Chess makes me destroy a little girl

Posted on January 3, 2012

Chess is easily the best game ever devised by man.  Why?  The rules are incredibly simple – you can teach any child to play in an afternoon – but the game is so strategically and tactically rich that you can never master it, and you will never ever be bored by it.  It’s a game that pits two players against each other, with no randomness or factors beyond their control.  If you win it’s because you were better.  If you lose it’s because you weren’t.  It’s that simple.  And what’s more, it’s a game of perfect information – this means that each player knows everything going on in the game (no hidden cards or the like), so there are no “well how could I have known that you were going to…” type excuses.  Maybe you didn’t see that checkmate coming, but you could have.  But with all of this complexity and trouble, chess is also utterly beautiful sometimes.  The players dance around and jab at each other, and wind up creating these densely complicated, gorgeous little puzzles with wonderful solutions.  Non-players will scoff, but working up a really nice checkmate is an incredibly satisfying achievement.  You’re crouched over the board.  Your palms are soaked, and your mouth is dry.  Check it.  Check it again.  Could it be?  You’re running out of time.  Yes, move the bishop…  Hit the clock.  His turn.  And then you sit back, nervous, as your opponent evaluates the position, and slowly realizes that you’ve got him.  He’s walked into a trap, and there’s nothing he can do.  He stares at the board for a minute anyway, frustrated and helpless.  Finally he heaves a defeated sigh and gives up.  Handshake.  It’s a wonderful thing.

Let us settle in for a test of wits!

I got into chess a few years ago.  I started playing casually, and getting my brains beat in.  Then I started reading a few books on how to improve.  I learned about pins, and skewers, and piece development, and endgame strategy, and backward pawns, all kinds of things.  I replayed the games of the great grandmasters and marvelled at their skill.  It’s pretty damned compelling stuff.  The average person will play over tea on a lazy afternoon, or to kill time on a train trip or something, but for Chess Players – the sorts I was reading about – everything revolves around tournaments.  Tournament play is a gruelling, intense physical and psychological battle, pitting dozens of players against each other in a brutal contest for survival.  The more I read about chess, the more tournament play kept coming up, and – being a hyper-competitive person anyways – I was powerless to resist.  I checked out the local chess scene, and it just so happens that we have regular tournaments here in town.  A friend and I signed up.  We would test our skills against Eastern Ontario’s best.  We had no idea what we were in for.

Tournament formats differ, but the local ones (and many others) are like this:  every player plays five games, one on friday night, and two each on saturday and sunday.  The games are timed, using a simple but clever system.  Each player gets 90 minutes to make all of his moves, but for each move you make you are given an additional ten seconds (theoretically, then, you can never run out of time if you move quickly enough).  If your clock runs out you lose.  No exceptions.  So the games last anywhere from three to four hours.  Thus in a weekend you might play 16-18 hours of chess.  !!  It’s like writing four or five university exams in two and a half days, which is to say incredibly psychologically punishing.  Sure you can get up from the table and stroll around a bit, but for almost all of those three hours you are staring at a chess board thinking frantically.  Calculating.  Guessing.  Testing ideas.  Rejecting ideas.  And if you have any competitive spirt, terrified of losing.  And maddeningly enough, everything you need to win the game is right there in front of you – you just have to see it.  Check it.  Check it again.

We showed up at the Ottawa RA Centre plenty nervous, and signed up.  The tournament was held in a long, modest room, with rows of card tables set up, each with plastic chess boards on them (boards are supplied, but players are to bring their own pieces and clocks).  At the very back of the room was a single table, with a nice board, separated from the rest of us by a string of caution tape.  I would later learn that this is where the tournament’s sole grandmaster (GM in chess speak) would play his games.  The GM was a stocky, rumpled looking guy, who stalked about with his eyes barely open during the game, deep in thought.  And in fact, almost everyone else there was a variation on this type.  Old and young, and in between, my competitors were benignly to poorly dressed, male, and not entirely the most socially adept cats you’d ever meet.  And the smell…  The room was, shall we say, ripe.  Yes.  Rather.

