Make It

Mental strategies this chess grandmaster uses to stay focused during high-pressure games

Courtesy of Hennessy.

Imagine sitting down for six hours of back-to-back college final exams for nine days in a row. That's what playing in a professional chess tournament is like, according to chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley. The only difference is in chess, "the finals fight back," Ashley tells CNBC Make It.

And no matter how much Ashley prepares, his opponent "figure[s] out how to out-prepare me," he says. "It's like a battle royal."

Ashley is an international grandmaster, which is the highest title a chess player can achieve. In 1999, he became the first Black person to achieve the title of grandmaster, and today he is a chess commentator and coach. 

The game of chess requires intense mental concentration and stamina, especially at the elite level, where thousands of dollars of prize money is on the line.

"You have to try to control your emotions under that intense pressure as well, because you know if you lose this game, that can be your livelihood," Ashley says. Although chess players seem calm and composed in their demeanor, it requires a lot of mental work to think ahead and stay present.

Even now as a chess broadcaster, Ashley says he has to keep track of multiple games at a time, and process what's happening in real time. "Your brain has to be fresh for hours," he says.

So, what tips and tricks help Ashley stay in the game?

Reframe the pressure

The "fun of the game" comes from the pressure and high stakes, Ashley says. Whether he's completing a chess puzzle for practice, or competing in a tournament, he approaches each task with the same gravity and importance.

"If you see something as a pressure moment, then you'll collapse," Ashley says. Instead, the best way to deal with the stress is to "recognize that you cannot do better under pressure than you do when you're not under pressure," he says.

In other words, instead of resisting the amount of pressure you feel, use it as motivation. "You want that pressure, you take it on," he says. If you treat everything with the same gravity, then conquering truly important moments or challenges will feel like second nature, he says. 

Ashley compares this to the way that a professional basketball player might approach a game: "Minute 48 [the last minute of a basketball game] is same as minute one; you don't do anything differently," he says. "Players who are able and capable of performing in minute 48 the way they would have been in minute one — or move one — deal with the pressure the best because they realize it's all the same thing."

Thinking this way makes winning feel even sweeter, he says. "When you succeed under those circumstances, there's nothing like it," he says. And to that end, "when you stop feeling pressure, it means it's time to quit," he says.

Have a meditation practice

"Meditation is a really great tool for stabilizing the mind," Ashley says. Studies show that meditation helps with relaxation, which improves increases focus, attention span and memory. 

Ashley used to meditate regularly as part of his Aikido practice, a martial arts method that that focuses on harmonizing with an opponent rather than defeating them. But now, Ashley finds other ways to be mindful and quiet his mind throughout his days, which are typically booked with "wall-to-wall chess," he says. For example, going on a walk or bike ride outdoors without a goal or intention is one way to "meditate."

And "chess is one form of meditation as well," he says. The game requires staying in the moment without getting ahead of yourself. In the morning, he will do a chess puzzles upon waking up, "just keep the brain sharp," he says.

Ashley also likes to read books that aren't about chess as much as possible. "That's an important part of getting in the zone and also informing the mind," he says.

Find something you love

Ultimately, the reason why Ashley can sit for hours and concentrate fully on a chess game is because he loves it.

"A lot of what we do really comes down to the motivation to do it," he says. "If you're enthralled by what you do, if you're passionate about your job, if the material you're looking at is super interesting it will be easy to focus."

This is something that can be applied to most any work situation: Studies suggest that when people find that their jobs give their lives meaning, they're happier, more productive and make more money.

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