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Chess is one of many games I find highly stressful to play competitively. These games share one trait: I have plenty of time to think about what to do before making a move. On the one hand that's great since it makes the game independent of reflexes. On the other hand I have plenty of time to stew over how I might be making a massive blunder. This means I tend to be very nervous throughout a tournament. My heart rate can actually surge long before I sit down at the board, and stay high throughout the game. Comparatively, in games like tennis or Street Fighter, I can start a round nervous, but once I'm playing muscle memory takes over.

Chess is uniquely good and bad: if I lose, it's because I made a mistake somewhere; however that itself is a stressful thing - I can't blame bad luck.

What are good ways to deal with stress?

  • 3
    Just don't play the game? – SmallChess Jan 30 '18 at 1:45
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    That sounds like the coward's way out though - it ducks the problem, and it can even be argued to be a solution to many chess questions, e.g. "what's a good response to the French defense?" A: "Just don't play chess, you won't ever have to worry about the French defense" – Allure Jan 30 '18 at 2:31
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This article about Chess Psychology might help you reduce the stress you are feeling when playing chess.

Psychology is an integral element of chess. To win a game (tournament, match) one needs to be strong not only in chess, but in the psychological sense as well. Every chess player can recall moments when he/she could not recover from a terrible loss (or draw) and kept losing points in other rounds. Or were surprised by a twist of the game and could not adjust to it. The chess elite pay a special attention to psychological preparation. For example, in 2008 the participants of the FIDE Grand Prix have been asked: “How do you handle chess failures?” I can relate to the views of Gashimov, Cheparinov, Bacrot, Jakovenko and Akopian.

An improving chess player should not only study, practice, but also work on his psychology. Let’s consider two important aspects of chess psychology:

  1. Your state of mind during the tournament (match) in general

  2. Your state of mind during a certain game

A regular tournament implies 1 or 2 games per day without any weekends or rest days. Therefore, if you have lost or failed to convert a totally won position and keep bugging yourself for it, there is a high chance you will end up in trouble again and waste a lot of nervous energy along the way. Your emotional discomfort may show in different ways. For example, if you are willing to strike back at all costs, you may easily forget about the objective evaluation of the position and start playing adventurously. Or you could get your mental batteries uncharged by worrying and lose due to lack of energy. Thus, it is very important to know how to deal with losses. Try to get over it as soon as possible. Do a quick blunder check, fix your opening, and forget about it until the end of the event. Take a good rest and concentrate on the next game. Remember that each loss is just a lesson. If you treat losses this way, it will be easier to handle defeats. After the tournament, however, you should analyze your games carefully and determine your chess weaknesses so that to know on what to work in the future. This is absolutely critical for one’s chess improvement.

A chess game is a confrontation between two partners. The struggle is going on not only at the board, but between their identities. Mistakes are inevitable, and the one who manages to keep his cool has higher chances of winning.

First of all, you should feel confident at the board. I mean real confidence, concentration, being sure you can play well, right posture, not some freaky “death stares” or “arm-wrestler’s handshakes”. If your opponent feels you are faking it, he will become more motivated to win.

Secondly, never blame yourself for blunders (“ok, I’m a bit better now, but I would have won already had I played 25.Nf6…”) during the game. Otherwise you may become so obsessed with it you will make matters even worse. Take the game as it is, re-consider the evaluation of the position and try to play on calmly, as if nothing unexpected has happened.

Thirdly, it’s a great idea to try to lure your opponent into the type of positions he likes least of all. He will both be irritated (and that increases the probability of making a mistake) and outplayed (since he generally doesn’t know how to handle such positions).

Never resign too early and keep defending bitterly and tenaciously. A lot of totally lost positions have been saved even against world class players. When you are on the other side of this situation (i.e. winning), never relax until the game score sheet is signed in your favor. Otherwise you may see your lovely 1-0 turn into ½-½, or even into an ugly 0-1.

These are the main rules of chess psychology, not to mention “the Dark Side” – how to suppress your opponent and make him lose comfort and confidence. Since I am neither practicing nor advocating the usage of such foul play, we won’t be discussing it in this article.

