Monday, March 22, 2010

I Like Dem Hippos

My favorite song from Madagascar 2 is Alex on the Spot, but the title of this post comes from a line in "Big and Chunky" in which channels the late Barry White in a song of attraction between hippopotami.

In The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal, Tal tells of a mental fugue that interrupted one of his games. I can't resist retelling this popular chestnut in its entirety.

JOURNALIST. It's perhaps not convenient to interrupt at such a culminating moment, but I would, nevertheless, like to know whether extraneous thoughts ever enter your head during a game?

CHESS PLAYER. Oh yes! For instance, I will never forget my game with Grandmaster Vasyukov in one of the USSR Championships. We reached a very complicated position where I was intending to sacrifice a knight. The sacrifice was not altogether obvious, and there was a large number of possible variations, but when I conscientiously began to work through them, I found, to my horror, that nothing would come of it. Ideas piled up one after another. I would transport a subtle reply by my opponent, which worked in one case, to another situation where it would naturally prove to be quite useless. As a result my head became filled with a completely chaotic pile of all sorts of moves, and the famous 'tree of the variations', from which the trainers recommend that you cut off the small branches, in this case spread with unbelievable rapidity.

And then suddenly, for some reason, I remembered the classic couplet by Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky:

Oh, what a difficult job it was
To drag out of the marsh the hippopotamus.

I don't know from what associations the hippopotamus got onto the chess board, but although the spectators were convinced that I was continuing to study the position, I, despite my humanitarian education, was trying at this time to work out: just how would you drag a hippopotamus out of the marsh? I remember how jacks figured in my thoughts, as well as levers, helicopters, and even a rope ladder. After a lengthy consideration I admitted defeat as an engineer, and thought spitefully: "Well, let it drown!" And suddenly the hippopotamus disappeared. Went off from the chess board just as he had come on. Of his own accord! And straightaway the position did not appear to be so complicated. Now I somehow realized that it was not possible to calculate all the variations, and that the knight sacrifice was, by its very nature, purely intuitive. And since it promised an interesting game, I could not refrain from making it.

And the following day, it was with pleasure that I read in the paper how Mikhail Tal, after carefully thinking over the position for 40 minutes, made an accurately- calculated piece sacrifice...

The game became known as Tal's Hippopotamus Game, but it doesn't feature a Hippopotamus opening which I learned from Andrew Martin's book, The Hippopotamus Rises, was mostly a name credited to J.C. Thompson. But Thompson's usual formation seems different and it's sometimes hard to define what the fully chunky Hippopotamus Defense really is, but I've taken to defining it as this Wikipedia article does with double fianchettoes, both center pawns to the third rank, and both knights sitting in front of the Royal Couple. As such, I played it four times in tournament practice before this year. My record in the four games is okay:

2 wins, 1 loss against experts
1 win against a Class D

I also played it once in a simul against former World Champion Boris Spassky not knowing that Spassky himself had played it even in his 1966 world championship match against Petrosian. Spassky crushed my hippopotamus.

In my eighth game of the Club Championship Qualifier, I was playing Black against a Class B player whom I guessed would play a Reti opening. I usually find it disheartening when my fianchetto gets neutralized by an equal and opposite fianchetto from the opponent's corner, so I aimed for a Hippopotamus Defense. My hippopotamus neither got drug out nor drowned. It neither rose nor fell. From seemingly nothing, my opponent created a serious attack and I had to fight off a raging kingside and center attack.

It was with relief that I escaped into a more or less even endgame. It's possible I could have ground out a win, but having dodged a bullet, I decided not to tempt fate and go home with my skin, if not my perfect record, intact. My 7-0 record in the qualifier went to 7-0-1.

Hippopotami kill about 100-150 people a year which puts them at #7 on this list ahead of bears, sharks, and jellyfish.


Tony Chinnici said...

It was a fun game. At one or two points my heart rate must have been in the "Danger Zone" (Top Gun is now excluded as a blog theme for you).
Two practical points: the lower-rated player is probably best off with (reasonable) haymakers and some chaos on board, rather than falling straight into the stronger guy's grinding technique. Also, the higher-rated player is probably obligated to play on in what he sees as an equal, technical position, which best brings to bear his better technique. You should have pulled this one out in the end, or at least squeezed out the blood from the turnip.

Tony Chinnici said...

How do you make chess flash work so nicely on this page?

Anonymous said...


I've been having trouble getting in touch with my "inner mean" as one reader diagnosed. I had felt guilty for swindling Bob and after you let me get away, I didn't feel like fighting much any more. I think I recovered that a little in the final game of the qualifier last night.

On ChessFlash, I uncheck Horizontal layout, choose 500 for the size of the board and choose a green color scheme. The rest of the good looks are attributable to the programmer of ChessFlash and the fortunate Feng Shui of how it meshes with Google Blogger.