“I won a pawn, but misplayed the position and was totally busted. Then he missed a knight fork and I had won the game before hanging my queen. So we agreed to a draw.” — Every chess player at least once
It’s a dirty little secret we’re not supposed to discuss, but the games you tend to see in instruction books, brilliancy anthologies and (ahem) newspaper columns don’t always accurately reflect chess as it is actually played by the vast majority of us. Like a TV sitcom that wraps up a major life crisis in 22 tidy minutes, your typical chess annotator is looking for games with an intelligible opening, a logical development, a satisfying denouement and (at most) one improbable change of fortune.
But for many of us, chess over the board can be a dizzying roller coaster of fates, with the advantage often swinging wildly between the players like a badminton shuttlecock as the mistakes and misjudgments pile up. Play over your games with today’s superstrong engines, and you appreciate even more how often fortunes can turn on a dime in over-the-board play.
To illustrate the point, consider the two games on offer today, both taken from recent tournaments.
Polish star GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda’s win over Dutch GM Anish Giri at the just-concluded Meltwater Champions Chess Tour Finals last week is a columnist’s delight: White launches a speculative piece sacrifice, Black can’t handle the pressure, and Duda finishes things off with a second brilliant and decisive sacrifice leading to a mating attack. Both the winner and the commentator can look like geniuses explaining the perfectly explicable course of events.
Duda had actually played the piece sacrifice in this QGD Ragozin line before (13. c4!? h4 14. Be5 f5 15. cxd5) in a rapid game last year against GM Yu Yangyi, but the Chinese star found 17… Qxd5! (instead of Giri’s 17…Kg7?) 18. Ng6+ Kg7 19. Nxh8 Qxb3 20. Rxc7+ Kxh8 21. axb3 Nd5! and held the draw. Here the queens stay on the board and after 19. 0-0! (with the Black king so exposed, White is in no rush to recover his lost material, coolly finishing his development) g4?! (Rf8 was tougher) 20. f4! Rf8 21. e4 and the mobilized White pawn center will sweep all before it.
Black’s desperate search for counterplay only leaves him more exposed to a devastating strike: 24. Bb1 Qd2 25. Qf3 Bxf5 26. exf5 Qxd4+ 27. Kh1 Rc8 (see diagram; 27…Qxe5 28. Qg4+ Kh8 29. Qxh4+ Kg8 30. Qh7 mate) 28. Rg7+!! Kxg7 (Kh8 29. f6 Qxe5 30. Rh7+ Kg8 31. Qg4+ and mate next) 29. f6+, leading to a brilliant king hunt. There followed 29…Kh6 (Kg8 loses to 30. Bh7+! Kxh7 31. Qh5+ Kg8 32. Qg6+) 30. Ng4+ Kg5 31. Qf5+!! (a tactic White had to see before embarking on the rook sacrifice) Nxf5 32. Rxf5+ Kg6 (Kxg4 33. h3 is a very satisfying mate) 33. Re5+, and Black resigned, not needing to see 33…Kf7 34. Re7+ Kg8 35. Nh6+ Kh8 36. Rh7 mate.
Just the qualities your annotator wants in a game — simple, straightforward, principled, inspired but not too messy, with a deserving winner.
Now consider the wild battle between Philippine GM Mark Paragua and 12-year-old Nigerian American prodigy Tani Adewumi from the New York GM/IM Fall Invitational earlier this month. Adewumi earned his third IM norm in the event’s GMB section, while dealing Paragua — who finished first — his only loss. But their fateful game is an analyst’s nightmare, illustrating Tartakover’s famous dictum that the winner in chess can be defined as the one who makes the “next-to-last mistake.”
If Duda-Giri was a sitcom, this Sicilian Scheveningen resembles one of those “Rocky” movies where both fighters land on the canvas three or four times before a righteous haymaker finally decides the bout.
The play quickly becomes totally irrational and the players don’t have the luxury of time and powerful chess engines to guide their way. A brief synopsis of the early play: Adewumi gets a nearly won game after 18. Qe2? (h6 g6 19. Rh3 is good for Paragua) Rxb2! (Kxb2?? Bxa3+ leads to mate), only to fumble it away with 20…Bxa3? (Rb6! 21. Qxd5 Qxa3+ 22. Kd2 Rd6 23. Qc4 Nb6 is very strong), only to have White fumble it right back with 22. Qxd5?? (Ke3 holds the balance), only to commit another turnover with 23. Qc4 Qd6? (Nb6! 24. Bxb6 Qxb6 25. Bd3 Kf8! 26. Rhe1 Rd7, with the advantage) 24. g6!, and suddenly, White is winning again.
