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On Chess: Professional players through the eyes of a grandmaster, coach and spectator

Elshan Moradiabadi and Sabina Foisor
Lennart Ootes | Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis
GM Eshan Moradiabadi and WGM Sabina Foisor after her win in the 2017 U.S. Women's Championship.

From March 27 until mid-April, I had the chance to be grandmaster in residence at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Being at the “mecca” of chess was already a great privilege but what doubled my luck was coinciding this period with the most prestigious chess event in the United States: the U.S. Chess Championships!

I had the chance to observe this event from three perspectives: grandmaster and professional player familiar to the demanding nature of this sport, coach, and spectator (I was closely following the event and commenting for other spectators). I happen to be the fiancé and coach of WGM Sabina Foisor, who came in as an underdog and won the event in style.

This combination gave me a new insight into professional players’ lives, careers, and ups and downs during a chess tournament.

First, from the spectator point of view, one can see a lot of psychological games and interaction happening during a four- to six-hour battle. When you play, as a professional, you need to remain focused and you have little cognitive resources left with which to pay attention to anything else but the game. Thus, being a spectator was a great chance to see players’ actions, reactions, and micro expressions. This observation came as a great surprise to me: players of this level (playing at the highest level in the country) are very well capable of controlling their feelings and emotions during a game.

A lot of the players would show up in post-game interviews, despite a bitter loss, and analyze their games while maintaining their objectivity. Being capable of such self-control is a great feat which, I think, every top player should possess and everyone who wishes to become a strong professional player needs to work on.

Some players like  reigning U.S. champion and No. 2 in the world Wesley So have this innate ability; others like vice champion and veteran  Alex Onischuk — 41 but very in well shape — use a healthy and well-followed routine to maintain form, despite his being a full-time coach. In this championship, those who managed to maintain their composure performed well. The very notable example would be how things turned against 2016 U.S. Champion and world No. 3, Fabiano Caruana, when he did not manage to convert his extra two pawns into a full-point against GM Varuzhan Akobian and in time pressure succumbed to a subtle check which cost him the full point.

As a player for 23 years, I have always been told by my coaches that I need to maintain a routine during a tournament. Young and foolish, I only listened to their mature advice two thirds of the time. In fact, deep inside, I was not sure what they meant by having a routine. A specific time to go to bed? A fixed diet? Well, as Sabina’s coach, I tried to inject some of my experience on this matter for the past three years with a mere mediocre result. This year, I decided to keep the “routines” simple but consistent: ropes in the morning, walk after the game, diet time, sleep time. All were less stringent but more consistent.

When things worked out, we started to think about what we did that made things better for her. My conclusion was that consistency was the key to her success. One might suggest that “consistent” and “routine” are two words that go hand-in-hand, but there is one subtle difference: When you have a routine, you may have deviations from it from time to time when it is complex or there is a long list of routines. However, consistency reduces the variance toward the routine list and help the player maintain focus during an event of this caliber.

Finally, as a GM in residence, a professional watching other professionals of higher class, it is amazing to see how much opening out-preparation is more important than being well prepared. In other words, it is not only about soundness and quality of the play but it is also about how one may read their opponent’s mind in terms of their opening repertoire and interest so they can force them into a psychologically undesirable position.

In recent years, I came to the belief that a top GM should be a universal player. It means that a top player should be able to play every form of middle game regardless of whether the ensuing positions out of the opening are within their “pet” repertoire or not; yet, it seems that I was wrong! Even at this level, players still have to handle specific psychological dismay toward certain positions because they are simply not the kind of position they like to play. Consequently, it is better to get your opponent into an unpleasant position rather than playing the engine’s first choices. It is intriguing to see that we are heading back to Mikhail Tal's approach to chess, where confusing the opponent is more important than soundness of the moves! 

Elshan Moradi Abadi is a grandmaster from Iran. He took part in the Chess World Cup 2011, won the 2001 Iranian Chess Championship at age 16, was a member of the Iran national team in the first World Mind Sports Games held in Beijing (2008). He won the Final Four of collegiate chess with Texas Tech University in 2012. In 2015, He won the Pan-American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship for the first time with Texas Tech University chess team. Moradi began representing the United States Chess Federation in February 2017 and recently had his first GM in residence stay at the Chess Club.