Musings on the Delights of Chess
The lengthy book selection last time reminded me of my early days gripped in the first blush of chess fever. My first hero was that dashing star of American Chess Frank Marshall, who played an exciting brand of chess. He wrote a wonderful book containing a selection of his best games. I was thrilled by the description of his "Gold Pieces" game where he offered a Queen sac' so spectacular that the spectators showered his board with gold coins in appreciation. I'll never forget his story of lighting his cigar at the beginning of a game. He described each step of the procedure along with the events occurring on the board. By the time he had it fully lit the game was over! He was a wonderful story teller and his enthusiasm for the game was obvious and made a deep impression.
My second great chess hero was the world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. His mathematical precision and exacting approach appealed to my youthful zeal for mathematics and science. While Frank Marshall represented the art of chess, Botvinnik represented the science aspect of the game. The first world championship match after I learned the game was the spectacular victory of Mikhail Tal, the "Magician of Riga." But it was the rematch where the old master Botvinnik regained the title that most inspired me. Botvinnik had dissected the style and the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent, and his scientific approach of limiting his opponent's opportunities and playing with great precision was a great inspiration to me. I think it was at this time that I started playing the Caro-Kann Defense. His books One Hundred Selected Games and Championship Chess (Match Tournament for the Absolute Chess Championship of the USSR, 1941) formed an important part of my early chess library.
Then I discovered perhaps the greatest chess competitor of world class chess ... Dr. Emanuel Lasker. He showed me the sporting element of the game as he applied chess psychology and made "second best" moves to create difficulties for his opponents. His wonderful book Lasker's Chess Manual was one of the most significant books in my chess development and one of the few chess books I've read cover to cover.
Of course, I've found other famous chess players of interest. But the final player I'd mention as a particular inspiration and influence is the great Hans Berliner, the first American cc world champion. His wonderful book Correspondence Chess World Championship (written with Ken Messere) covering the Fifth CC World Championship is well worth having, and I spent some time trying to copy his opening repertoire from that tournament. What a great world champion. He won the 17-player finals by an amazing three full points without the loss of a single game.
After all these years I still fondly remember a wonderful chess composition in Lasker's book. I find it no less interesting today than I did those many years ago. It may be simple, but it demonstrates an element of chess that I will always find beautiful and entertaining.
Do you see the move that forces mate? This is a great example of the simple beauty of chess. Another major source of inspiration for me was Fine's Basic Chess Endings. I won't pretend to have read the whole book, but I did read the first part that described the subtle but stunning play in pawn endgames and the simple mates with limited material. The following endings made a particular impression. Note: the winning move above is 1. Rh6! ... truly spectacular.
White to move and win
When Black has a pawn on the seventh supported by his King the normal way for White to win is to check with the Queen forcing Black to move the King in front of his pawn (or he loses it). This allows a King move for White since Black cannot queen his pawn with his King on the queening square. After a few repetitions of this strategy the White King gets close enough to support the Queen in a mating net. However, if the pawn is a Bishop pawn (on c2 or f2) this method doesn't work. Black simply moves 1. ... Ka1 happily giving up the pawn. Of course, 2. Qxc2 results in a draw by stalemate. White cannot move his King closer since Black then simply queens his pawn. A similar situation occurs when Black has a Rook pawn on a2 or h2. In the above position (with the Black pawn moved to a2) Black again moves 1. ... Ka1 and, if White moves the King towards the action, it is once again stalemate. I disagree with those who support dumping the stalemate ... without the concept of stalemate endings like this wouldn't exist.
Black to move ... draw!
Of course, these positions don't occur very often. I don't think I've ever had one of these endings. However, I find the beauty and attraction of chess reflected in these simple positions. Chess is a game of great subtlety as well as complexity. I could appreciate this as a beginner, even with my limited understanding of the game. The appeal of these concepts insured that I would be a life-long addict of the game of chess.
More Thoughts on Resigning
In the last issue I presented many players' descriptions of the books that most helped them to improve to the Expert or Master level. I thought this was one of the most interesting topics I had ever presented in this column. Therefore, I was surprised when I receive absolutely no response from readers or additional book descriptions from Expert/Master players. One topic did create quite a bit of response, though, and that was the letter from Allan Savage describing his views on resigning. If you missed it Allan described a game with a Master opponent where the game continued long past the point where Allan felt his opponent should have resigned. After receiving a number of responses from readers disagreeing with this point of view I asked Savage to send a copy of the game score so I could decide for myself. Following are the dissenting viewpoints plus Allan's notes and my personal observations.
Charles G. Thomas of Spanish Fort, Alabama (known to his friends as "The Dixie Demon") wrote: "Resign? I'm in bad shape -- two pawns down in a Rook-Pawn ending. This guy's good. Suddenly I see something! Zounds ... I've won back a pawn.
"The Canadian chess folks say, 'Resign, you're behind.' Reader Allan Savage agrees and says the contrary is 'insulting behavior.'
"I say Phooey to this elitist philosophy. I resign when I'm beaten, not when I'm behind."
Next I heard from Jack R. Clauser II of Shiremanstown, PA who said, "I disagree with Allan Savage's viewpoint on resigning, although I probably practice what he advocates most of the time. Reasons to keep playing:
... too cocky of an attitude by opponent.
... previously or currently a rude opponent.
... timing affects one's rating to enter a new section.
... timing gives other section opponents results too soon and this may affect their play to try for a win or draw in some games.
... currently it is one's right to be proven lost ... this is placing new values requiring a judgment and judgments are sometimes suspect.
