The Chess Human Condition

I have touched previously on a few of the players I have known, including Bad Hair Guy and Dr. Porsche, and on Meetings With Remarkable Chess Masters, but just as the chess board can be seen as a kind of miniature model of the Universe, so too can chess players represent the wondrous and amusing diversity of the human condition.

“Stereotype” is now almost a forbidden concept, a Thought Crime to the politically correct, but of course it is extremely useful in the real world of politically incorrect human beings. The following are indeed stereotypes, but if you have played in more than a handful of chess tournaments you will have run into them. If you are a youngster just starting out in serious play, consider this a guide to what you can expect to face in the chess jungle:

The Relentlessly Combative

Anyone who continues beyond their first real chess tournament, like anyone who lasts beyond their first boxing match, must have a certain level of combativeness. Otherwise, they would revert to playing and thrashing their younger siblings, or perhaps needlepoint. But given that we all have this quality, in certain individuals it is taken to extremes. There is a school of thought that fighting with the organizers, other players and perhaps spectators is the way to an “edge” that will carry over into playing a fighting game. Robert J. Fischer was considered the very exemplar of this approach, which seemed to work well for him, except when it resulted in his withdrawal from a competition (Sousse Interzonal, Reshevsky match). Grandmaster Walter “Six-Time” Browne, who strove to emulate Fischer in almost every way from the Najdorf  Sicilian to the King’s Indian to the pairings disputes, and who was very enjoyable to watch, was the second greatest exponent of this mindset that I personally observed.

Relentless combativeness does not serve most of us well in trying to win chess games while still enjoying them. In your chess career you will encounter players who argue about the color of the squares, the pieces, the clock, whether your writing a ? on your score sheet is legal, whether you are adjusting your glasses too often, and whether your candy bar is causing their allergic reaction. They will roll their eyes, smile, laugh and snort after your moves. You must develop a vast, calm and empty space in your mind where all of these things fall soundlessly and without causing a ripple. But on the board, aye, there’s the place to be relentlessly, mercilessly combative. The rest is foolishness, worthy only of your amusement.

The Relentlessly Unorthodox

There are quite a few players right up through the ranks of master who seem to enjoy being different for difference’s sake. Though few become GMs, some are very strong players. Their unorthodoxy is, of course, mostly associated with the choice of opening, though I have known a few that extended this into the middle game by sacrificing material, regardless of whether it was good.

IM Michael Basman is perhaps the best known exponent of this approach, and has beaten many grandmasters with a variety of unorthodoxies. Hugh Myers is another good example, an interesting player, writer and man, who strove not just to explore but to use the byways of chess in practical play, with quite a bit of success.

Fortunately, most of the Unorthodox are not nearly as strong as Basman and Myers, and their reluctance to do the known and expected can usually be used against them if we take the right tack in meeting their attempts. The Unorthodoxers rely partly on shock and partly on our tendency to underestimate their moves. After 1. g4, for instance, many players of the black pieces believe they’re almost “winning” and proceed to recklessly storm forward with unjustified abandon to “destroy” the weakened king side. The right approach is just to “play chess” and find good moves until the opponent commits some additional errors. After all, the position is almost certainly still “a draw” after white’s first move, whatever it may be. Don’t get cocky, Kid.

Here’s an example from a game of my own. The opponent’s opening lands him in a bad position, but of course I didn’t play “perfect” chess and he had to make more errors for me to win. But I remember that at least I had the right mental approach after seeing his first few moves…