Great Escapes

Once I found myself inside a cigar-shaped windowless pod, about twelve feet by six feet, made of some sturdy space-age off-white material, with two other people who happened to be female. We were floating many miles above the Earth, on the edge of space, as part of a NASA experiment. We were waiting patiently to be retrieved and brought back to Earth.

The two women were seated on the smooth floor at one end of the pod’s rounded interior, and I was lying prone at the other end. I happened to sit up suddenly, and my movement jarred the pod. At once it lost the precious equilibrium that was keeping it delicately poised in orbit. My end of the pod tipped downward toward the world far below and we began to fall.

Although there were no windows, we could all feel that our vehicle was gaining speed and headed back down toward the atmosphere. This was not part of the plan, because the pod was not designed for reentry from space, and would surely disintegrate. Even if it did not disintegrate, there would be no way to slow our accelerating plunge toward the ground. Filled with regret, I awaited certain death, in minutes if not moments. There was no escape.

Except there was: I woke up.

As you can tell, I have a rich dream life. I am not a scholar of dreams, but I understand they can have practical functions. Unfortunately, some of my dreams, as above, resemble my chess games. You can wake up from a bad dream, but how do you wake up from a bad chess game? More often than not, I lose my lost positions without fanfare. Once in a while, I perform a “great escape.” Some people prefer the old-fashioned word “swindle,” but to me that sounds so judgmental.

The chessboard is neither a moral or immoral world; rather it is amoral, devoid of morality. In Emanuel Lasker’s Manual of Chess, he wrote, “Lies and hypocrisy do not survive for long on the chessboard. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie, while the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.” Brave words, but I would argue that lies and hypocrisy and every kind of deception do very well on the chessboard, and are punished no more often there than in real life. How would anyone ever win a chess game if not for the opponent’s mistake? How many of those mistakes have been caused by tricky play? I could rest my case here, but as a capstone, I conclude with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous words about chess, mouthed by his even more famous creation, Sherlock Holmes: “Amberley excelled at chess—one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind” (from “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes).

The chess world is rich in colorful remarks, though often lacking in more tangible assets. Who can forget Capablanca’s ingenuous egotism exemplified in this sentence from My Chess Career: “As one by one I mowed them down, my superiority soon became apparent.” Or Aron Nimzovitch, frustrated after losing a game to a lesser mortal whom history has forgotten, climbing onto a table and shouting, “Why must I lose to this idiot?” Even Bobby Fischer, though lacking in formal education, could be eloquent in his invective, once charging that Karpov and Kasparov had fixed all their matches, and calling them “the lowest dogs around.” One of my favorite remarks in all of chess literature comes from the entertaining book by I.A. Horowitz and Fred Reinfeld, Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles (there is that word again). In the contest below, between two amateurs, White is about to lose his doubled a-pawns and eventually the game. Schloesser, put to his shifts, devises an immortal “great escape.” Horowitz and Reinfeld write (and to me this sentence is even better than the game itself): “As is usually the case in really outstanding swindles, the first move is thoroughly enigmatic.”

If Schloesser’s unwary opponent had noticed the deep pitfall prepared for him after 1 Kf1!!, he could have played 1…Nd5! and then captured the hapless a-pawns at his leisure.

Several years ago, I found myself in a difficult position as White. Somewhat like Schloesser, I had a weak and isolated a-pawn, vulnerable to a battery of heavy pieces. Like Schloesser, I set a trap, which my opponent could easily have defused if he had seen it. Like Schloesser’s opponent, he was too eager to capture the a-pawn, and did not.

Yes, trickery does pretty well on the chessboard, in spite of idealists who would argue otherwise. But isn’t that part of the fun of chess?

Tim Hanke