... other sporting events play to an end.
... playing a second game against an opponent.
... sensing an emotion of impatience or anger in an opponent allows one to exploit for an error occasionally.
... keeps a heavy load on an opponent so other players have a shot at beating a common opponent which may affect who wins the section.
... learning techniques to win, such as B&N vs. K only or 2 N's vs. K&P.
"Let's not adopt CCCA's stance on resigning."
Next came this letter from Jim Davies of St. Louis, Missouri. He wrote: "I found Allan Savage's 'Some Thoughts on Resigning' in your May column too much to resist. I am sympathetic to some points which he raised, and I do not put myself in the same category as the hangnails he has encountered. However, I must express a contrary point of view.
"The game of chess has definite rules on what constitutes a win or draw. These rules are identical for both players, in the interest of fairness, in a human contest where mistakes occur. Allan seems to want to rewrite the rules in favor of the player who happens to have a theoretically won game, so that he need not bother winning it!
"Etiquette questions aside, a player who is following the rules has the right to play until the game is over. I for one am a player who has a long reputation of being a 'swindler', i.e. one who saves lost positions, both over the board and in correspondence. Would Allan change the rules to penalize me for being resourceful? I say that as long as a player is sporting and moves promptly, he has no obligation to resign. I suggest that Allan be a good sport, stop whining, and play chess as long as his opponent wishes.
"Time rules are certainly a factor here, with the 10/30 time control aggravating the situation. This is especially true if the player on the weaker side has banked many days, so that he can prolong the game even further. This is one of the many reasons why I continue to advocate the 3 days/move time control, as the player must keep the game moving at a brisk pace while he prolongs it. Otherwise, APCT close-out policies are adequate to cover extreme cases."
Well, this has certainly turned into a lively discussion! Thanks for all the excellent comments and observations, guys. I received no comments from players who believe the game must only be won only by playing superior chess (not by exploiting mistakes such as notation errors or bad "if" moves), who I would assume are in complete agreement with Allan Savage. If a game is lost and can only be saved by exploiting an error by your opponent, then why continue? The arguments above reflect the competitive nature of the game, and some of the arguments are compelling and convincing. On the other hand, Savage made some legitimate complaints which should not be ignored. To gain a clearer understanding of this exact situation I asked him to send me a copy of the game moves to see for myself if I thought his opponent should have resigned. The name of his opponent is not revealed here. Allan Savage went one step further and sent a couple interesting notes, which I'll reproduce here. He suggested starting with the following position and said, "Here is the game. He finally resigned on move 44 - a few weeks before issue went to press. I was Black."
23 Re2 Rxe2 24 Kxe2 Ra6 25 a3 Rb6 26 b4 Ra6 27 Rh1 Rxa3 28 Kd3 f6 29 Kb2 Nf3 30 Kb2 Ra6 31 Rf1 (I think this move shows how much counterplay he has!) Kf7 32 Rd1 Ng5 33 h4 Ne4 34 f3 Nd6 35 f4 Nc4+ 36 Kb1 Ra3 37 Rd3 Rb3+ 38 Kc2 Rb2+ 39 Kc1 Re2 (to force off the Rooks; I don't need to win more kingside pawns) 40 h5 Re3 41 Kc2 Rxd3 42 Kxd3 g5 43 fg5 fg5 44 Resigns (notes by Savage).
After 22. ... Rxc6
Would you have resigned (against a player of Allan Savage's skill level) in the above position? Would you have continued for another 22 moves? I certainly would have been embarrassed to continue playing at the end when the Rooks were off the board and the position was absolutely hopeless. Yet the readers' comments above contain some excellent points. I myself have continued play in hopeless positions for some of the reasons given by Jack Clauser. In particular, if you are playing two games on one card against the same opponent, what is the advantage of resigning? You still have to continue sending those cards and a second game may just provide a bit of distraction from the still-competitive game (this is one reason I don't like events where you play two games against each opponent). I've also continued play a bit beyond my normal resigning point when I wanted to maintain those rating points for some reason. There is actually a good argument for resigning early here. If you win one game and lose one game you may gain slightly in rating if your loss is rated first. I'll leave the explanation of that as a class assignment.
A serious question posed by this discussion is this: when is it unacceptable to decline to resign based on the above considerations? Yes, you may need the rating points to qualify for an event, but does that justify playing on in a totally lost position? Do any of the above considerations justify playing on in a totally lost position? Even if you were facing a forced mate it might be possible to stretch out the game for quite a while, particularly if you had "banked" a lot of time in a 10/30 game (I've had opponents with over 100 days saved up). You could even overstep the time limit or force your opponent to send repeats before replying. You could be a complete jerk. The moment of resignation can be gut-wrenching. No one could be blamed for flinching at this moment and postponing it for another move or two. But is it OK to postpone resignation for more than that? Perhaps we can learn something from the recent match between IBM's Deep Blue and Kasparov. Garry Kasparov resigned a couple games prematurely and possibly turned a won match into a lost match by these early resignations. I certainly wouldn't want to encourage competitors to pull a "Kasparov" by resigning too soon. I do encourage competitors to resign when appropriate, though. It's just that term "appropriate" that gives me trouble.
Allow me to touch on the opposite viewpoint. Do you enjoy playing a game that you're winning? I know that I do. When an opponent resigns too quickly it deprives you the enjoyment of winning a won game. Instead of complaining about an opponent refusing to resign perhaps you'll find yourself complaining that your opponent resigned too quickly, depriving you of an entertaining game where you hold the winning edge. Yes, winning a won game can be a lot of fun.
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