My first match was against a dude from Toronto.  He’d travelled all this way and made arrangements to stay the weekend just to play chess!  Uh oh, I thought…

The game started okay.  I had black (second to move, and typically the defensive player in the early going).  A queen pawn opening (where the game is based around the pawns in front of the queen) and I was already out of my league.  I always play king pawn openings and am much more comfortable with them as a result.  Nonetheless I thought hard.  I answered each of his moves correctly.  I felt incredibly besieged from the outset, but somehow I managed to survive.  And then?  The tide turned!  I trapped him into taking a piece of mine which he shouldn’t have and suddenly went on the offensive.  By sheer miracle I had a passed pawn – this is when a pawn gets past the opponent’s pawns, making it much more likely that he will make it to the other end of the board and turn into a queen.  I pushed the pawn.  Two squares to go.  Victory.  His shoulders slumped and he pulled at his hair, while I tried extra hard to project confidence.  My plan was simple: make him quit.  And he almost did.  Until I blew it.  The thing is, I have no idea how to defend or advance passed pawns, and I threw the thing away completely.  Then I combusted and fell apart.  My advantages disappeared and I ultimately lost.  Damnit!  Something interesting about chess: being “ahead” doesn’t mean anything if you can’t turn your lead into a win.  Quite unlike most games, a single false can undermine your entire position and undo all of your hard work.  They say that he who wins a chess game is he who makes the second last mistake.

I bought the guy a drink at the bar afterward, which I later learned is very odd in chess land.  Most of the other people I played shook hands robotically and slouched off to get a diet pepsi.  It was a fun, if humiliating intro to tournament chess.  I went home, dreamed of alternating white and black squares, and got ready for the next day.  Two games.  Time to get my dignity back.

*     *     *

Saturday broke and I arose sluggishly.  I put some tea in a thermos, packed a banana, and set out for round two.  I felt like an athlete, sort of.  When you arrive at the tournament room there is a board with the latest tournament results on it.  The players, especially the younger players, crowd around it and marvel at who beat who, and discuss who they want or don’t want to play next.  Most of them seemed to know each other.  Marc and I made small talk and got psyched up.  Finally the tournament director came around with some paper and tape, and pasted up the matchups, while the players jostled each other to get a peek.  There I was:

Table 29.  White:  J. Latta / Black:  V. Amirshadova

No.  No.  No!  Anything but that!  What did I do to deserve such a fate?  My second ever game would be against some ruthless, institutionally trained Russian.  Great.  I pretended to be nonchalant about it all, located table 29, and sat down.  At a chess tournament you are assigned a table, and all the games of a round start at a set time.  Players mill about, find their tables, set up their pieces and clocks, and wait.  Then the tournament director gives the signal and everyone starts.  If for some reason your opponent isn’t there you start their clock and wait.  I guess if you were insane and wanted some psychological edge you could purposely show up late, but look totally cool about it, to make your opponent think that you don’t give a damn about anything at all.  But you’d have to be pretty good to pull it off.  So I sat down and waited, and fidgeted nervously, wondering what I would do if my opponent no-showed.  I stared at the sweatshirts and pube staches and inch thick glasses and wondered who Vladimir Amirshadova might be.  Time ticked past.

My focus was disrupted by a tiny little doe-eyed girl.  She was walking past and stopped at my table, staring right through me the way children can.  I smiled nervously at her, wondering if she’d lost her parents or something.  She lingered for a second, stared at me some more, and sat down with her little scorebook.  Victoria Amirshadova.  My opponent was Russian.  And a girl.  And a child.  God damn!  The thought of being emasculated by some calculating slavic prodigy nearly incapacitated me.  No way.  Not today.  I resolved to do anything to win.  Anything.

Now stop for a second and think about it…  In what other part of your life have you ever competed on an even footing against an eight year old?  Maybe video games, okay, but losing to a kid at video games is probably good rather than bad.  But otherwise, can you think of a scenario where you as an adult have tried your absolute best to defeat a child, and had a very high probability of failure?  Another great argument in favour of the game of kings.  It’s some kind of equalizer.

