Youth Will Be Served

When I left the infantry to join military intelligence some years ago, my younger son Ben, then about 10 years old, asked me, “Dad, so what do you do now?” I thought for a moment and replied, “Well, I’m kind of like James Bond.” Ben, no fool even at 10, looked at me skeptically and said, “Not really.”

It’s easy to get in trouble, in chess and in life, by pretending to be what you are not. According to one definition of tragedy I have seen, tragedy results when a weak soul strives to do things beyond his strength. If I ever tried to do the things James Bond does—such as seducing a beautiful Russian spy or skiing off a cliff—my comeuppance would be quick. My fate would not even qualify as tragic—more like idiotic. I am reminded of a redneck’s last words: “Hey, watch this!”

Playing good chess often seems to be one of those things beyond my strength these days. As we oldsters know, our chess strength tends to slowly decline while the youngsters we encounter are getting stronger by the week. In a recent game I was paired against a boy about one-fifth my age (I was 54, he was 11). He had slain a number of much older players in his last tournament and his rating was now approaching my own. Fortunately, I had the white pieces.

Unlike many older players, I enjoy playing much younger opponents. This is not because I view them with the benevolent eyes of an old codger sitting on a park bench, soaking up the sunshine and warming my old bones while the children gambol about in the grass. On the contrary, my goal is to stomp on them. I may fail in the attempt, but experience has taught me that young players tend to play a ragged game of chess: strong at times, but with weak moves thrown in. I usually have my chances against a young player, even if I fail to make the most of them. Oddly, I have typically found young players to be weaker than their rating in the opening, which is contrary to their reputation. And of course young players tend to be weak in the endgame, exactly why I don’t know: perhaps because they lack the patience to sit and learn endgame theory from books, which is almost the only way you can learn much of it. Where young players are most dangerous, in my experience, is the middlegame, where they may come up with startling moves I have not foreseen. Young players are also particularly resourceful in defense, perhaps because they remain optimistic in bad positions.

Here is the recent game I mentioned above, with light notes.

In the long run, older players fighting against younger players are defying the tide, like King Canute. As the saying goes, youth will be served. But in this one game, at least, youth was served on a platter.

Tim Hanke