Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lessons about life from chess, Part 1 ~ Boldness pays off

Does chess provide a template for real life?

Gary Kasparov, one of the greatest chess players our human race has produced, has published a new book, that looks at the lessons learned from chess that we can apply to life’s problems.

Kasparov should know better than anyone. He had monumental battles in chess, staked a claim as one of the greatest champions, and now has put his life on the line (literally), in order to oppose the despotic ruler of Russia, Putin, and bring a measure of democracy to his beloved homeland. Kasparov is 43 years old and that’s only early middle-age.

The idea of comparing chess to life has a long and honourable tradition. Lasker considered chess as an expression of the conflict at the heart of cosmic reality. The struggle against forces in the universe that would destroy us is reflected in the battles we face on the chess-board. How we conduct ourselves in chess is paralleled by how we deal with what fate serves up to us.

Lasker wandered into obscure German metaphysics, which left many of his readers behind. Nimzovich, who had also studied philosophy, made many allusions to chess as an allegory for life. In his wonderful book ‘Chess Praxis’ he talks about the defence of bad positions along heroic lines.

It is this latter ‘lesson’ from chess that I would like to write about. Kasparov knows this lesson well. It helped him to hang on grimly against a rampaging Karpov in their first abandoned match. Recall how he pulled himself back from the brink of humiliating defeat, by stubborn resistance, and then in the next match, became the worthy world champion.

It takes courage in life to hang on to what little you have left. To do it boldly is even harder. Most of us cringe as we hang on to the pittance that is our lot. But sometimes, when luck presents you with opportunities, boldness can turn a situation completely around. I humbly point out a few of countless examples: The Israeli raid on Entebbe to free the hijacked passengers taken to Idi Amin’s Uganda, the counter-attack by B25 Mitchell Bombers on Japan shortly after Pearl Harbour, and in the microcosm of the world we know as chess, Kasparov’s comeback against Karpov.

The lesson is to be bold in defence, be bold in attack, and be bold in life when you see a glimmer of a shadow of a smidgin of an opportunity. If you still lose, ‘going down swinging’ is better than abject surrender.

I present to you a humble example from the world of cross-board chess. A game by ordinary players (well, I at least wear the badge of ordinariness with pride), which illustrates why hanging on and being bold, can work for you.

The game is a French Defence, played at a tournament in Box Hill in 2001, coinciding with the City of Whitehorse Community Festival.

One hour per player was allocated to complete the game. You already know how slow a player I am (see previous postings). I like to believe it’s because of the depth of my analysis, but actually, I’m just slow, and it takes me a while to get my mind in gear.

Wendy Smith (1105) Versus G. Eraclides (1629)

French - Advanced Variation

1. e4 e6
2. d4 d5
3. e5

So many players just advance the pawn to e5 so as to save time in analysis. Then they book themselves up in a particular line because it allows them to dictate the play. A dunderhead like me wastes time preparing superficially against many variations and I then lack the depth of knowledge in particular lines. My errors in preparation were confirmed by this game. I would have done better to study deeply the Advanced Variation.

3. .........c5
4. c3 Nc6
5. Nf3 Bd7

This is played in order to protect against checks from White's King Bishop or a Knight move to b5.

6. Bd3 Qb6
7. 0-0 cxd4
8. cxd4 Nxd4
9. Nxd4 Qxd4

You can see why Bd7 was so important.
Apparently after Black's 7 ...cxd4 I was playing against something called the Milner-Barry Gambit. By transposition Black played right into it. I had a vague idea as the game was developing that pawns were on offer which Black could gobble up at considerable risk and then try and hold on. My opponent seemed to know more about the gambit than I did. At any rate, I found the right moves across the board until I played a GN (that's a George Novelty, to be contrasted with a TN – Theoretical Novelty - which is generally sound) and wound up in trouble again.

10. Nc3 Qxe5?!

I think this is one pawn too many. Watson in his classic monograph on the French suggests you can take this pawn and live. Uhlmann, the doyen of the French, thinks otherwise; he recommends 10 ...a6 leaving the e5 pawn to block Whites e-file attack on the stranded King. I knew nothing of this at the time I was playing, and used up the clock in calculations. In hindsight I think I would agree with Uhlmann. I decided to take the pawn and go for the excruciating difficulties. After 10 ...a6; 11 Qe2 Ne7 threatening Nc6 is unclear.

