The Traxler Counterattack: Part One

I played the Two Knights in an online game earlier this evening. It seems I’d forgotten all about the sharp Traxler Counterattack! Hardly anyone ever plays it but maybe they should! This write-up is for black but shouldn’t be too biased towards the second player. White will have a winning game if he makes perfect moves, but at any reasonable rating level there’s something to be said for pressure, pressure, and more pressure. The opening begins like this:

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 Bc5?! 5. Nxf7 Bxf2+

I’ve never seen Fritz give a gambit such a lopsided evaluation! Still, it’s tricky and I lost the game. I probably would have fared better had I not fooled myself into thinking I knew the theory. The first option, and in my opinion the best try for white, is to not take the bishop at all. If someone prepares a gambit you know they’ve prioritized the lines where you accept the sacrifice. This enterprising move tries to restore normalcy. White wants to capture the h8 rook and hunker down with his extra material. He gives back his pilfering knight but wagers that his king can be protected. Black will get a passed e-pawn as a dangerous weapon, not to mention superior development.

6. Kf1 Qe7 (The only move. It offers a threat to white’s king if he goes for the loose bishop later. This also threatens Rf8 if white doesn’t capture the rook immediately. It’s a useful developing move that also functions as a way to force white’s hand. With every other try black will find himself down too much material to generate real chances.

7. Nxh8 (Now black can a) retreat his bishop or b) protect it with his queen.)

a) 7… Bb6 8. d3 d6 9. Bg5 (Black doesn’t control the f-file and pieces will soon be traded. White is safe for the moment. Black can try a kingside pawn advance to loosen white’s king.)

b) After 7…Qc5 I recommend 8. Qe2 for white. Black will play d5 shortly to activate his bishop and deprive white of his kingside light squares.

It’s less a chess game than it is a street fight; the longer the latter goes on the less your chances of coming out on top. However there is absolutely no intuitive way for white to know where to land his king. His seventh move, if inaccurate, will make defense impossible. 7. Kf1 was the beginning of the end for me and I didn’t even know it! Next time we’ll look at some other variations in this fun and interesting opening.


Floating in Space

Space, as it rolls and tumbles away between him and his native soil, proves to have powers normally ascribed only to time; from hour to hour, space brings about changes very like those time produces, yet surpassing them in certain ways. Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing an individual from all relationships…

– Thomas Mann from The Magic Mountain

After black’s 23rd move.

I am white in a Game 60. My opponent is Thomas Mundell.

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d6 3. Nc3 g6 4. e4 Bg7 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be2 Nbd7 {A minor error.
Black must expand with c5 or e5 while he can.} 7. O-O a6 8. e5 dxe5 9. dxe5 Ng4
10. e6 Nde5 11. exf7+ Nxf7 {I’ve played well so far, but now comes a
middlegame that I don’t particularly like. I am going into it with an
advantage and hope it will be more sizeable than my opponent’s ability to
outplay me.} 12. Bf4 {After the queen trade white’s claim to an advantage is
gone. It’s important to examine why the first player is better and then to
expand upon that. In this case it’s the vulnerability of black’s queen and his
hanging knight.} e5 13. Bg3 Bf5 14. Nh4 {Qb3 is clearly better. I ended up
concluding that the weakness on b7 didn’t merit a response from black. What I
failed to reckon with is that it might gain me a move later. The reason why
black can neglect the defense revolves around the proximity of his pieces to
that square and the weakness of b2. I can fix those problems later, with
tactics, and then win the b-pawn. Or at least create a threat to do so –
Qb3 had more bite than I supposed.} Ngh6 {I thought that this move was forced.
My opponent had an intermezzo to avoid it. Exchanging queens was the ticket.}
15. Qd5 {The queen exchange continues to benefit black.} c6 16. Qc5 {I’m
trying to exploit the b6 weakness. My opponent wants to thrust his e-pawn I
presume. I’ll need to blockade that now.} Ng5 17. Rad1 Qc8 {Obviously the
e-pawn is hanging. I didn’t take it because I (incorrectly) imagined that a
timely Re8 would win the the e2 bishop. It doesn’t. 18. Na4 {Now you see the point of the quote.