Three consecutive moves define the wild course of the play: 28. Rdg1?? (missing the winning 28. Qh4! 44. Bxh1 29. Rxh1 Rf6 30. Qh8+ Kf7 31. Rg1) Qf6?? (missing the equalizing 28…Ne5) 29. Rh6!, and once again the computers give White a decisive advantage.
Wait, there’s more: Amid the chaos, Paragua fails to find the deadly 33. Bf6!!, which wins at once after 33…Nxf6 34. Rxg7+ Kh8 (Kf8 35. Qxf7 mate) 35. Qh2+, and throws away a second win with 35. Kd3?? (Kd1!, believe it or not, appears to be the right way, in lines such as 35…Bd3+ 36. Ke1 Qxc3+ 37. Bd2 Qe5+ 38. Qxe5 Nxe5 39. Rxg7+ Kf8 40. Bxf7). Adewumi in turn can’t find the crazy equalizing line 35…Be4+! 36. Kd4 Bc5+ 37. Qxc5 Nxc5 38. Rxg7+ Kxg7 39. Bc1+ Qg2 40. Rxg2+ Bxg2 41. Bxf7 Kxf7 42. Kxc5 with a likely draw.
White is winning yet again after 35…Nc5+? 36. Kd4!, but again flubs the put away volley on 38. Qc4 Qc2?? (Qxc4+ 39. Kxc4 Rc7+ 40. Kb3 Bf8 offers some survival chances) 39. Rxg7+!! Kxg7, when the point is once again there for the taking on 40. Bh6+! Kxh6 (Kf6 41. Nd5+ Bxd5 42. Qxc2) 41. Qe6+ Kh5 42. Qxf7+ Kh4 43. Qh7 mate. Instead, on 40. Bf6+?? Kf8, White’s attack suddenly vanishes, this time for good. After 41. Bg5 Rd7+ 42. Ke5 Qh2+ 43. Bf4 Qxg1 44. Bh6+ Ke8, all the checking squares are covered and Black’s material advantage is overwhelming; Paragua resigned.
What should we take away from a game like this? Your guess is as good as mine.
Duda-Giri, Meltwater Online Champions Chess Tour Finals, November 2022
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Bb4 5. cxd5 exd5 6. Bg5 Nbd7 7. Rc1 h6 8. Bh4 g5 9. Bg3 Ne4 10. Qb3 Bxc3+ 11. bxc3 Nb6 12. e3 h5 13. c4 h4 14. Be5 f6 15. cxd5 fxe5 16. Bb5+ Kf8 17. Nxe5 Kg7 18. Bd3 Nd6 19. O-O g4 20. f4 Rf8 21. e4 g3 22. f5 Qg5 23. Rxc7+ Kg8 24. Bb1 Qd2 25. Qf3 Bxf5 26. exf5 Qxd4+ 27. Kh1 Rac8 28. Rg7+ Kxg7 29. f6+ Kh6 30. Ng4+ Kg5 31. Qf5+ Nxf5 32. Rxf5+ Kg6 33. Re5+ Black resigns.
Paragua-Adewumi, GMB Tournament, New York GM/IM Fall Invitational, New York City, November 2022
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. Be3 a6 7. a3 Nf6 8. f4 d6 9. Qf3 Be7 10. O-O-O O-O 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. g4 Rb8 13. g5 Nd7 14. h4 d5 15. h5 Qa5 16. Bf2 f5 17. exd5 cxd5 18. Qe2 Rxb2 19. Qxe6+ Rf7 20. Bd4 Bxa3 21. Kd2 Qb4 22. Qxd5 Bb7 23. Qc4 Qd6 24. g6 hxg6 25. hxg6 Qxf4+ 26. Be3 Qd6+ 27. Bd3 Qxg6 28. Rdg1 Qf6 29. Rh6 Qe7 30. Rhg6 Kf8 31. Bg5 Qb4 32. Qc7 Kg8 33. Bc4 Rxc2+ 34. Kxc2 Qb2+ 35. Kd3 Nc5+ 36. Kd4 Nb3+ 37. Bxb3 Qxb3 38. Qc4 Qc2 39. Rxg7+ Kxg7 40. Bf6+ Kf8 41. Bg5 Rd7+ 42. Ke5 Qh2+ 43. Bf4 Qxg1 44. Bh6+ Ke8 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.