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Abby Psychs Up for Amateurs Print E-mail
By Abby Marshall   
February 9, 2009
Abby Marshall prepares for the Amateur Team East. Photo Jennifer Shahade
It is 10:57am and I’m standing in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel in Philadelphia, where President Obama had stood just two hours before. For some reason or another, I was a mess that day. I think I can guess that the still President-elect was feeling all over the place that day also, but still, whether taking the oath of office or playing chess, we all feel the same emotions, right?

Basically, Liberty Bell went pretty bad for me because I couldn’t focus. Not that my opponents weren’t geniuses, but at least I know that I definitely was not a genius this tournament. Not even a prodigy.

Here are a couple of examples where at critical moments, it just didn’t happen for me. In the first game, I played Jonathan Hilton, who will also be blogging about the Amateur Teams. After 50.Qd5, Jonathan was winning but short of time, and I should have played 50...Qe2 instead of 50...Qb2 which left my queen open to attack.


Here is another critical moment where I messed up that made me realize how unfocused I was.
Marshall-Markzon, Position after 37...Ke5

38.b5! White is still a little better.
38...Ra3 39.Rc2 d5 40.Rb1 d4 41.Rc5+ Kf4 42.Rb2 Rfa6 43.b5 Rxa2 44.bxa6 Rxb2+ 45.Kf1 Rb1+ 46.Kg2 Ra1 47.Rd5 d3 48.Rd6 Ke5 49.Rd8 Rxa6 50.f3 Kf4 51.fxe4 Ke3–+ 0–1


So afterwards, I looked at my games to review all my dumb moves, but I also became interested in the psychological aspect: how to gain and keep focus and intensity during a game. This led me to re-discovering The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (fantastic by the way, buy it immediately), which is about how to learn and how to reach your peak performance level. Two things really stood out for me that pertained to focus: first, Josh’s technique for achieving a state of focus; and second, a kind of three step method for dealing with emotions.

Everyone has experienced "flow" moments where you felt very involved and capable. The key is being able to reach this state of mind at will so it’s not like  “game is at six o’clock, prayer service is at 5:30.” Josh’s advice is to devise a 3-4-step routine that precedes something that you really enjoy. The book gives as an example this guy who is having trouble paying attention in meetings and other stuff for his work. What he did was first make a routine (stretching, a light snack, meditation, listening to music) and then he would play catch with his son (his most favorite thing to do in the world). After a month or so, this guy would go through the same routine except instead of playing ball, he went to an important meeting. And then he felt very focused and present. Now he is on the brink of company stardom. 

The eventual goal is to not have to even go through the whole routine to trigger this state of mind; if you can just, for instance, think about music in your routine, this alone should trigger the focus. And when this is done, you have a lovely state of mind, which for most people is good for chess. And this leads into the second point.

Once your ideal zone of focus is reached (called the “soft zone”) the next two steps deal with handling unwanted emotions. Even if your routine is perfect for putting you in the correct state of mind, it won’t always block out negative emotions. The second step is turning emotions that might be weaknesses to you (for example, fear, anger, nerves) into strengths. Fear alerts you (Being afraid during a chess game is ridiculous in itself. It's not like this is boxing!). Anger funnels focus. Nerves sharpen your game. The last step is discovering what emotional states trigger your best games. For some people, anger makes them play well. Listening to a heartbreaking song may put some people in the mood to play an introspective game like chess. 

Abby Marshall, inspired by Betsy Dynanko's "hand contest."
I’m young and impulsive and prone to absurd emotional changes for no reason. Finding an emotional state that works for me is tough, but it’s good to try. I’m not a particularly antagonistic person, so being angry is not my ideal state, and I’ve also recently liked to take naps a lot, which I think means that I don’t have a lot of energy during the day. So any high-energy emotional state (anger, high alertness, or a very reflective state) will not be my answer. I feel that being relaxed is my ideal state of mind so for Amateur Team East, I will do a routine that relaxes me and everything should work like magic.

I hope you guys think this stuff is useful! I feel like a therapist.

My last two tournaments have been Nationals, Liberty Bell, and next is Amateur Team East. This got me thinking since these tournaments are all very different, and I think that makes the preparation for them different as well. Pre-tournament preparation is not only about what openings you are going to play (unless you are like me and you only know one set of openings.). A very important part of pre-game prep is answering the question: why are you playing in the tournament. Is it to win? Gain experience? At Nationals, I wanted to win that thing, and so I tried to adapt my style to the situation: losing in the second round made me play for a win at all costs. At Liberty Bell, I only cared about experience so I was willing to take risks and play out draws (and, sadly, lose).

At Amateur Team East, I’m at the mercy of the captain; I’ll do whatever I’m told. If I had the choice of going 6-0 and my team does not get first or going 0-6 and getting first, I would choose the latter. Definitely. Rating points and pride can be won back; winning at Amateur Teams is priceless. It is best to make as many decisions as possible at home about risk-taking, how to handle certain opponents, how to handle team situations etc.

Also, Amateur Team does have a special prerequisite: finding a team of three other players. After last year’s craziness, where I switched teams about ten times, I swore to myself, never again. So now it’s next year and lesson not learned; my original team had an average rating of 2200, which is too high. Right now my situation is still in flux, but something will work out I guess.

Other stuff chess-wise going on…maybe I’ll  be going to Foxwoods and the World Open, both for the first time. One thing I am working on is learning more than one set of openings. It’s kinda embarrassing but I’ve been playing the same stuff since I was six years old, so this is my first experience doing this. I feel like the guy at the end of this hilariousness: these are not moves that happen in chess! Let’s hope I remember to relax at the Amateurs.

Four Amateur Team Championships kick off President's Day Weekend, Feb 13-16: West (Woodland Hills, CA), East (Parsipanny, NJ), South (Orlando, Florida) and North (Waukesha, Wisconsin.) Look for blogs from the East by Jonathan Hilton and GM Pascal Charbonneau, who after Bermuda, is superstitious about signing up for blogging gigs.