Both pairs of horse and rider find themselves on the margins. A knight
on the rim is often dim; less euphonic, but more accurate, is a knight on the
rim is removed from relations. The connections that make existence valuable,
and also make chess pieces powerful, are more easily severed than
reestablished. As time passes the cost of rebuilding these ties increases
fatally.} Ne4 19. Qb4 Nxg3 20. hxg3 a5 21. Qb3 Qc7 22. c5+ {Trying to create a
weak square for black on d6} Kh8 23. Rd6 b6 24. Nxb6 Rab8 25. Rfd1 Rbd8 26.
Nxf5 Nxf5 {While white is winning here the dark square bishop looks like it’s
going to be monstrous soon.} 27. Rxd8 Rxd8 28. Rxd8+ Qxd8 {In this endgame I
know I’ll need to be accurate. Black will have some counterplay if I’m not
careful. Perhaps I should have just played to extend the middlegame.} 29. Qa4
h5 30. Qxa5 {I think I took this one, an inferior choice, because I thought
I’d win the other with check at some point.} Qd4 31. Qa8+ Kh7 32. Qxc6 {I was
right! I was right! Before dancing in the streets I ought to consider how
terrible my 2nd rank is.} Nxg3 33. Bf3 {? Thinking that I’ll be able to snap
the knight off after e4.} e4 {The pawn is pinned. Black is now up.} 34. Qd6
exf3 {The knight is still floating in space.} 35. Qxg3 Qxc5 36. Na4 {Saving
the knight…better is to accept that I am running out of time and entered
into an endgame where I am qualitatively down a minor piece.} Qc1+ 37. Kh2 fxg2
38. Kxg2 Qc6+ 39. Qf3 {In the end black has to pause to figure out if the
knight is worth capturing. As it turns out it’s blocking the way to the
more-valuable pawns and gets captured. I resign here. Check out this game of Judit Polgar’s to see the theme expanded upon at a high level.


Redoing your Own Analysis

This is a thirty minute game in which I’m playing white. I am going through some of my old games to see how my analysis now compares to my analysis then. It seems to be a mixed bag. I make different mistakes than before, but there just as many gross errors. I recommend doing this to see how many moves from your old games you remember. Every game that doesn’t end in a draw has an inferior move in it somewhere. Don’t make the same one twice!

