Saturday, April 03, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil (oo-oo)

Dying Ember on Board

Well, this is a chess blog, so this article's title should perhaps instead be Sympathy for the Opponent (O-O). If you are rated under 1000 in British rock music, Sympathy for the Devil is the title of a groovy Rolling Stones song, throughout which are scattered refrains of oo-oo.

Botvinnik supposedly deliberately tried to hate his opponents in order to psyche himself into playing more strongly (though probably not to the point of thinking they were the devil). In that realm, I have to side with David Bronstein, who wrote " make yourself hate the opponent, and to sacrifice spiritual comfort for the sake of a point in the tournament table -- this is an impoverishment of chess." (David Bronstein Chess Improviser), but anyway, on to the article...

Between games in the early part of a 1987 tournament, I was chatting with N.N., a boy (13 years old at the time, if I recall correctly) who I'd beaten with Black the previous year. Around that time, N.N. was a chess student of this year's Boylston Chess Club champion, Chris Chase.

This young talent told me, quite innocently, that he was getting a financial subsidy (for lessons, I understood) from a chess organization, but had to keep his USCF rating at least 400 points above his age times 100. At that particular moment in time, he was on the borderline of continuing to be eligible for that funding. He would soon be 14 years old, but had yet to break out of the 1700s into the soon to be required 1800s.

As Fate would have it, I ended up playing this lad as we closed out the first half of the tournament. And he played badly, ending up in this position as White after 30 Ke3:

I was already out of contention for a section prize, and couldn't help but think back to what he'd told me. I felt some sympathy for him, at a young age already under pressure to produce or be dumped by the way$ide.

I played 30...Rh3+, after which Black is of course winning, and...I offered him a draw.

After a short think (but still a far lengthier one than I'd expected!), he accepted my draw offer. N.N. probably took that time, quite appropriately, to verify that I wasn't swindling him out of a win.

When I saw Chris later at the tournament, I told him what I'd done. He disagreed with my decision to offer the boy a draw, emphasizing that "He's got to learn." I would eventually conclude that Chris was right, despite my sympathies at that tournament.

Indeed, I need not have worried about N.N. -- USCF ratings history shows he made master several years later!

Fast forward several years to 1991. In the last round of one of Joe Sparks' tournaments, I was White against Thuông Ngûyen-Khác, who, according to my recollection, was rated around a couple hundred points higher than I in our under 2000 section.

George Mirijanian's tournament crosstable from Chess Horizons shows Ngûyen-Khác's post-tournament rating as 2070, and my impression is that his pre-tournament rating as posted on the wall sheets was in that neighborhood. My matching Chess Horizons post-tournament rating is 1935. Never having been rated 1900+ on an official rating list, I was obviously under 1900 on the wall sheets.

We landed in this position after Ngûyen-Khác's provocative 9 ... Nh5?!:

I played 10 Ne1, to which he replied 10...f5? losing the f-pawn to 11 exf5 (11...gxf5 12 Qxh5; 11...Bxf5 12 g4).

3 months earlier, I had had the exact same position from the diagram against Guy (pronounced gee as in geese) Moreau up in Maine. That game went 10 Nd2? f5, followed by my complete collapse and a quick loss (4/11/10: Adding the rest of that game at the suggestion of the Bad Bishop to whom I refer in a later paragraph: 11 exf5 Nxf5 12 g4? Nh4 13 gxh5?? Qg5 "Oops." 0-1). Guy showed me the superior move 10 Ne1 in the postmortem. Heck, after a 13 move game, we had plenty of time to talk.

Back to the diagrammed position. I felt badly that the almost 2100-rated Ngûyen-Khác had played 10...f5?, apparently without noting the difference in the position between 10 Nd2? and 10 Ne1. I remember him looking somewhat incredulous that what he (presumably) thought were moves straight out of theory had a gaping hole in them.

I somehow felt that a player of his rating strength "shouldn't" lose because of such a gross oversight. After 11 exf5 Nf6 12 fxg6 grabbing my extra pawn, I offered him a draw. To my great surprise, he refused.

I imagined he thought that I was afraid of his significantly higher chess rating. However, with his refusal of my draw offer, my mindset immediately changed from one of sympathy to one of "If you insist, I will take you to the cleaners.", which I proceeded to do. So sympathy for my opponent worked out well for me in that game, boosting my rating to stratospheric (or subterranean, depending on the reader) heights.

(Back to this article's opening diagram, Dying Ember on Board)

As White, I adjourned this 1995 Boylston Thursday Night Swiss game against longtime Boylston player Charlie Mays. I happened to have a small army of analysts, consisting of a Bad Bishop and two Lousy Pawns, working with me. Their fine work quickly showed the position was completely won for me.

When Charlie and I met to resume the game, the moves were:

50 Kf1 (sealed) Nd2+ 51 Kg1 Nf3+ 52 Bxf3 exf3 53 Rb2 f2+ 54 Rxf2 gxf2+ 55 Kxf2 Nf6 56 Rxh8 Kxh8 I think it was somewhere around here that the Bad Bishop and Two Lousy Pawns had concluded that White was clearly winning, after which their analysis ended. After 57 Kf3 Ne4 58 a5 Nd6 59 a6 Nb5 60 g5 Kg7 61 Kf4 Kh7 62 Ke5 Kg7, we arrived at:

I had been feeling sympathy for Charlie from the moment we resumed the game after the adjournment. His body language suggested that he felt like a rat trapped on a sinking ship. Yet here I was, having received the benefit of game-winning analysis from stronger players, analysis to which I had contributed little because I couldn't keep up as they rapidly cranked out variations. I suppose I should have considered that, before resumption, Charlie might have had two Good Bishops and eight Frighteningly Passed Pawns analyzing the adjourned position with him. Imagining that would have eased my conscience.

Psychologically I had trouble bringing myself to calculate deeply, and I halfheartedly played:

63 Kxd5?? which was followed by 63...Nc7+ 64 Kd6 Nxa6 65 Ke7 Nb4 66 Kd6 Nc2 67 Ke5 Nxe3 68 Ke4 Nc4 69 d5 f6 70 gxf6+ 1/2-1/2.

If I hadn't experienced that counterproductive bout of sympathy, I like to think I would have worked harder throughout the resumption, finding 63 e4! f6+ (63...dxe4 64 Kxe4) 64 gxf6+ Kf7 exd5 +-. Black will be steamrollered by White's pawns.

Third time's the charm, though. I don't think I've suffered any of these
crime-against-chess-nature bouts of sympathy since yielding that half point to Charlie. If you are a professional chess player and are experiencing such bouts of sympathy, you may do better to consider another line of work, but perhaps other amateur players have similar stories?

-The Lousiest Pawn

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