Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fear Factor

Luke Skywalker: I'm not afraid.
Yoda: You will be.

Austin Chess Powers, an International Chessman of Mystery, once talked with me about over-the-board fear. He lamented having lost a game in which, facing unnerving threats, he had made a preventive move "just to be safe", and succumbed, at least in part, due to that error. His vanquisher, Dr. Chessically Evil (one of our club's masters), advised him afterward that there had been no need to make that preventive move. Since that game, Austin believed he had cured himself of that problem (and his rating change tends to confirm that).

I like to think that I am largely immune to suffering from irrational fear of an opponent's higher rating or of certain types of positions (well, except perhaps for that time when the Ghost of Met Leagues Past paid me a game-destroying visit...shudder). The plain fact of the matter is that fear is a part (the Dark Side?) of chess.

In my second rated game way back in 1985, I played 1306-rated Edmund Wheeler, a pleasant older fellow, in the bottom section. I was down a pawn with a bad position. At one point, we both thought he had a chance to take yet another one of my queenside pawns, but he opted not to do so.

After the game, which I ended up winning via a combination, I asked him why he didn't take the additional pawn. He told me someone had previously taught him a lesson about chasing pawns. I was surprised by his having apparently ruled out the pawn-grab based on a previous bad experience, although perhaps he calmly and coolly took that stance based on an understanding of his own chess abilities.

In 1986 I played in the U.S. Open in New Jersey sporting a 1732 rating. As White against 2116-rated William Coburn, I reached the following position after 19...Bg4:

After 20 Qa4 h5, I concluded I could reasonably take the a-pawn. When I grabbed it with 21 Qxa7, my opponent's abrupt body motion suggested unexpected surprise that I'd done so. I have long thought that he didn't think someone rated so much lower than he would take such a pawn.

Subsequently I lost the exchange and eventually the game -- my longest on the clock, at 7 hours and 45 minutes. Was the pawn worth it? Absolutely. The moves after my pawn grab were certainly not best play on both sides, but the experience was good for me (probably less so for him, since he had to go to work the next day after our 2:45 am finish...).

In the 1988 U.S. Open held in downtown Boston, I reached the following position as White against Ken Cooper after 11...Rxf6:

According to my recollection, he was rated significantly lower than I, perhaps in the 1300's. I felt strangely dissatisfied with my position, and could not see a clear way to an advantage. Keeping in mind my significant rating point advantage, I opted to confidently play 12 Bxh7+, even though I suspected it would turn out badly for me. Is there a French Defense player who has not had a horrible sinking feeling upon seeing his or her opponent play Bxh7+?

I can't fight my way tactically out of a wet paper bag, so I asked our newly-minted Master Ben Goldberg for comment on the above position. He graciously replied:
[I]t would at first glance appear that black can defend by ... Kxh7, Ng5+ Kg8, Qh5 Rh6, Qf7+, but white can throw more wood onto the fire by continuing with Ng6+ Rxg6, Qxg6 Bxg5, Bxg5. All of black's moves have been forced. After the queen moves, black must tread very carefully. One of the reasons why white was able to sac on h7 and continue the attack is because black played the opening in a lackluster way, neglecting natural development. The wrong knight is on c6, and Be7 was a loss of tempo. After Be7 was played, the thematic f6 break is less effective because black must capture with the rook (in order to defend against the h7 sacrifice) whereas normally black has the option of taking with the queen or the knight on d7. (I am assuming this was once a Tarrasch [Indeed it was. -Ken Ho]). This type of scenario can happen often when French players don't have a consistent plan and vacillate over how to develop their pieces within their little camp.

In the aforementioned resulting position (after white plays Bxg5), white is ready to take on c5, followed by ideas of bringing the rooks into the attack via lifting them to the third rank. After the dust has settled after white plays Bxg5, we can see that black has still not solved his development problems (note the observers on a8, b8, and c8, and he remains weak on the dark squares, and is vulnerable to checks on h5 and e8.

Where should we put the queen? Well Qd6 seems ok, but nope. We get slammed on e6 and lose the spectator on c8. Qf8 seems reasonable enough at first, but after dxc5 it then begs the question of how black can continue his development as we would love to play Nd7, but can't because e6 hangs. If black tries to seize the center with e5, white can continue logically with Rad1 and it looks extremely unlikely that black will be able to hold it all together. A sample line: ... d4, Qh5+ Kg8, cxd4 exd4, Rfe1 Bd7, b4! Nxb4, Rxd4 N4c6, Rh4. Black is getting killed.

So returning to black's defense with Qf8, dxc5 Ne5 seems a more sensible option. White here can continue the attack with Rae1 Nbc6, Re3. Although I certainly don't see any mates in sight, I think most people would rather play white here. Though white has the rook and two pawns vs. 2 pieces, black's lack of development and lack of king cover provide white with better chances.

The other defense after white plays Bxg5 is Qg8. It should be encouraging to the white player already that there is already the option of a perpetual check, but let's see if we can get more. After dxc5 Nd7, b4 Ne5, Qh5+ Qh7, Qxh7+ Kxh7, f4 Nc4. Black has succeed in staving off the attack, is maybe only slightly worse due to still being stuck with a problem bishop and slightly unpleasant pawn structure.

Though the h7 sacrifice has not ended the game with a dashing attack with best defense, it has in some lines to a somewhat unpleasant game for black where white has all the options, not what black was aiming for from the opening. Black certainly has ample chances to defend, but it isn't all that fun for him.

[time passed]

I didn't even discuss the BETTER way of proceeding in the initial position than Bxh7. Though I've shown that it is certainly playable option, it is actually not necessary. With white's pieces massed on the kingside, and black having played f6 in a state of disarray, it is actually unnecessary to sac on h7. What about simply Nh5? It seems like white's attack is already becoming close to irresistible. After Rf8, Qc2 g6, Bxg6 is an obvious kill, and if black tries h6, Bh7+ Kh7, Nxg7! Kxg7, Qg6+ Kh8, Qxh6 is brutal.

Fear Factor rendered all the above considerations moot: my opponent replied 12...Kf8?, and let's just say that even I can win a game against such an opponent from there.

In 2003 I was playing White against 2483-rated Bill Paschall at our own Boylston Chess Club. The position after 12...h5:

I played 13 Re1 and eventually lost (yeah, I know the readers are all surprised). In the post-mortem, he asked me why I didn't play 13 h4. I replied that I didn't think I needed to. I think he approved of my decision-making (hopefully he wasn't thinking, "Well, that's why your position disintegrated....").

Remember, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, plus that horde of enemy pieces swarming around our king.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fear is the Mainz-killer.