1. e4 c5 2. c3 {The c3 Sicilian is a good choice for white to avoid the Open
Sicilian. Unless you’re a professional chess player you stand a good chance of
having to discover a move in the latter that cannot be pieced together over
the board.} Nc6 3. Nf3 d6 4. d4 cxd4 5. cxd4 e6 {I enjoy a modest spacial
advantage. I do not have to attack black’s king and this setup has some
flexibility.} 6. Be2 {The bishop should go to d3 instead, a more active square.
Be2 is for attacking the king and defending a bishop on e3 against the king’s
knight.} Nf6 7. Nc3 Be7 8. Be3 O-O 9. h3 {d5 was also fine where the knight
gets ejected and I can control the c-file} a6 10. a3 {This is just a waiting move.
Although I know that this is no more correct than black’s last move, I want to
see how he’ll commit his pieces before I tip my hand.} Qc7 11. O-O b5 12. b4 {I’ve
decided to defer to black about how he’d like to strike in the center. I can
then choose to closer or open the game.} Bb7 13. Rc1 Rfc8 14. d5 {Wins a pawn}
exd5 15. exd5 {Nxd5 was an exceptional move that I did not see. The knight, at
the end of the variation, will be uncomfortable on c3. If white forces the
knight trade the newly won d-pawn is easier to defend.} Ne5 16. Nxb5 Qd7 17.
Nc3 Rc7 18. Bb6 Nxf3+ 19. Bxf3 Rc4 20. Qd3 {With the plan to trap the rook…
which doesn’t actually work.} Rac8 21. Bc5 {?} Rxc3 (21… dxc5 {! Even more
crushing} 22. Qxc4 cxb4 23. Qb3) 22. Rxc3 dxc5 23. bxc5 Rxc5 24. Rfc1 Rxc3 25.
Rxc3 Nxd5 {Allows me to win the knight. I have all the time I need to
reorganize. The dark bishop cannot help in the defense of the piece. The pin
will endure!} 26. Bxd5 {? Not noticing the strategic idea} Qxd5 27. Qxd5 {?
Thinking that I have an easy backrank mate.} Bxd5 28. Rc8+ Bf8 {! The two
bishops should be able to win easily.} 29. Rd8 {I plan to harass the bishop
vertically until it goes to b5, and then I’ll play a4, trading the pawns. I
feel more comfortable with the pawns all one side. Of course, if I keep these
pawns on the board I have double the chance to trade down to a wrong bishop
endgame…} Bc4 30. a4 f6 31. Rc8 Bd3 32. Rd8 Bc4 33. Rc8 Bb3 34. Ra8 Bxa4 35.
Rxa6 Bb5 36. Rb6 Bc4 37. Rc6 Bf7 38. Rc8 g6 {Black must break out of his box
to make progress} 39. f3 Kg7 40. Rc7 f5 41. g4 fxg4 42. hxg4 {I like fxg4
better in retrospect because I am not playing for a win. I’d like to deny
black a passer.} Bd6 43. Rd7 Bf4 44. Kg2 Kf6 45. Ra7 h5 {? =} 46. Ra6+ {Not
the best but a neat trap} (46. gxh5 {Speaking of wrong bishop endgames, here
we are! I forgot about my plan.} gxh5 47. Rxf7+) 46… Kg5 47. Ra5+ Kh4 48.
gxh5 gxh5 {? More than I hoped for!} 49. Rf5 Be6 50. Rxf4+ Kg5 51. Kg3 {
Perhaps black should try to put pressure on the f-pawn.} Bd7 ({Fritz 12:} 51…
Bd5 52. Rb4 h4+ 53. Kf2 Be6 54. Ke3 Bf5 55. Rb2 Bd7 56. f4+ Kf5 57. Rh2 Kg4 58.
Rg2+ Kf5 59. Rg5+ Kf6 60. Kf3 h3 61. Rc5 Kg6 62. Kg3 Kf6 63. Kh2 Bf5 64. Rc6+
Be6 65. Ra6 Kf7 66. Rb6 {1.83/22}) 52. Rd4 Bc8 53. Rd5+ Bf5 54. f4+ Kf6 55. Kh4
Bg4 56. Ra5 {It’s a better defense to move the bishop over and over. Allowing
me Kg5 makes my job easier.} Ke6 (56… Bd1 57. Kg3 Bg4 58. Rg5 Bd1 59. Kf2 Bg4
60. Ke3 Bd1 61. Rd5 Bg4 62. Ke4 Be2 63. Rd6+ {This is the only way. Notice how
white’s king and rook work together to deny black the diagonal he needs.}) 57.
Kg5 Kf7 58. Ra6 Kg7 59. Ra7+ Kf8 60. f5 Ke8 61. f6 Kf8 62. f7 {? Looks good
but the pawn will drop!} Be6 {?} (62… Kg7 63. Rb7 Be2 64. Rd7 {Using Zugzwang
} Bc4 65. Kxh5 Bxf7+ 66. Kg5 Kg8 67. Kf6 Bh5 68. Rg7+ Kh8 69. Rg3 Be2 70. Rc3
Kh7 71. Rh3+ Kg8 72. Re3 Bd1 {The king is in the right corner}) 63. Kf6 Bxf7
64. Rxf7+ Ke8 65. Rh7 h4 66. Rxh4 Kd7 67. Rh5 Kd6 68. Re5 Kd7 69. Re6 Kd8 70.
Re7 Kc8 71. Ke6 Kd8 72. Kd6 Kc8 73. Rd7 Kb8 74. Rc7 Ka8 75. Kc5 Kb8 76. Kb6 Ka8
77. Rc8# 1-0


The Value of Efficiency

Here is an unrated chess game I played against a player, “QuantumMan” on I play him regularly and score just over 40% in our games. We engaged in a a friendly debate about the value of efficiency in choosing a path to victory; it turns out we were both quite mistaken about the lines we picked in this instance, but, the fact remains that there is more than one way to win a chess game. Will you for the saucy method and accept a small risk of not getting the full point? Or will you play easy lines that don’t grind your opportunity into find power but guaranty, as much as anything can truly be expressed with certainty, that you will win the position? You’ll see from our game below that both actually carry implicit risks; the promise of positional power that your rook on the 7th rank grants may come to naught, but your calculations can also be your own undoing.

After our debate an engine revealed that not only was my idea for 30. f3 not a forced win, not in any line, but many of “QuantumMan’s” lines were fraught with opportunities for resistance. In fact his advantage was slight after move 32. His ideas were somewhat dependent on my screwing up, and I quickly obliged him when I played Bxh2. As white we would’ve both played our respective lines and won, as it turns out from the postmortem, but we overestimated ourselves. To calculate fifteen lines deep means not assuming your lines forced – in fact my flashy continuations meant nothing after some early deviations from black.

