September 24, 2004

The loser who wasn't

I accidentally broke my vows last night and drank a third pint before the time limit was up. I was in shock, is my explanation.

I play for Streatham and Brixton chess club, which, from early on last season, developed the habit of losing nearly all its matches by the narrowest possible margins, sometimes because of the most unspeakably foolish play when victory seemed assured. Not an "oh, we were unlucky" sort of defeat, where you take into account all the games you lost from good positions and none of the ones you won from bad positions. I mean the match is in the bag, opponents are playing on in games they might have resigned by now, other teammates are in positions which can only be lost through divine intervention, that sort of defeat. Those ones keep you awake at night through no force more subtle than sheer disbelief.

One match we lost last year, where one of our players had rook and four pawns against rook and managed to lose his own rook, was the sine qua non as far as Streatham and Brixton disasters are concerned. Horrific. The poor bloke concerned was so affected by the disaster that nobody from the club has seen or heard from him since. And that's what happens - once you start doing it, you carry on, because your confidence is demolished. Aware of how stupid you can be, you aware of your capacity for missing the obvious, you start expecting to blunder, you lose all capacity for trusting yourself and your own calculations. Which, in chess, is fatal. You have to believe the evidence of your own eyes and mind. If you don't, you're simply guessing, and worse than that, second-guessing yourself about mistakes you might have made. You put yourself into a Hall of Mirrors, and then you wonder why you can't see straight.

Last night we'd already lost one game stupidly, in a position where it ought to be impossible to lose but it looked, as the games reached their conclusion, like a win for the good guys. Score tied 2.5-2.5, board nine going west but winning in two or three of the remaining games and the other one a dead draw. (Likely result before that loss: 6.5-3.5. Likely result afterwards: 6-4.) Despite having two pints of Samuel Smith's Extra Stout before the match I had won quite early on, which enables me to be detached, i.e. completely reasonable, i.e. completely sanctimonious, about the debacle that followed.

Not so much about the half-point that looks to have slipped away on board five (likely result: 5.5-4.5) as I missed that particular blunder while I was still stunned by events lower down the order. Our seventh board, Jonathan, who's not had a good run recently, found himself on top, winning a pawn at the end of the session. Each player had about a minute left, not much more, for their last half-dozen moves. I've seen that many times before. Jonathan immediately lost the pawn back. I've seen players do that many times before. I've done it myself many times before. Jonathan and his opponent then blitzed out the next few moves almost instantly. I've seen that happen many times before.

But I've never before, not ever in thirty years or so of playing chess, seen what happened next. Jonathan's king was in the middle of the board but short of undefended squares to move to. His opponent gave check with a rook. Jonathan briefly took stock of the possible squares his king might move to, and seeing them either attacked by his opponent's pieces or already occupied by his own, concluded that his king could not escape the check and was therefore checkmated. "Ah", he said. "That's most unfortunate." And he held out his hand and conceded the game. Likely score: 4.5-5.5 and though there are unfinished games to be played out at a later date, we're probably going to lose, again, by the narrowest of margins.

Only it wasn't checkmate. Jonathan had a square free for his king. All he had to do was move it - it wasn't like there was any choice, he only had one legal move - and he was fine. Not checkmated, not even losing, quite possibly the opposite. Likely score: he doesn't lose and nor do we. His opponent couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it now. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

So it was only about fifteen minutes later, when I was halfway down my pint of extremely strong Czech lager, that I realised what I had done. I'm supposed to allow four hours wearing-off time: it's a rule, and I was about forty minutes short. A blunder of my own, but not a fatal one. You won't see me do it again. Provided I don't see anybody else do that again. If I do, I might just consider myself absolved from the requirement to abstain from sin.
White (Jonathan): Ke3, Ne2, Rg3, Rc7, Ps a2, b2, c2, f4, g2 , h2.
Black: Kg8, Bd5, Re8, Rf6, Ps a6, b5, e6, g6, h7.

1.Kd4? Bc4 2.Re3 Be2 3.Re2 Rf4 4.Ke5 Rf5 5.Kd6 Rd5 0-1


At October 12, 2004 2:29 pm, Blogger Jonathan M. G. Bryant said...

Well I was that soldier so I should point out that the text is, in fact, rather generous to me in that I had a little more time available than was suggested.

I should also say that I'm not just rubbish at playing chess. I am also rubbish at chess punditry.

Peter Leko, as I write 5.5 - 4.5 up against Kramnik in the world title match, can date the revival of his fortunes to my statement that he was "in trouble".

That was just after game 4 - and he's hardly looked back since.


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