36...Bg3! 37.fg3 Ne3 38.Qa8 Ng4 39.Kh3 Nf2 with perpetual checks.
In round 9, I faced GM Harutyunian with the Black pieces. He was in 3rd place and was also just 1 point behind me. I decided to keep my promise from the previous round. No harmful thoughts. No thoughts like “a draw is not bad” or “If I win...”
Important note: I often see chess players that have self-destructive thoughts like these during their games, and then say "I played very badly today." Don’t do it!
The opening didn’t go well, but then I took advantage of a mistake by my opponent and eventually won the game.
In the last two rounds, my opponents were players who were in the last two positions of the standings. I was 1 point ahead of 2nd place, so 1 out of 2 was more than enough.
Often in such situations, many chess players start to relax, play bad games, and grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.
Important tip: If your opponent is currently in the last place, it doesn’t mean anything. Just because they’re not in good form doesn’t mean that they can’t play good chess anymore.
(Photo by Mikayel Andriasyan)
You should stay focused and keep your concentration. The fight is not over until it's over.
I lost the game... You might think "You relaxed too early, started to think about being champion, celebrated in advance..."
But no ? It was just an off-game and my opponent played well.
Important tip: While it’s very important to openly and honestly evaluate your performance, it’s also very important to learn the right lessons from your mistakes.
Did I lose my amazing mood? Not at all. Especially when I returned home and found that GM Pashikyan who had been closely following me during the whole tournament had also lost.
It was the 2nd time in my life when I lost a game but still had a fantastic mood ?
I was a champion no matter the result of the last round! (The first time was in Saint Louis.) My tie-breaks were too good. So even losing the 11th round guaranteed me first place.
Meanwhile, we had another rest day before the last round. This time I decided to celebrate a little. (Not recommended ? )
The last game started as always at 3 pm. But that day I woke up around 1 pm. The reason was sleepless night celebration ?
When you put so much emotion and effort during the tournament and you’re already guaranteed 1st place in advance, it doesn’t mean you should relax and play very badly during the last game. But I broke the rule… (Yeah, I’m also guilty ?)
I came home around 9 am, slept for a little and surprisingly won the last round with the Black pieces against GM Petrosian.
Magic? No. But my fantastic mood and the positive emotions I was feeling after guaranteeing first place had probably made the difference.
(Photo by Mikayel Andriasian)
"I’m the champion, I did it!" Those were the first thoughts I had.
Sure, I felt really proud of myself. But if I’m completely honest, because I had already become the Armenian national champion in 2017, it didn’t feel that special to win it again.
Either way, for me it was was still a huge success – especially because I don’t play professionally anymore. Naturally, I celebrated it very well, spending part of the prize money on some nice-looking alcohol bottles ?
What’s next? Back to work, back to ChessMood ?
And yeah if, this stupid virus allows – the team championships, where I’ll represent Armenia.
Prepare smart – if you feel you have problems in the openings, work there. If you feel your calculation isn't good, solve puzzles. If you feel you just want to have fun and don't have any preparation – it's also fine. Just be honest and don't lie to yourself.
It’s dangerous to play the same opening which your opponent is expecting you to. You need to be flexible. Sometimes it's worth getting out of the opening battle, surprising your opponents, and just playing chess.
Without confidence, you won’t get far. You’ll hesitate before choosing an opening where you don’t have much experience. You’ll hesitate while calculating, you won’t trust your intuition, and eventually, you’ll make the wrong decisions during games.
You may play solid chess and raise your rating… but you won’t win tournaments. (Unless you’re much stronger than your opponents)
It’s very easy to slow down and avoid risks when you’re leading the pack. Momentum! This is the word I would recommend you to always keep in your mind. When you’re doing very well in the tournament, don’t accept draws!
"If I win...", "If I draw", "My rating..."
Get rid of any thoughts like this. Concentrate only on trying to perform to 100% of your potential.
You lost the previous game, you blundered badly, you drew a winning game. Whatever happened. It’s in the past. Concentrate on the present, and on your current game. You can analyze your games and judge yourself after the tournament ends. Champions also lose games. But after defeats, they’re not reminiscing about their mistakes, they’re continuing to fight. New day, new game!
There are numerous stories in every sport about how the leader grasped defeat from the jaws of victory because they started celebrating too early. Never relax, until it ends.
Since 2017 I’ve won many tournaments including the Armenian Championship and many strong OPEN’s in the United States.
I played different opponents, different openings, and in different playing halls. But these were the 7 principles I followed.
If you won the tournament, you should celebrate it!
Install positive memories in your unconscious mind. It will help you a lot in the future.
During tournaments, you lose lots of energy and need time afterwards to recover.
Analyze your games, the tournament, your emotions. Everything.
Just be sure, to come to the right conclusions.
Good luck in your future tournaments! Every time you start the clock, don’t forget to keep the winning mood with you.
P.S. I’ll be sharing more tips with you in our next articles, so don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss any updates!
I’ve added not just the coverage of this tournament, but also commented on my most memorable games, sharing my thinking process, how I make decisions, and so on. Hopefully, you’ll find it very instructive, and you’ll start to play better chess.
Lastly, if you love this article, you may also like reading about how I reached 3000 on chess.com.
See you soon!
Originally published Mar 23, 2021