Human beings are terrible at assessing risk, and we might not be around if this were not so. Emerging from the  early Pleistocene Era wasn’t easy, and people subjected themselves to danger each and every day. Hunting sabre-tooth tiger with crude weapons is probably never a rational idea, and you’d be less inclined to do it the more you’d consider the idea. I personally don’t care if the world is covered in giant glaciers because I have automatic seat warmers, but I digress. What I want you to examine is which route you would have taken after black’s 29th. Remember, as novices we make the wrong move far more often than we make the right one; when we think of carrying our calculations out for fifteen moves we have to consider the possibility, usually a small one, that we’re actually right.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. Qe2 Nd4 5. Nxd4 exd4 6. d3 c6 7. Bc4 Bc5 8.
Bg5 Qa5+ 9. Nd2 O-O 10. O-O d5 11. Bxf6 dxc4 12. Nxc4 Qb4 13. c3 dxc3 14. bxc3
Qa4 15. Bh4 Be6 16. Nb2 Qa5 17. d4 Bb6 18. Be7 Rfe8 19. Bb4 Qg5 20. Nc4 Bh3 {
? Qb5 was better, with the pin of the knight to the queen.} 21. Qf3 Bg4 22. Qg3
Bxd4 23. h3 Rxe4 24. cxd4 Rxd4 25. Bd2 Qc5 26. Be3 Be2 27. Bxd4 Qxd4 {White
has the subtle Nd6 where black can only get an exchange. He is losing.} 28.
Rac1 Bxc4 29. Rfd1 Qe4 30. Re1 Qd4 31. Rcd1 Qb6 32. Qe5 Be6 33. Rb1 Qa6 34. Qc7
Bxa2 {Anti-positional and terrible} (34… b5 {White must offer the pawn on a4
to keep his advantage, a tricky find. It was a key to the position neither of
us found.}) 35. Rxb7 Bd5 36. Rb8+ 1-0



The Autumn of the Patriarch

Over the weekend the vultures got into the palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur –  Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Autumn of the Patriarch focuses on a leader’s last days; his life, once a blend of grand gestures and sensuality, comes to nothing but disorder. A cow holds court from the presidential balcony. The battlefield squalor inside the palace seems to embody the spontaneity of a coup, but even the dead dictator knows that gross misjudgments foreshadowed his difficulty. So regarding this incarnation of your king, what will be the true anatomy of his disaster as you will tell it later? Here’s mine. I’m playing against Justin Armstrong, 1670 USCF, in a Game 60. I am white and the text is below.

The Autumn of my Patriarch


1. e4 e6 2. c4 {An intriguing system that often leaves white no worse than ina normal French. Some choose not to play d5 at all and white keeps good chances. I also play the Maroczy Bind against the Sicilian. I like to play similar pawn structures.} c6 3. d4 d5 {E5 is good here. White gets a slightly better French Advance. The c5 break will take two moves for black. Black may have to take on the isolani as well.} 4. cxd5 exd5 5. exd5 Nf6 6. Nf3 Be7 7. Nc3 Nxd5 8. Bc4 {The wrong place for the bishop. Bd3 is thematic in such structures because e4 and c4 lack pawn cover. I’m hoping that black changes the pawn structure and would like to induce him to do so.} Bg4 9. Nxd5 (9. Qb3Bxf3 10. gxf3 O-O 11. Qxb7 {I failed to asses this as good for white. I am usually too paranoid to scoop up a b-pawn.}) 9… cxd5 10. Qa4+ Nc6 11. Bb5 Bd7 12. Ne5 Bb4+ 13. Kf1 Nxe5 14. Qxb4 Nc6 15. Qe1+ {It’s better to stay put. White will soon lag in development.} Be6 16. Qc3 {Yet another queen move. The lady is fickle.} O-O 17. Bxc6 Rc8 18. Qb3 bxc6 19. Be3 {The rest is immaterial. Bad governance has rotted the position from within. Multiple queen sorties and the arrogant king move leaves white struggling. Do not cause yourself problems you have no inkling of how to fix!}

There is some good news though. Like the composite rulers in the novel, the king seems to embody eternity, so does he rise from the box without wound or memory.

Game Two

This is a pretty interesting game. White, played by Robert Chen, is a 1600-something player and appears to be pretty solid. The time control was 40/2 plus an hour for sudden death. The evaluation is even for a good portion of the game, but black underestimates white’s attack and presses onward with a poor plan.

