The Indispensable Opponent

Most of the time, we consider ourselves in relation to “chess improvement”; me, myself and I, what opening am I going to play, what should I study, am I an “attacking player” or a “positional player,” should I be doing more tactics? Etc., etc., ad infinitum.

This is quite natural, but it does a player a real service to, from time to time, consider the opponent.

First, without “The Opponent” there is no game, only theoretical analysis or problem solving. For me, “Mate in 3” has never faintly held the excitement of that handshake and the punching of a clock button for White’s first move. Without the opponent, there is no test, no excitement, no kampf. Some of the greatest players in chess history, like Korchnoi and Botvinnik, were said to have a need to “hate” the opponent, at least for as long as the game lasted, in order to play at their best. Certainly, without some drive to strike, to inflict damage, even to “kill” the King, one cannot play competitive chess at all, but in a balanced person this is on so abstract and intellectual a plane that one doesn’t believe that they’re hurting a person, but a position.

We rely on the opponent to make the game worthwhile by playing well. All of us have experienced that sense of disappointment that comes when the other player makes a terrible blunder in the first dozen moves or so and we’re deprived of the opportunity to play some good chess, ourselves. The quality of a great game of chess, the kind that appear in the “Best of” collections, depends a great deal on the play of the loser. The better he or she fights in a losing cause, the greater the merit of the win, and the winner.

I’ll admit that in my earlier, younger days of tournament play I became quite angry at losing a “money” game to a player rated 200 points below me, who refused to crack under pressure and play like he was “supposed to.” instead, he played better than I and deservedly won. It was a lesson I should have appreciated, rather than rushing away from the board with the briefest of mumbled thanks before retreating to a private spot to pound a wall.

Respect for the opponent makes us better as players. When we expect the opponent to see our threats, to calculate reasonably well, to play good opening moves, we play “real chess” rather than relying on opening traps or one-move cheapos to earn our points.

We should fight hard in difficult positions, strive always to play to the best of our ability, not just for the satisfaction of victory, prize money and rating points, but because we owe it to our opponents. After all, we’re their opponents too,

Robert Pearson