Is “Hope Chess” Unfairly Maligned?

Dan_Heisman_bookLeading U.S. chess teacher Dan Heisman says you should never play “hope chess.” I believe he would define “hope chess” as making a move and hoping your opponent will respond in a certain way, rather than expecting him to play the best move. “Hope chess” has entered the chess lexicon as something evil and depraved to be shunned, like leaving your king in the center or trading off the Dragon bishop, at least in the northeastern U.S. where I live and play most of my chess.

Well, I’m here as the devil’s advocate, to tell you that hope chess has its place in your game. Even if I am wrong, it’s only fair that you hear another point of view. As Mark Twain wrote about Satan himself,

“All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but the evidence for the prosecution, and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English; it is un-American; it is French. … Of course Satan has some kind of a case, it goes without saying. It may be a poor one, but that is nothing; that can be said about any of us.”

Let me start my brief by asking the court to grant at least this much: “hope chess” is better than “despair chess.” Too often in my games, I get positions in which despair is the only rational response. But do I despair? Well, yes, sometimes, followed later in my room by a fit of weeping. But other times, and I would prefer to dwell on these finer moments, I decide not to despair. While recognizing that things on the board don’t look good, I try to find a way out of the mess I am in, by giving my opponent chances to go wrong. I play the cleverest, most devious move I can, and hope my opponent falls in with my plans. Do this often enough, keep a sharp eye for tactics, and you are in with a chance.

Often, hope chess involves intuition: your best guess as to how the opponent will respond to a certain move. Sure, you may see a refutation to your own move, but will he? Maybe not. You’re tired and tense; maybe he is, too. In truly bad positions, all of your moves are going to have refutations anyway. So why dwell on what move he should play? That will only depress you and lessen your spirit of resistance. Instead, focus on the moves you hope he will play, and lure him in that direction as skillfully as you can. Like the Israeli psychic Uri Geller who can bend spoons with his mind, try to bend your opponent to your secret will.

I will give a concrete example of the triumph of hope chess, from one of my own recent games. Two weeks ago I scored 5-0 at the grandiosely named World Amateur Team Championship in New Jersey. This annual event used to be called the U.S. Amateur Team Championship-East, perhaps better known by its acronym USATE. Since very few of the players are from anywhere in the world besides New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and southern New England, while other regions of the U.S. have amateur team championships of their own on the same weekend, perhaps the old name was good enough. But I digress.

My score was far less impressive than it sounds, since I was playing on board four, and only one of my opponents was rated above 2000 USCF. I would say that in every game, I succeeded by making the next to last blunder. However, I am cheerful despite the unevenness of my play: like the nineteenth-century New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, “I accept the universe.” Thanks to the famous “equalizing injustice of chess,” I am sure the games I won unfairly at this event are offset by other games I should have won at various times in the past.

I had the black pieces in rounds one, three, and five, and played the Sicilian Dragon all three times. Here is my round five game: hope chess in action. When has Black ever won a game in 20 moves after making so many mistakes?

This was, I believe, my worst game of the tournament, but it has the virtue of being mercifully short. It also illustrates an important point: if you keep “wishing and hoping, thinking and praying” (in the immortal words of Burt Bacharach), sometimes it all works out in the end.

You can visit other websites to see how grandmasters play, but here you see how the war in the amateur trenches is really fought. Hope chess, for all its flaws, is an important weapon for us.

Tim Hanke