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The answers above are good but I feel they miss one fundamental, critical aspect of Stress Management in any field or situation.

It can be captured in one word: Equanimity. Or, in other words, detachment with results. You should try to make yourself as unconcerned as possible with the result of your game / match / tournament.

This is the by far the most effective way of dealing with stress in any situation, whether related to chess or otherwise. Furthermore, if this is not done, that is, if there is a lot of attachment with, and concern about the results, no amount of breathing or walking will reduce the stress with any degree of significance.

The following three verses from the Bhagvad Gita (a Hindu scripture) perfectly summarise the attitude that you need to have. They frequently help me in dealing with stress / anxiety / concern in my own life.

  1. कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन | मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 2.47 ||

Translation: You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but do not consider yourself entitled to the fruits of your actions. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction.

  1. दु:खेष्वनुद्विग्नमना: सुखेषु विगतस्पृह: | वीतरागभयक्रोध: स्थितधीर्मुनिरुच्यते || 2.56 ||

Translation: One whose mind remains undisturbed amidst misery, who does not crave for pleasure, and who is free from attachment, fear, and anger, has a steady intellect.

  1. य: सर्वत्रानभिस्नेहस्तत्तत्प्राप्य शुभाशुभम् | नाभिनन्दति न द्वेष्टि तस्य प्रज्ञा प्रतिष्ठिता || 2.57 ||

Translation: One who remains unattached under all conditions, and is neither delighted by good fortune nor dejected by misfortune, he is a sage with perfect knowledge.

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Dealing with stress in competition is one very important aspect of a well-rounded preparation strategy. I think that the most crucial point in answering your question is actually contained within the question itself:

"These games share one trait: I have plenty of time to think about what to do before making a move. On the one hand that's great since it makes the game independent of reflexes. On the other hand I have plenty of time to stew over how I might be making a massive blunder."

I'll assume that either you are faster than Magnus Carlsen at thinking, or that you tend to play longer games. Since most of us do not think about chess faster than Carlsen, I'll go with the "longer game" option. This makes things quite a bit easier than if you were playing Blitz, Bullet, Lightning, or Armageddon games. There is enough time on the clock for you to do a self-assessment, get a grip on yourself and direct your thoughts appropriately - if you know the tricks of how to do so.

Here are a few things that I've found to be helpful.

  1. Breathe properly.

Most of us, when stressed, will naturally hyperventilate (breathe too quickly). We then blow out a lot more of the CO2 in our blood than we normally would, out into the atmosphere. Our bodies actually use the concentration of CO2 in our blood to gauge how much oxygen we're getting, so it thinks that because we have a low CO2 level, it means our tissues don't need that much extra oxygen even though we do. What happens next? Our body sends even less oxygen to our brain than before, because our hyperventilating has tricked it into thinking we don't need it! We then stress out even more because our brain is now lacking even more oxygen. This cycle goes on and on, and our performance suffers more and more because of it.

How do we fix this problem? We need to find a way to allow our CO2 levels to come back up so that our body transports more oxygen to the brain.

Many people who need to perform at their peak have adopted a strategy developed by the military that goes by many names: For the sake of what we're doing today, we'll call it "Box-breathing." It is incredibly simple, and if we apply it when we're stressed, it can get our physiology back to doing what it should have been doing all along. I personally have found this technique to work even better if you focus on keeping good posture and relaxing your neck muscles.

The technique:

Use Box breathing before, during, and after your games. Give yourself reminders until doing so becomes a habit.

  1. Take care of your physical condition

Chess is a sport, and participants of a sport need to take care of their bodies. Think about the heart muscle; if you're in average shape, it will pump nearly 4000 times in an hour to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your brain and body, and to take waste products and CO2 away. Your heart rate is intimately connected with other aspects of your physiology such as breathing rate and stress level. What would happen if your heart could pump the same amount of blood to your tissues during a chess game, but beat fewer times while doing it? Your stress level would go down to an even more manageable level.

