By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail, Benjamin Franklin said. This is more than true in chess, as chess preparation has many forms.
Today I want to touch upon the pre-game preparation. Not the chess-related one, but the psychological one.
Each player has his or her own pre-game ritual, what they do in the last hour or two before the game. A lot just prepare until the last moment, but that is hardly the best way to arrive to the playing hall in an optimal state of mind.
Botvinnik was known to just lie down before the game, not sleeping, just resting. Kamsky, on the other hand, slept. In his matches against Karpov Kasparov was listening to Vysotsky, Kony Priveredlivye in particular. Some players prefer to read, others meditate or listen to music.
What is common for all these activities is that they all try to get the player’s mind in the optimal state, a well-tuned mixture of aggression and calm.
Recently I read a very interesting article on this topic. It doesn’t speak about chess, but pre-game mental preparation is common for all performance-related activities.
What I discovered, and this was new to me, was the fact that the levels of testosterone and cortisol hugely influenced the performance of the players. In short, higher levels of testosterone led to better peformances, while higher levels of cortisol led to worse ones.
One curious finding from the studies was that these effects of higher testosterone lingered on for much longer than just the next day.
After reading the article I could understand better why some of my personal experiences with pre-game mental preparation worked better than others. Even today I remember one of the junior championships of Macedonia where together with some friends we listened to Snap!’s Rhythm is a Dancer before each game and that put me in a very positive and vibrant state of mind that led to a very successful tournament. I also understood why I always played well if during a tournament I was in «romantic pursuit» or excited in other ways by the members of the opposite sex. Autogenic training has also worked well for me as I carefully «assembled» the state of mind I want to be in before a game.
This area of chess psychology has received very little attention. It is not surprising as it is very personal and chess players don’t want to speak about these things, fearing a peek inside their inner workings, not very different from the peek inside their opening preparation. Still, it is a very important aspect as it significantly impacts game performance.
If you don’t feel like hiring a sports psychologist, which is likely very helpful, a lot of reading, self-inspection and thinking is the only way to determine your own optimal state of mind before a game. At least that’s the way I took.