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On Chess: Living the dream and reality of a professional chess player

Sabina Foisor playing in the 2021 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship.
Austin Fuller
St. Louis Chess Club
Sabina Foisor playing in the 2021 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship.

Imagine waking up in the morning, having your favorite breakfast with some sunny side up eggs or an omelet accompanied by a piece of toast, drinking some orange juice and sipping an aromatic coffee or a tea, being able to read the news, check out Instagram on the 10th floor of your hotel room and then watching the sun rise. Taking your time to plan your day to take a long walk, visit museums, play some chess ... this is where your thoughts stop.

“I am here to win!” you tell yourself while letting go of the idea of reading a good book, going to a museum or a concert, and so much more fun you can imagine. This is when chess becomes your job.

Learning to play chess at a young age has been a blessing, but it did come with many personal challenges. Many envision the life of a chess player to be all glamour and fun if they have seen the popular Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit. However, a chess player’s life encompasses serious training, study, time and dedication. The amount of energy and work hours spent to prepare during the event sometimes exceeds the number of hours of actual daily play.

Although a chess player is able to enjoy sipping the morning coffee in different locations around the world, the focus and nerves put into that one event can be overwhelming at times. Every half a point matters, and every opening choice or wrong strategy could make or break an event for a player.

As much as chess players enjoy traveling to different places, there are a lot of challenges and reservations they have to make for that one event to go well. The hours of sleep are even more important when playing in a prestigious event that everything from even the food and water can affect one’s play.

As a professional chess player, you have to be willing to take on challenges and losses as part of the process of getting better. But in order to maintain a good rating and compete at the high-level events then you cannot just play for fun. When it is all about competing; then winning is everything.

Chess players enter this competitive mood and have little time to actually visit and experience the places they are traveling to. The routine is usually something like: Wake up early in the morning, have some very good breakfast, maybe take a small walk or exercise, depending on the location. Followed by looking up the pairings and studying the games of that round’s opponent. Following that comes the thought about how my style is different from my opponent’s and what would be the best strategy to meet my opponent’s style of play. What he/she may not like so that I could try to get into that sort of position. It is never easy deciding on what to focus on in preparation considering the opposition is doing the same thing. This preparation often lasts for a few hours after which it’s time for lunch, maybe a little rest and then comes game time.

Once your round begins, your focus and attention are all in the game. Pressure gone and it’s you versus the opponent. One game can last up to six hours. Afterwards, you’re most likely exhausted but you take time for some dinner and maybe a walk. Then you must review the game you had just played and finally prepare yourself mentally for the next day and go to bed. Then you wake up and repeat the previous day’s routine.

The greatest win is experiencing the beauty of learning, getting stronger, psychologically, mentally and gaining the experience to move on to the next event.

All in all, chess is a beautiful game that I am constantly learning and growing from. While it allows for international travel and experiencing new cultures it takes serious dedication and hard work but ultimately the outcome of continuing to learn and grow is what makes it my lifelong passion.

Women’s grandmaster Sabina Foişor is a Romanian-American chess player and has been a member of USA's Women Chess Olympic Team at five consecutive Olympiads (2010-2018) and four Women's World Team Championships. Her biggest achievement to date is winning the 2017 U.S. Women’s Championship. Together with her fiancé, grandmaster Elshan Moradiabadi, Sabina co-authored a book, Sherlock’s Method which is meant as a working tool for club players who seek an overarching way to train themselves before tournament.

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