1.I am a chess enthusiast. I am unaware of my rating (FIDE/USCF). I play at about 1700 on FreeChess.org.
Enthusiasm and strong discipline are the only thing required-forget FIDE ELO.
2.I have three years at hand to play my first serious tournament. In other words, I can refrain from playing online/real tournament for three years.
Online play can be very useful-do not discard it. Use it to quickly test new things you learn. Blitz games can help you a lot in this if you find an opponent of equal strength.
3.I have 30 minutes every day.
Half an hour a day is way too little, but if you seek to increase your strength to a noticeable level, I think that this can be done. You will need iron discipline and good resources-they must be short, crystal clear examples.
4.I have access to a Linux computer.
Good. Internet + decent chess engine can help a lot.
5.I am interested in knowing your thoughts on how I can best utilize the 450 hours (half an hour each day for 300 days a year in 3 years) over the next three years to prepare myself well for chess.
Keep reading, I will explain everything in great detail-so pay attention!
6.My biggest concern is wasting the (scarce) time I have got in playing mindless games on the Internet. I have realized that the time can be used more productively while getting better at chess.
See the answer to second question.
7.My modest expectation is an increased understanding of the game and feel for its positions.
This can be done with proper resources, and I will try to recommend some bellow-see third answer.
8.Questions such as approach to using engines on Linux computer, analyzing games, preparing theory and lines haunt me. I have heard that tournament play helps, but I have also read that since chess is rich in theory, preparing the theory also helps.What are the various approaches to coming up with an optimal plan for the 450 hours (over 3 years) that I have got?
First off, forget about theory learning-you just do not have enough time to learn openings to a such high level. So my goal is to recommend books that are small and describe openings that are solid and not so sharp. Semi-open openings can give you enough solidity to survive and enough counter-play to have a chance to win.
1.e4 I would recommend French Defense, and against everything else King's Indian defense. The reason for this is that nobody can use transpositions to get you out of your opening. This is important-it will reduce your time required for learning the openings for Black. As White, play the King's Indian Attack, since this is the King's Indian defense played with reversed colors. Again, you save your time by practically learning to play only two openings. I recommend Starting Out series, since they explain these openings and their basic middle game very well.
Then, you will need to learn to play middle game well. You can use Andrew Soltis-Pawn Structure Chess(1995) for that, but read only these chapters:
- The e5 chain so you can master the French defense-Advance variation
- The King's Indian complex-useful for you because you play both King's Indian attack and defense.
With Starting Out series, and with these two chapters, you should be able to hold your own against any player/engine. Your only problem shall be theory, but with the chapters from Soltis' book you could find good moves on your own since you should be able to understand the middle game quite well.
OK, I have covered your opening repertoire and middle game plans, now is the time for tactics/positional play.
Again, for positional principles consult Soltis' book, as for tactics you should utilize Internet to solve puzzles-ChessTempo.com can help.
As for endgame, you will have to get a good book for the beginners, but I just can not recommend one now, if I find a good one I will edit the answer and inform you via comment.
Now, let us create a timetable for you, so you can use your scarce time the best you can:
Get and read books for the openings-you can not progress further if you get smashed in 20 moves. Start with French defense and then move on to Kings Indian defense. Leave Kings Indian Attack for the end.
Once you feel confident that you have learned one opening variation ask someone to play with you 3 blitz games ( five minutes both ) so you can memorize the opening variation-you will be surprised how effective this is. Five-minutes-each blitz game means that you can play 3 games per day. After 12 games of blitz, you should memorize the variation. To increase your learning efficiency play King's Indian Attack with White all the time, and shuffle between French defense and Kings Indian defense ( of course, tell your friend to play
1.d4/c4..., based on which defense as Black you wish to train ). This way you will learn the openings-forget about the outcome of the game, for now we just want to focus on you not losing in first 20+ moves.
Read the 'Soltis' book now, since you can survive the opening. Those 2 chapters will help you to find a plan in the middle game with speed and easiness. Once you read them and feel confident in your knowledge, ask a friend to do the same as before-play a five-minute-each blitz game, only this time result does matter since you know how to play middle game. This is the good moment for you to also experiment with the games online since we want you to get as much experience in playing these openings and middle games as you can get.
At some point you will feel like you have your opening and middle game "together" but you lack tactical strength to win or save the game. This will be the time to rest from openings and just solve puzzles. You can do that online or by getting newspapers or something. Again, once you are confident in your tactical improvement ask a friend to play again, or play online.
For endgame try to find any beginners book on basic principles and basic endings. You will not need complex study of this, just some basic knowledge. Once you read the book and feel like you have learned something play again against a friend/online.
From that moment on, you just keep playing and refer to the books when you need to remember some variation or a plan.
Now, the tournament play strategy:
Tournament is consisted of players of various strength. Once you go there, forget about winning every game! Just forget it! You will need every ounce of mental strength to deal with other things ( unexpected defeat/unfair referee 's decision/rude behavior of the spectators or your opponent ). Also, by not forcing the win you will not squander drawn games trying to prove a win that does not exist. Half a point is truly BIG if you keep not losing. If you can win do it of course, but tend to play safe-drawing a game is OK. Remember, you are there to have fun since this is your first tournament, and if you win a game that is great, if you lose it is OK too, move on and do not grief-another game will bring new adventure/experience. If you reach around 50% of total points at the end of the tournament consider your result a great success.
This will be your first tournament-try to finish it with a positive result and good experiences to remember. To achieve that do not force a win but just play the game and enjoy it.
Prepare your opening repertoire so you can hold your own against anybody-you can do that by practicing the way described above.
Prepare your middle games, so you can save the time on your clock by finding moves/plans quickly.
Train tactics so you can save the time on your clock and increase your chances to win or save the game.
Learn basic endings so you do not ruin a good game you played previously.
If you have any questions leave a comment and I will reply.
Good luck on your first tournament!