Chess Lessons with Grandmaster Efstratios Grivas

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Efstratios Grivas is an author, highly experienced trainer and a chess grandmaster. He recently presented a highly informative series of articles on the world's most popular chess website, ChessBase. I am going to summarise his tips as well as give my own take on the issues he discusses.

1. Physical and Psychological Factors

Grivas places great emphasis on one's physical training regime compared to the common generic philosophy of memorising stale opening lines. I think this is a very logical and often overlooked concept to chess. It can't recall anyone in the world's top 100 players who is clearly overweight. Of course, it is possible to be obese and still perform well at chess, but those people are a small minority.

I remember my mother believed in the power of quotes. She encouraged me to write down inspiring quotes and stick them in a place where I would see it daily. One of the long-term quotes that was stuck on my computer's monitor was by 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov: "Only the ones with the strongest nerves and greatest physical fitness will triumph."

I recently bought Current World Champion Viswanathan Anand's two-part My Career series. It was an inspiring watch, where the "fastest brain in the world" discussed the defining moments of his chess career. More than once, Anand talked about running on the treadmill (and other physical exercise) as an essential part of his routine, especially if he was performing badly in the middle of a tournament (but presumably also when he was training in preparation for a tournament). Rather than analysing a terrible game straight after it finishes, which can often lead to a feeling of demotivation, Anand liked to exercise on the treadmill to forget his worries and put him in a better frame of mind before he goes back to revision and preparation.

While looking after our health will not necessarily have any effect on our short-term results, Grivas places weight on the importance of physical exercise and a healthy diet for a long-lasting career. According to American studies, even simple activities such as walking will improve memory and mental focus as well as turning back the biological clock.

Grivas goes on to discuss 'training time-frames', a topic which I personally have little knowledge about. I suspect this is another concept that is often overlooked by chess players and their coaches. The article breaks down our sleeping and productivity patterns into three categories. Grivas suggests that chess players adapt to being more efficient during the second half of the day, especially during evening hours, since the standard time-frame of competitions nowadays go well into the evening.

Finally, nutrition is a topic that goes hand in hand with our previous discussion of physical exercise. Grivas advocates a healthy balanced diet based on a weekly schedule. For some reason, he has something against "soy milk, filtered water, tea (especially black or green), coffee, dairy products (such as butter, milk, eggs and cheese)", which he does not further elaborate on.

The consumption of food before tournament rounds seems obscure to the non chess player, but is actually quite an important practical concept. A player needs to strike the right balance of whether to eat something before a game and when to time it so that he will feel energised but not bloated. A typical situation would be a 7:30pm tournament game, where a player must decide whether to eat before the game. Personally, I normally eat dinner around 6:00pm, so I would definitely eat something before the game. Grivas recommends that, if food is to be consumed, it should be eaten 60-90 minutes before the game to allow for proper digestion.

A grandmaster once said that "a brain without sugar is not a brain". Consuming food during the game is also crucial. Many players I know do not have anything during their games, with the exception of water, but I have always found that consuming food has helped me during the critical moments of a game. Grivas prescribes coffee, tea or chocolate, since they are quick to metabolise. In Jeremy Silman's wonderful book The Complete Book of Chess Strategy, he supports apple juice (in the footsteps of 11th World Champion Robert James "Bobby" Fischer), bananas, ginseng (or ginseng tea), as well as chocolate, a favourite of Serbian Grandmaster Svetozar Gligorić.

Since we are on the topic of keeping oneself present during a game, something I also find useful, which Grivas does not discuss in this particular article, is going to the bathroom and washing my face. This refreshes one's mind and gives a player a more objective perspective when he returns to the board.

Grivas summarises this section elegantly: "When your body and mind are in perfect shape, so will your chess."

2. Getting to Know Ourselves

Grivas presents some highly thought-provoking material in this article. Personally, I have never used opening, middlegame and endgame 'scorecards' (at least never to the extent that Grivas argues for), but this idea is very lucrative in my opinion.

One could easily generate some statistical conclusions from close examination of the data from one's own games. This will give us a very clear view on our own strengths and weaknesses, and hence, we will know what we should focus our study on. Moreover, the scorecards could easily uncover subtle but persistent weaknesses in our game which we have overlooked.

3. Building a Repertoire

Grivas does not kid around here. He asserts that it is a chess player's "duty to study in depth and comprehend topics such as the correct move orders, the ideas behind these moves and the plans to be employed in the middlegame". Of course, our choice of openings is personal, and we should choose them according to our playing style and how much time we can dedicate to the game.

Grivas moves on to discussing a fear that myself, as a relatively young player, is aware of all too well - the concept of "falling into the opponentís preparation". I have actually written an article about this previously called "Dealing with Surprises in the Opening". The basis of that article was the following quote from English Grandmaster and highly respected chess writer John Emms:

"If your opponent's choice of opening is not the one you expected, then a lot depends on the flexibility of your opening repertoire. If you have a very narrow repertoire (i.e. only one line against everything) then generally it's best to just stick to what you know. It's true your opponent might have something specific lined up against this, but you can rely upon your greater general understanding of the positions - something that will increase in importance once any preparation from your opponent runs out... If you do have a wider repertoire... it might be a good practical choice to use this... This could negate all or most of your opponent's preparation, and still lead to positions in which you generally have more experience."

Grivas criticises the fear as being paradoxical - we should be expert enough in our usual openings in order to deal with any preparation from the opponent. However, he backs off and admits that there will be times when the opponent's preparation knocks us off our chair. Nevertheless, these should be regarded as a valuable learning opportunity.

Following the preparation discussion, Grivas lists the openings we need to consider when building our repertoire. This leads me to an interesting idea I only truly discovered recently (although I believe this concept has been published in books countless times). I am one of those people who like to stick with certain openings for at least a year, but often longer. However, changing openings every now and then (but not too often!) is a way to refresh our love for the game, and will also greatly aid in improving our knowledge of middlegame themes.

Grivas emphasises that it is "natural and desirable" to occasionally switch openings in one's "quest for his general progress". He also asserts that "the role of the experienced trainer is always in need". I think this is more applicable to the strong junior with brilliant potential, because, for the most part, the majority of us can improve in our own time on a healthy diet of practice, review and study.


Grivas has provided us with a lot of interesting long-term chess concepts to think about. He makes some fairly strong arguments, especially in some areas which are rarely discussed by chess players or their trainers.

This is just part one of my Grivas article summaries. There will be more to follow since Grivas has not published all of his training articles yet. Stay tuned!

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Full Grivas ChessBase Articles

Physical and Psychological Factors
Getting to Know Ourselves
Building a Repertoire

See Also

Dealing with Surprises in the Opening
Lack of Improvement in Chess
Analysing Chess Games
Improve Your Chess (PDF Ebook)

Article originally written: Thursday, May 12, 2011

Article edited (slightly): Saturday, May 14, 2011