Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Mark Twain has a classic short story entitled “Luck” in which a simpleton becomes a celebrated captain of the Crimean War.

Of all the games there are to divert ourselves, two-person board games seem to be the ones that have extinguished all factors of luck. There are no dice to roll or randomly distributed cards to be dealt. The information about what pieces are where is all there for the chess player to evaluate. Except for a clock and the occasional intrusion of TDs and spectators, it’s a pure contest of skill, mano a mano. Yet, there are limitations of these human minds and bodies that allow oversights. It is the uneven distribution of these oversights among chess players and their opponents that revives the concept of luck. Savielly Tartakower once said, “The player who plays best in a tournament never wins first. He finishes second behind the guy with the most luck.”

I suppose on balance, I have been more lucky than unlucky, but here are two lightly annotated games that illustrate my extremes of fortune.

In the final round of the 1994 Mid-America Class Championships, I was at 3.0/4 in the Class A section after two draws and two wins. I arrived about 10 minutes late to the round and went to my board upon which White had made the move 1.e4. The clock had ticked off 10 minutes of my time. But my opponent wasn’t present. So I made my move, punched the clock, hung my sweatshirt on my chair, and retreated to a vantage point so that I could get a drink of water and watch my board. About five minutes ticked off White’s clock before he returned and realized the game had started and so we shook hands and both sat down and played the game. I ended up defending an ugly broken pawn structure from the Black side of a Morra Gambit. I think the Najdorf also tends to get doubled f-pawns and an open g-file. Around move 30, we were both in time trouble, leading to bad moves. Ironically, had we both sat down on time, we would each have had a better cushion of time near the end.

As you see, first I outplayed him then blundered. Then he missed a crushing mating combination. I was barely holding my position together with shoelaces and chewing gum, when he blundered horribly. In my waning seconds, I found the killer move, 34.Rxh3+. Rather than playing on, my opponent sat there and dejectedly let his clock run out. Another Tartakower saying goes, “The winner of the game is the player who makes the next-to-last mistake.” I tied for 3rd through 6th and won $150, which was at the time my biggest chess payday.

The next game features the player I consider my nemesis, Terry Alsasua. We have met twelve times in which I won two out of the first three, only to lose seven out of the next nine with two draws mixed in. He’s gotten the better of me in two Expert Championships and one Club Championship. Terry’s the Moby Dick to my Captain Ahab, the Peyton to my Eli, the Kirk to my Khan. This was game 6 of our series, the first of the Expert Championship games in 2006.

Here I outplayed him, earned two pawns to the good including an advanced, protected passer, owned most of the center and open lines, and had his king on the run, but then blundered horribly from a win to a draw. But the shock was so great that I resigned in a drawn position. This is one of the worst blunders you can make, second only to resigning in a won position. I know this link is probably old news, but I can't resist my own lead in by saying everyone has bad days.

Caissa giveth and she also taketh away.

1 comment:

Robert Pearson said...

Intriguing--the Mark Twain story reminds me of the movie Being There (and the book) where Peter Sellers is a handicapped man proclaimed as chess as in life, showing up is at least 50 percent!