11. Re1 Qc7?

Oops. This is an inappropriate move. In other words, it's a blunder. I wanted to place the Queen as actively as possible, but correct according to Watson is the following:
11. ..........Qb8
12. Nxd5 Bd6
13. Qg4 Kf8 unclear.

12. Nxd5 Qc5
13. Qb3 Ne7

Black has lost a lot of tempi with his Queen, his King is stranded in the middle of the board, and his development is poor. Was I worried? You bet! Luckily we are playing a French Defence; the position is very complicated and both players are walking a tightrope. Black is still a pawn to the good and only needs to consolidate in order to win. He also has a few threats of his own: Ne7 breaks the line of the White Rook and my opponent has to exchange (developing Black) or move the Knight back (returning a tempo).

14. Nc3?!

Note here a variation, which illustrates the complexity of this opening:
14. Qxb7 Bc6
15. Bb5 Qxb5
16. Nc7+ Kd8
17. Rd1+ Nd5
18. Qxb5! Bxb5
19. Nxb5 Bc5

14. ............0-0-0?!

Can Black really get away with this? You can see how I got myself into a complete mess by ‘missing’ Qb8; I then could not get my King's Bishop out to d6; I had to think about two things: completing development and not being crushed in the process. My King was screaming: ‘Get me outta here!’
I remembered an observation of Steinitz (I often think of Steinitz when I get into a bad position - which is frequently), to wit, that the King is a strong piece. Here he can help defend the Queenside, development takes place;, and complications are enhanced (incredible as that seems). I calculated my options, and in dire straits, castling long was the best option. I thought I could see through to some judicious simplifications.

My opponent could not believe her eyes when I castled long.

15. Be3 Qa5
16. Rac1 Kb8
17. Bf4+ Ka8
18. Be4 Bc6!

I feel sure my opponent must have missed what I had seen, due to the shock of my audacious play. I was in time trouble and playing quickly. Black has concrete options and his defensive resources are deeper than appearances would have indicated. I had seen Bc6 when I castled; it kills the attack and I remain a pawn up. Notice something very important: Black's pawn on e6 blocks lines of the White Queen and takes squares away from the White Knight. This minor structural feature of the restricted centre, could not have been predicted strategically, and it allows Black to escape severe punishment.

19. Bxc6 Nxc6
20. Ne4 Qb4!

If the White Queen moves away Be7.

21. Qxb4 Bxb4
22. Red1 Be7

Black is now secure and a pawn up. My only problem was time, but luckily I was able to think schematically in the ending while my opponent drifted. Her disappointment was palpable, as she must have believed she missed a win somewhere. That's the French for you.

23 Be3 Nb4
24 a3 Nd5
25 h3?

A poor move caused by disappointment at previous poor play. I, on the other hand, am so used to playing poorly, that I don’t let it get me down.

25. ..........Nxe3
26. Rxd8 Rxd8
27. fxe3 Kb8!

Killing any counter-play - a maxim to remember - as the King takes away c7 from the enemy Rook.

28. Nc3 Bg5
29. Kf2 Rd2+
30. Kf3 Rxb2
31. Ne4 Be7
32. a4 Rb6!

Black's idea is to advance his King with the passed pawn, using his Rook as a barrier or shield to enemy incursions by the King or Rook. I used this idea in quite a few games in the past, and it’s a basic strategy in Rook endings.

33. Rd1 Kc8
34. Rc1+ Rc6
35. Rb1 Rc4
36. a5 Rc6
37. g3 b6!
38. axb6 axb6

The passed Pawn is created.

39. Ra1 Kb7
40. Rd1 Rc7
41. h4 b5
42. Ng5? Bxg5
43. hxg5 Kb6
44. Rd6+ Kc5
45. Rd4 b4!
46. Ke4 Kb5
47. Rd2 b3
48. Rb2 Kb4
49. Ke5 Rc2
50. Rxb3+ Kxb3

Wendy extended a hand in congratulations then dematerialized.

Obviously she was very disappointed, but I would point out that the ‘sound and fury’ of her attack, may not have been as substantial as she thought during the game. Black's resources are quite deep in the French and difficult games are usually the result. Errors follow difficult positions like politicians chasing their superannuation.

The lesson? Be bold and take your chances, in chess and life.