Inputs and Outputs

Chess performance is about inputs and outputs. Your inputs are all the things you do to improve your performance in chess competition. Your outputs are your competitive results.

Given your inputs, what kind of outputs would you expect?

Are your expectations reasonable?

Or do your hopes and dreams exaggerate your expectations?

When I have not been playing or studying much, and I sit down to play a master or (even worse) an internationally titled player, I do not expect something good to happen. I cower like a bunny rabbit, and justifiably so. It would be irrational to expect something good to happen. Moreover, it would be unfair in the cosmic scheme of things if I could win or draw against an opponent who has done so much more than I have to prepare for this game. Perhaps fairness is not an operative concept in the cosmos, which is a cold place literally and metaphorically, so let us say instead, it would be contrary to statistical predictions.

Just as it would not be reasonable to expect to do little work and then achieve good results against players who have done substantially more work, you must equally guard against negativity and pessimism when they are unwarranted. If you do good work, you should expect to have good results. Of course, you will experience bumps in the road. You will not win or draw every game, even when you have worked hard, and even when you have a rating advantage. Even the world champion loses games; even the world champion does not finish first in every tournament he enters. But over time, you should expect good work to give you good results. Your inputs, whether good or bad, should logically result in corresponding outputs.

If you have been working hard, you may occasionally surprise yourself and others. Once I had the black pieces against Bill Paschall, a 2356-rated opponent who outrated me by 246 points. He was a true heffalump, Simon Webb’s charming term for monster opponents in Chess for Tigers (with apologies to A.A. Milne). For most of the game he pushed me around the board effortlessly. I castled queenside to avoid his kingside attack, but he drove my king back to its original square. En passant, so to speak, he won the exchange.

My position became so bad, even I could see various ways he could finish me off tactically. But he was not a tactical player by nature, and was leisurely mopping up.

Although he outrated me heavily, and had achieved a position on the board that I could have won against him, I had two things going for me: I was in good form—for a player of my level, at least; and I continued to fight. Perhaps I had a couple more things going for me, too: my opponent was cocky and had lost his sense of danger.

In those days I was playing fairly regularly and studying a little, too. I did not resign, but continued to search hard for good moves, even in the unlovely shambles of my position. There’s not much you can do in an inferior position against a superior opponent, so I asked myself, “What would I do if he made a mistake?” I tried to imagine serious mistakes he might make, that I could exploit. This required some imagination on my part! But I made the effort.

In his overconfidence, which certainly seemed justified under the circumstances, my high-rated opponent did make a mistake. I had kept my head in the game and was ready for it. I had only one punch left, but it was enough. Given a fleeting opportunity, which could easily have passed unnoticed by both of us if I had ceased to struggle against the enveloping web of fate, I was able to sacrifice my rook for a forced mate in four. You never saw a more disgusted player than my opponent! I would not have been too surprised if he had climbed up on the table and shouted, as they say Nimzovitch once did: “Why must I lose to this idiot?” In fact I would have deserved it.

In passing let me say, I can only recall one game I deserved to win less. Once at the Boylston Chess Club, back in the halcyon days when it was still located at Boylston Street in Boston, I called my opponent’s flag when he was reaching for his queen to mate me on the move.

In that game (allow me to justify myself) I had played an attack that forced my opponent to think long and hard. My attack was unsound, and he beat it back, but at the cost of much clock time. Even after my position was obviously lost, I continued to defend with maximum delaying tactics. My opponent captured more and more material as I staved off mate with one expedient after another. Finally he flushed out my king and it fled across the board, like a capitalist running dog pursued by the enraged proletariat. It was only a matter of time. In chess, however, time counts as much as good moves. As my opponent reached for his queen to make the move that would mate my helpless king, I shouted, “YOU’RE DOWN!” and pointed my right index finger at the clock. My opponent jumped up, and began screaming and berating me. (Are we not all B-rated at some time in our chess career?) As he stood over me and ranted, insulting my morals and (even worse) my chess play, I lounged at the board smirking broadly. The tournament director ran over to our table to investigate the hullabaloo. When I explained what had happened, the director upheld my win on time. (I still had a piece or two and some pawns left, and therefore possessed the requisite mating material, as required by the laws of chess.)

Back to my game against the 2356 heffalump. Behold my dispiriting position.

Paschall-Hanke, White to move

Paschall-Hanke, White to move

White has just allowed Black to make what should be an inconsequential pawn capture at g2. The opening of the g-file gives Black hopes, but it shouldn’t matter one iota to the outcome. Now White can mop up with the crude but effective 36 Rxc6, bxc6 37 Rb8+ followed by 38 Rb7+ picking up the black queen, as I pointed out after the game. I sat waiting for the proverbial axe to fall.

Instead White, who has a different win in mind, plays 36 Rxe6+?, probably saying to himself, “How can it be bad to regain my pawn with check?” Black replied 36…Kd8.

Now White has another chance to win quickly with 37 Rxc6 bxc6 38 Qd6+. Instead he plays 37 Rb3??? threatening the fatal 38 Rd3+. The white pawn on e4 hangs, but is poison: if 37…Bxe4??? White wins straightforwardly with 38 Qd6+ Qd7 39 Qb8+ Qc8 40 Re8+ Kxe8 41 Qxc8+ K-moves 42 Qxb7+! Simplest.

What has White missed?

Paschall-Hanke, Black to play and mate in 4

Paschall-Hanke, Black to play and mate in 4

Like most good players, Bill Paschall moved on from his debacle quickly. Our game was played on a Thursday night. That weekend he won the Massachusetts Open and the title of Massachusetts Champion. Some time later he became an International Master. Meanwhile, I did no chess work to speak of, and won no tournaments or titles. For both of us, in the long run, inputs equaled outputs.