Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Suspense Theatre

Anyone who's played serious tournament chess for a few years knows the sinking feeling that descends when you realise you've left your much weaker opponent a game-winning shot. I'm not talking about a strong move here; I mean a genuine cruncher, something that mates, wins a rook, or leaves you positionally ratched. Just imagine, a short time ago you were drifting along enjoying life, blissfully unaware of any danger... But now, suddenly, it's the Gates of Hell! How to react? That is, if you haven't already broadcast your distress with a series of choking noises and a face that has suddenly turned the colour of Informant 87.

One thing you should NOT do is take back your last move. No sense degrading your shaky reputation even further... unless, of course, you can get away with it. But be warned: this strategy will likely not succeed unless your opponent is miles away from the board or otherwise distracted, perhaps in watching the women's section... Quietly pick up the piece you have just moved, put it back on its previous square, and before you let go, give it a slight twist and say the word “adjust” in a low tone. You might also pray that no one else is watching.

But if you've really been playing badly, not even retracting your last move will help. There's nothing for it but to bear down and put some effort into dealing with the new situation. Chess is a struggle, observed Dr. Lasker, and at the highest level we struggle with the opponent as a whole person, not just as a chessplayer. At his press conference before their 1993 world title match, Nigel Short had some pretty uncomplimentary things to say about Garry Kasparov. Did Short believe all of those things? Perhaps he did – he's known to be very outspoken. But perhaps – just perhaps – he had spotted an interesting characteristic of his upcoming opponent: that he is prone to errors over the board when he tries to punish his opponent for something off the board.

Back to the situation at hand. You've just blundered against a weaker opponent. What do you do? I strongly recommend leaving the board and taking as carefree a stroll around the tournament hall as you can manage. Don't stick around and give off signals of distress. As all poker players know, body language is a powerful communicator. Leaving the board and going for a stroll signals to your opponent that you have other interests and don't really care what move he plays. I have observed many times that weaker players are disturbed by this strategy. Yes, I know we're not allowed to disturb the opponent, but leaving the board is never going to be prohibited, if only because of human rights legislation. Unless, of course, you are Vladimir Kramnik.

The position in the diagram comes from a last-round game in a Canadian Open of many years ago. I have the Black pieces and it is my move. In order to unbalance the play, I have castled on the opposite side from my opponent, which is usually not good strategy in the French Tarrasch. I am about to be punished for my extravagance. Whether he realises it or not, White is threatening to win immediately with 2.b4! axb4 3.Nb3, driving my queen away and winning my knight. There is an extra measure of stress for me here because I have no good way of preventing this threat. If I move the knight away, then White plays 2.Nxc6+ and my position is again a complete wreck. No, there's only one thing to do: ignore the threat and pray that he doesn't see it. So I adopted an air of unconcern, played the move 1...Rgd8, got up and went off to check out some other games in progress.

His clock ran for quite awhile. I took heart from another of Emanuel Lasker's observations: if the opponent doesn't see a good move right away, chances are he won't see it at all. But then I remembered a third observation of Lasker's: when you've found a good move, look for a better one. Maybe he's doing that... Argghh... More suspense!

Eventually my strategy of unconcern paid off. From some distance away I saw that my time was now running. I returned to the board to find that my opponent had played the extremely lame 2.Nf3? What a relief!

The game continued:
2...Nc8 3.Rxd5 Rxd5 4.Rxd5 Qxd5 5.Qe2 Nd6 6.Kh2 Kb7 7.Qe3 Nf5 8.Qc3 f6 9.b4?
The right move, but decidedly not at the right time.
9...Qd6+ 10.g3 Qxb4 11.Qxb4 axb4.

This knight ending is almost certainly lost for White, and he was in fact forced to resign a few moves later. I finished in the prize money as a result. I would offer a moral to this story, but there isn't one.

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About Me

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Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
National master (Canada) since 1984. B.C. Champion 1977 and 1984. Runner-up 1991 and 2002. B.C. Open Champion 1972 and 1982. B.C. U/14 Champion 1964-65-66. Mikhail Botvinnik once wrote that publishing your analytical work forces you to be accurate because it exposes you to criticism. Hence this blog.