There are some times when the game is started and a long battle anticipated, but for whatever reason that doesn’t happen. I’m not talking about quick draws, but rather when one player’s position is quickly destroyed – the so-called “miniature”. A miniature is a short game – at least less than 25 moves, and according to some, less than 22 or so.
Why does a miniature happen? There are various reasons. There is some sort of continuum of how much each side “contributes” to the quick game. On the one extreme, the loser could simply hang a piece. In this case, the blame rests mostly on the player who lost. Ironically, however, this kind of defeat is less emotionally upsetting, perhaps because in a way you defeated yourself. It was simply a moment of absent-mindedness, such as the following:
This was the first round of the U.S. Championships, and perhaps nervousness was a factor. I would hesitate to even call it a “miniature”, since it was more like a slip of the hand. Obviously Onischuk did nothing to “win” the game, other than making a few reasonable moves in the opening – he did not even take the bishop, since Stripunsky resigned first!
On the other extreme you can find some games where much of the credit goes to the winner. In order to win a game under 22 moves against someone who doesn’t blunder and plays reasonable moves, you have to create a very complex and original situation to lead the opponent astray. It takes creativity to do that. And of course, you also have to find the winning solution – which, by definition, should be somewhat hidden, since if it were obvious it would mean that the loser’s play was not reasonable. The very best “brilliant” miniature games fall into this category.
Two very good collections of miniatures are 100 Soviet Chess Miniatures, by P.H. Clarke, and The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess by Irving Chernev. The Soviet Miniatures book is particularly good and is one of my favorite books – I recommend it to anybody. All of the games in that book are beautiful but also practically unknown – it doesn’t show you the same old ones that you have seen everywhere else. I hardly know any of the players involved, who are mostly obscure Soviet masters (the book was published in 1963), perhaps also candidate masters or lower. Nevertheless, these players were not bad at all; and the commentary contains real analysis and some poetic writing. Here is the last game of the book:
Usually when a game ends quickly some of the “credit” goes to both players. Usually the defender played somewhat poorly or unsoundly, while the winner found some good moves to refute the opponent’s play. Also a lot of miniatures result from sharp opening theory. If a player enters a sharp opening line unprepared, while his opponent is prepared, then a quick defeat can result. In this case the winner didn’t create the unusual situation himself, but was rather following opening theory, and thus there is less to be proud of there. For example, the following game looks brilliant, and somebody once complimented me on it. But I had to inform him that a lot of it was opening theory. For example, I didn’t invent the 15.Rf3 exchange sacrifice – it had already been played several times (including by me, earlier!). I started to think after 16…Qb6, but I already knew the ideas well, so it was a matter of just calculating a few moves.
There are naturally many miniature games where someone simply invests too much material, misjudges his attacking chances, and falls on his face. This, in particular, is a way in which black tends to win quickly. In fact, ambition – in general – is the single leading cause of quick losses. That is not to say that a player should not be ambitious – but there is a fine line.
In Part II we will see a lesser-known subject – the defensive miniature. We will see how to use the opponent’s energy and ambition against him. So long for now.