Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Beauty, Wonder, Mystery and Horror of Chess

It takes many mistakes for a basketball team to squander a 20 point lead but a chess player can throw away an equivalent advantage with just one hasty move--and that is the beauty, wonder, mystery and horror of chess: anyone can blunder at any time.

On November 27, 2006, World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik played the second game of his six game match versus the computer Deep Fritz. Kramnik received a $500,000 appearance fee for the match and could have earned an additional $500,000 by defeating the silicon beast. In an equal position, Kramnik uncorked this howler:

Even a rank beginner can see the computer's next move: Qh7 mate. Grandmasters, psychologists and journalists searched for explanations for Kramnik's oversight. Perhaps the best theory in this particular case is that the Nf8-Qh7 pattern is much less common than the Nf6-Qh7 and Ng5-Qh7 patterns, which presumably Kramnik would have seen instantly. However, this blunder may just be one more example of the complex nature of chess--and the peculiar way that the human mind processes chess moves/chess positions: a person who is capable of conjuring up splendid tactical combinations and deep strategic concepts is also capable of missing a one move mate threat. Even "simple" chess moves can sometimes be hard to find because a player has to simultaneously focus on multiple short term and long term considerations. Kramnik concentrated his analysis on trying to trade Qs and force the promotion of one of his Q-side pawns and it escaped his attention that in such a relatively quiet position a checkmate threat could emerge.

Often, when a chess player blunders he realizes it as soon as he completes his move but in this case Kramnik was oblivious; the Chessbase news report about the game provides this account: "Kramnik played the move 34...Qe3 calmly, stood up, picked up his cup and was about to leave the stage to go to his rest room. At least one audio commentator also noticed nothing, while Fritz operator Mathias Feist kept glancing from the board to the screen and back, hardly able to believe that he had input the correct move. Fritz was displaying mate in one, and when Mathias executed it on the board Kramnik briefly grasped his forehead, took a seat to sign the score sheet and left for the press conference, which he dutifully attended."

Here is another example of the world's strongest player missing mate in one. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official World Chess Champion, castled in the following position against H.G. Voight in an 1885 game in Philadelphia, overlooking ...Qxh2 mate and losing in just 12 moves. 

One of the most famous blunders in chess history happened in Ignatz von Popiel-Georg Marco, Monte Carlo 1902. Marco, thinking that he was about to lose the pinned Bd4, resigned--not noticing that ...Bg1! would have broken the pin with devastating effect, threatening ...Qxh2 mate while also discovering an attack on White's Q.

In the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal, Klaus Darga resigned after Levente Lengyel played ...R6xe2+ in the following position; Darga thought that if he took back he would lose material after ...Bxh4+ but he had overlooked that with his R on e2 he could answer the B check with Ke3. Shortly after resigning, a crestfallen and astonished Darga exclaimed, "My God, I have a winning position!"

"Chess is My Life" is the title both Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi--rivals for the World Championship in three contentious matches (1974 Candidates Final, 1978 and 1981 World Championship)--selected for their respective autobiographies. In many ways, chess is life: a chess game and a chess career contain moments of brilliance and moments of stupidity, moments of great joy and moments of aching misery, moments of great sportsmanship and moments of deplorable duplicity. In chess, as in life, the important thing is to savor the good moments but not become dependent upon them and to understand that even after the worst of the bad moments there will be an opportunity for redemption if you are patient and determined.

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