I looked hard into little Victoria’s eyes.  I betrayed no emotion or sentimentality whatsoever.  You cannot defeat me, I thought.  Child prodigies lead horrible, mixed up lives as adults, I told myself.  I’ve already won.  The game began and I played 1.e4 (moving the king’s pawn forward two squares).  She mirrored my move.  Fine.  Then I moved a knight out, and a bishop.  And then I was taken by a profoundly bad idea: I would risk everything to trick and defeat this adorable little girl.  I would play the Evans Gambit.

In chess a gambit is when you sacrifice a piece or some other thing (though it’s almost always material) for some other kind of advantage.  Usually you are forcing your opponent into an awkward position, or getting your pieces into position faster by getting rid of your pawns hemming them in.  There are tonnes of gambits out there, and they are irresistibly seductive to any enterprising or even moderately aggressive player.  A successful gambit effectively announces to your opponent that you think you can beat him with fewer pieces than he has.  It says “I have a plan; just try and stop me”.  They rarely ever work, at least if you’re a patzer (crappy player in chess speak) like me who can’t remember the line, and doesn’t know how to execute the gambit fully.  Gambits are especially seductive because they have cool names:

  • The Wild Muzio Gambit
  • The Hallowe’en Gambit
  • The Anti-Moscow Gambit

And so on!  There are scores and scores of them, and they all sound pretty cool.  Every beginning player thinks that he can learn a few exciting gambits and tear the house down.  This is extreme folly of course, but impossible to resist.  Me, I was captivated by the Evans Gambit.  It is a very active opening named after a Captain William Davies Evans in the early 1800s.  The basic idea is this (thanks to GM Boris Alterman, from whom I jacked the picture):

The Evans Gambit

White’s plan is to throw away his pawns so that he can move his two bishops, and maybe his queen, into that lower left quadrant, and thereby threaten black’s king along the diagonals at f7 and f8.  It’s really fun to play, but very easy to screw up.  The first move of the gambit is to move that b pawn noted with the yellow arrow into position to be taken for free by black’s bishop.  I couldn’t help myself, and I pushed the pawn.  Victoria looked at me, giving nothing away, and took it.  Okay, here we go…

The next few moves unfolded according to Hoyle.  I played, she responded.  I played, she responded accurately.  She knew the damned line.  She’d probably been studying it since the age of four.  I was completely screwed, since I had no backup plan.  I kept going, suicidally, since I was without alternative at that point.  Finally, I moved my queen out to b3, stacked behind the bishop.  It was an easy one, she just had to move her knight to protect her king, and then she’d trounce me.  But she didn’t.  Instead she stared at me.  And stared at the board.  The lights buzzed.  Other players shifted their weight and thought about their second moves.  And finally she stared at me like I was out of my mind.  She didn’t know the line after all.  She pushed her little pawn forward, earning a queen, and couldn’t repress a satisfied smile.  I balked, wondering if I’d blown everything.  No, I hadn’t.  Bxf7#.  Bishop takes the pawn at f7, checkmate.  Game over.  I won.  Her body slackened and she looked utterly crushed.  I shook her hand and felt about a foot tall.  The game had been a whopping ten minutes.  I packed up the pieces quietly and left the room.  Some of the other players poked their heads up, wondering who could possibly have lost a game in ten minutes.  They probably thought I had lost, and in a way I had.

I went into the hall with Victoria, and her mother glanced at us from her magazine, surprised to say the least.  “What happened?” she asked, but the answer was obvious from the little girl’s body language.

“I tricked her” I said sheepishly.  “I played a trick opening and caught her, she just didn’t know it that’s all, I’m sorry”.  Some first victory.  I felt awful, showed her how the gambit worked, and then offered to play her again in the next room, just for fun.  Of course I threw the game.  I taunted her, and pretended to be flummoxed by her moves, and had her laughing at my dumb jokes and dumber moves.  Midway through my penance match she asked her mom for a piece of chocolate.  “No!  I want to see a checkmate!”.  I quickly allowed myself to be mated so she could have her chocolate.

I played valiantly the rest of the tournament, but ultimately got waxed.  Victoria, if you’re reading this I’m up for a rematch any time.  You’ll probably whip me.