1. d4 d5 2. Bf4 Nf6 3. Nf3 e6: The London System is pretty uncommon around my area, much more so than in other locations. It’s an excellent choice, but because I’ve devoted little time to it I know only the very basics.

4…Ng5!? This isn’t such a poor try; white doesn’t have h3 in yet and he’ll probably miss his dark-square bishop. In the London-proper he will put his pawns on dark squares which will mitigate the weakness left by the missing piece. My opponent told me later he was planning to play h3 on the next move. 5. Bg5 is more accurate than 5. Bg3 as white can keep a small advantage. It’s not very theoretical.

5. Bg3 (5. Bg5 Be7 6. Bxe7 Qxe7 7. c4) 5… Nd7 6. Ne5 Nxg3 7. hxg3 Nxe5 8. dxe5 c6 9. Nd2 Qc7 (9… Qb6 {White is obliged to protect the weak b2 square since his dark-square bishop is gone. I

ruled this out because it wasn’t clear to me what the queen’s aim was. Perhaps
that it prevents an easy f4 is good enough.}) 10. Nf3 Be7 11. c3 Bd7 12. a4 a5
13. Qc2 h6 14. Be2 b5 15. axb5 cxb5 16. g4 f6 {This is a positional mistake. I
didn’t realize the difficulty presented by the queen with my weak light
squares. I thought I would be able to evict the queen with my useless
light-squared bishop. Better was b4, activating the lazy bishop.} 17. Qg6+ Kf8
18. exf6 Bxf6 19. g5 Bxc3+ 20. Kf1 Bxb2 21. Rb1 Qc3 {The queen and bishop are
redunant so this “takes a piece off.” A closer inspection reveals that
white’s threat is empty.} 22. Nd4 a4 {I looked at the rook lift but though I
could bring my plan off more quickly…} 23. Rh3 a3 24. Rf3+ Ke7 25. Rf7+ Kd6
26. Rxd7+ Kxd7 27. Qxg7+ Kc8 28. Qxh8+ Kb7 29. Qh7+ Qc7 30. Qxc7+ Kxc7 31.
Nxb5+ Kc6 32. Nxa3 Rxa3 {The wrong piece. Taking with the bishop allows access
to f8 with slim chances for black. This is better than the text.} (32… Bxa3
33. g6 Bf8) 33. gxh6 {1-0 I tried a few tricks but could not stop white’s
eager pawns.} 1-0




The Will to Win

I saw a black cat eating grass the other day during a drive through Philadelphia. I looked into its lantern eyes and there wasn’t a trace of contempt; it was thankfully rooting shoots up from the ground even as our stoplight turned from red to green. I hope that on those days that I’m spiritually reduced to such bare-earth clawing, that I can muster such equanimity.

Humans in dire straits often become aloof, and cling to old notions of how things should be; we design a future world based on the glory of our own antiquity. Sometimes we should instead rework our own ideas to achieve something practical. I’ve volunteered in homeless shelters where I’ve found patrons refusing to eat the food given them. Someday there will be an end of the world, both of our own private life and society’s at large, but until then no situation is so terrible; play out your private drama. It is the only thing that’s yours alone.

Since I know you’re above such sincere gestures as gnawing at festuca, maybe we can start with something smaller. When you find most of your pieces consigned to an opponent, don’t concede. Muster what you have in the best way you know how. If you feel hopelessness, ignore it; if you feel angry, banish it; if you feel ashamed of being ground down, enjoy the perfect freedom of facing an insuperable difficulty.

Everyone loses, but in a chess match you get to do so slowly, with plenty of time to sit and understand. Many of our difficulties in life, by contrast, engulf us completely and in the swirl of one moment. These tough times offer little to make us immediately mindful. I like to sit being a queen down and learn a little bit more about who I am. I like the knowing, sad-eyed spectators. I’ll see them in the lobby, in about three hours, with a wonderful story!

I’d like to present a beautiful game that reinforces my idea.