How do you achieve this fitness? By exercising your heart muscle. The Mayo Clinic recommends that we all reduce our time spent seated, get a bare minimum of 30 minutes per day of physical activity, do strength training twice a week, and get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic training, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic training in a week. This guideline is a minimum.

Indeed, I recommend testing yourself once a month with some easily standardized test such as the 12-minute Cooper's Test: You run for 12 minutes, and write down how far you went. Then, set a goal for next month, and train accordingly. Focus on small, consistent improvements in physical fitness - it will certainly show in other aspects of your life, too.

Another recommendation is to cut out refined sugars, simple carbohydrates, and processed foods from your diet; replace them with things like green, leafy vegetables, and drink plenty of water. Not only will it help you in your fitness goals, but it will also keep your blood sugar consistent, and keep you from getting heart palpitations and high stress at the most inopportune times.

Stick to a manageable eating schedule, and see what works for you during periods of stress. Bring something appropriate with you to tournaments.

Finally, make sure to get enough sleep. It will make your chess practice more efficient due to the fact that you move information from short-term to long-term memory while you sleep. It will also help to clear your body of toxins. It works even better if you consume one cup of water before going to bed.

  1. Don't think about a blue elephant

Gotcha! I'll bet you thought about a blue elephant even though I told you not to. Don't worry; we all do. Interestingly, the fear of failure works in a similar way. There is a healthy way to hate losing, and there is an unhealthy way. The healthy way is to let it be a motivating and directing factor to mold your practice in an appropriate way. The unhealthy way is to stew over making a massive blunder, thus interfering with your decision-making in game.

In game, I highly recommend going back to "Box breathing," and once you've gotten yourself in a better frame of mind, go back to your game plan. This, of course, means that you must make sure to have a plan going into every game, both for how you will take care of your psyche, and how you will play with the pieces and chessboard. This leads directly to point #4 which is:

  1. No matter what the tournament is, your primary goal should always be to improve.

You've done your preparation, you're healthy, you're well-rested, you're breathing properly, and you're ready to go. All you can fairly expect from yourself is to do your best. There will be time to analyze your games after the tournament is over, and improve for the next one. No matter what good moves or blunders you may make through the course of the game, keep your focus on the present: Don't disregard your plan for flashy moves that are tempting, but after calculation show that they don't actually improve your position or further your plans in any way; don't lose your cool when your opponent plays an unexpected move.

Do your calculations, move your pieces, and play your best. On tournament day, keep your focus on playing good chess, and save your game analysis for whenever you get enough time to do so peacefully. If you start getting the urge to beat yourself up over a loss, or unduly congratulate yourself for a win, give yourself permission to do that in another time or place. Right now, you're in a tournament. Observe your opponents' strategies and consider how to defeat them. Play your own strategies and focus on your strengths. If you've properly done the previous three points, you will be in a good position to do so. Give yourself gentle reminders as necessary, or even better, recruit someone else to come with you, bring drinks, snacks, and be a support for you.

I hope this helps.

In summary:

  1. Breathe properly

  2. Take care of your physical condition

  3. Don't think about a blue elephant

  4. No matter what the tournament is, your primary goal should always be to improve

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The stress you feel comes from the adrenaline that your body produces to help you fight or run away. So the best way to handle this physical reaction is by physical things.

First, before the game try and go for a brisk walk of at least 20 minutes. This will help to burn up some of the adrenaline.

Second, during the game don't stay stuck to your chair, try and get up from time to time, look at other games, go and get a glass of water, etc.

Third, do deep breathing exercise to help calm yourself. Breathe in slowly and completely for a count of between 4 and 8, hold the breath for a count of 4 to 8, breathe out slowly and completely again for a count of between 4 and 8.

Finally, try and be in good physical shape to begin with. Physical preparation was an important component of the old Soviet school of chess and is advocated and practiced by coaches and many top players today. Gary Kasparov even mentioned it on Sunday when he was on the BBC radio programme "Desert Island Discs".

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