Evans – Reshevsky (1963) “The Swindle of the Century”

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 c5 5. Bd3 O-O 6. Nf3 d5 7. O-O dxc4 8. Bxc4
Nbd7 9. Qe2 a6 10. a3 cxd4 11. axb4 dxc3 12. bxc3 Qc7 13. e4 e5 14. Bb2 Nb6 15.
Bb3 Bg4 16. Ra5 Rac8 17. c4 Nbd7 18. h3 Bxf3 19. Qxf3 Rfe8 20. Rd1 Ra8 21. c5
Rad8 22. Ba4 Re7 23. Rd6 b5 24. Bc2 Nxc5 25. Rxd8+ Qxd8 26. Qe3 Ncd7 27. Qd3
Qb6 28. Bc1 h6 29. Be3 Qb7 30. f3 Nb8 31. Ra2 Rd7 32. Qa3 Kh7 33. Kh2 Qc7 34.
Bd3 Nh5 35. Rc2 Qd8 36. Bf1 Rd1 37. Rc1 Rd6 38. Qa2 Qf6 39. Rc7 Nd7 40. Ra7 Nf4
41. Qc2 h5 42. Qc8 Rd1 43. Bxb5 Qg5 44. g3 axb5 45. Rxd7 Re1 46. Rxf7 Rxe3 47.
h4 Re2+ 48. Kh1 Qxg3 49. Qg8+ Kxg8 50. Rxg7+ *



It’s good to be back in Virginia; after having played the World Open. I can say with, what John McLaughlin called “complete metaphysical certainty” that I will never play a tournament like that again. It was full of sandbaggers and other, less subtle cheaters. The atmosphere was tense with grown men arguing with one another about the touch move rule.The impulse to win drove people to ridiculous extremes. One of my opponents even tried to fight me; it was a half-hearted gesture, and he backed down before too long. Still, the idea that he wanted fisticuffs in a hotel lobby, or at least bluffed as though he did, has taken on a surreal quality several days later. Humans are at their most ridiculous when they lose their sense of proportion.

I was registered in the sub-1600 section but my second round opponent, the would-be pugilist, had a peak rating of nearly 1800. He began to drop points (suspicious, no?) in the months before the tournament began. I’ve been thinking about a system to prevent such things from happening, ensuring greater parity in class tournaments.

1) Many players get their “chess fix” playing tournament chess on the ICC (International Chess Club); their USCF ratings are much lower than their actual strength. The USCF should institute prize caps for those with ICC memberships after 2014.

2) The ICC is not the only way to get good outside of traditional OTB tournaments; people can study on their own and improve markedly. Speaking to Bill Goichberg, head of the CCA, he indicated to me that this was legitimate. How this protects the integrity of his tournaments I’ll never know. In order to claim a full prize you should have to submit your score sheets to a director whereupon he’ll insert them into a computer. The computer will rate you and see if the moves you’re making are indicative of higher strength. Your prize will be adjusted accordingly.

3) Restrict the World Open to those players who attend at least eight USCF tournaments per year. I laugh at the International Master who is over 2400 FIDE; his rating in the states? 1800.

4) Do something about the overactive bladders of tournament-goers. Continually visiting the bathroom seems unsavory – especially when you’re under eighteen and have a healthy prostate.

5) Get rid of any and all electronic devices. The appearance of a phone anywhere in the hotel during a game is ground for immediate expulsion. How many games I lost to Rybka I don’t care to imagine. The event was poorly administered and the directors ought to take some etiquette lessons.



The Human Stain

I just finished reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Two years before the millennium, sex scandals rocked President Clinton’s White House as, closer to home, Coleman Silk’s academic career suffered from the withering attack of morality pundits. Now, if you remmeber life in 1998 New England you weren’t really there; it was then like it is (nearly) always, puritanical to a fault.

Prudes and hedonists launched very public broadsides against one another. Public classrooms, like my 11th grade English group, erupted into spontaneous shouting about morality, immorality, and indifference. This was unlike anything in my direct experience. People didn’t talk about sex candidly in New England. Cotton Mather still kept a house down by Cape Cod for Pete’s sake; yet, the colorful presidential drama had students excited about their world in a way that no other personal drama could.

I didn’t think about chess in the turgid excitement of my youth, knew how the pieces moved but not much else, but looking back I wonder if the sex scandals, as we experienced them, in a frame of mind both provincial and immature, can teach us something about the game we enjoy today.

With human longing, dropping all pretense for a moment, being a prime motivator, how does chess play, and perhaps chess study, fit into our lives? As I’ve mentioned before, a pair of us are preparing for a large tournament being held some distance away. It will not be cheap and it will not be easy. It’s instructive to think on what takes a person, in this case a pair of working adults, to travel far away to do something which they’ll later recall as stressful and excruciating. It is the everyman’s solo Amazon trek, the fat man’s swim of the English Channel. It’s like those things but you’re sitting for long periods. Afterwards your brow won’t stop furrowing and you sleep for days. True story. So why?

1) A competitive nature? I don’t have it and I don’t want it. The best day of your life is the day your fire mellows out a bit. I watch the warm glow and I see safety in its gentle licking.

2) Money? The prize is nice, but I do alright. You don’t go to a tournament like this unless you can afford to lose; failure to place is the probable result of a given chess outing. I’m comfortable and happy with being down the entry free and gas.

3) Something to prove? Am I revisiting a moment in the past – it is clear as a sunny day to me, as I can still explore its stinging particulars in my mind – in which I failed to accomplish what I desired? A young man in a moment too large, I can answer to the affirmative. This is in me.

4) Just to do it. It’s not 1998 anymore. I get laughed at when I pull out my license to try and buy liquor; put that thing away you old geyser comes back the grin of an acne-packed cashier. I think my youth went to the same place that old Throwing Copper disc did when it finally expired. Then I had nothing, no one, and was a flat broke fifteen year old. He doesn’t have much in common with the man I am today; I’m comfortable in my professional life, carefully choose those with whom I interact, and have double the years.

Still, I see both people as stained somehow. I’m not talking about an atavistic thing that impels us to stupidity, but about the ineluctable drive to reach the summit of your powers, though that potential may be dynamic, and not to say trending upward. So I’m psyching myself up for this tourney, pretending to stir up some real care for something I know has no consequence, and I want you to do the same facing whatever peak you face next. It’s a magician’s ruse; keep pulling stuff out of the hat even when you think its empty.



The Surgeon

You should read this piece by Atul Gawande, a surgeon who somehow finds time to write for The New Yorker, yet if I didn’t have tags on my shirts I promise they’d be worn backwards. Gawande’s seminal commencement address, delivered last month, pertains to the assessment of risk; his delineation between risky behavior and gambling is much more than linguistic hair-splitting; it has applications ranging far and wide, least of all for our favorite game.

Surgeons that use loose-fitting contingency plans lose fewer patients due to post-surgical complications than do their flatfooted peers. The less-successful surgeons are caught by surprise more often; they don’t seem to have as acute a perception of what defines risk. Their risks are actually gambles, defined by Guwande as a situation without recourse after failure. It is a “want all, lose all” approach that baldly ignores the real consequences of a bad outcome, perhaps because because human beings are famously terrible at estimation.

In the chess game below you’ll see a not-so-nifty knight sacrifice. If your opponent isn’t even aware that your most drastic move was a possibility, then the try is likely foolhardy.

The actual discussion that took place afterwards took no account of the sacrifice’s objective merits. You’d think I just finished reading Equus the way I mistreated that poor animal. I let him fly for two pawns and a prayer. My opponent and I focused on the decision making process and what led me to opt for the liquidation. There were still quite a few pieces on the board and material was virtually even. My king was safe. Still, I evaluated the position as losing. Is this enough?

That’s not coming today however. Much like I did when I allowed a ruthless passed pawn to my seventh rank, I’m going to drag this out a little longer than strictly necessary. You’ll hear my conclusions about how to think about losing, but I want you to think through the process of how a chess game goes from bad to worse until then. What are drawing chances and how do you prevent a game from reaching resignation territory? Should evaluation be framed in terms of a dynamic win/lose percentage, to better understand our own thoughts at the board?

1. e4 e5 2. f4 Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. c3 Nc6 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd4 Bb4+ 7. Bd2 Bxd2+ 8.
Nbxd2 Bg4 9. Bb5 Qf6 10. Qc2 Nge7 11. d5 a6 12. dxc6 axb5 13. cxb7 Rb8 14. Qxc7
O-O 15. f5 Qxb2 16. Rb1 Qf6 17. O-O Nxf5 18. exf5 Bxf5 19. Rb3 Rfe8 20. Re1 Be6
21. Rxb5 Qd8 22. Qxd8 Rexd8 23. a4 Rd7 24. Reb1 Rc7 25. a5 Bd7 26. a6 Bxb5 27.
Rxb5 Rc1+ 28. Kf2 Ra1 29. Rb6 Kf8 30. Rxd6 Ke7 31. Rc6 Kd7 32. Ne5+ Ke7 33. Rc8
Rxb7 34. axb7 Ra2 35. Ke3 Ra3+ 36. Ke2 Ke6 1-0