Bluffing In Chess

Bluffing In Chess

| 50 | Fun & Trivia

Pictures of a chess board and chess pieces are very popular in ads for banks, insurance companies and similar businesses. The companies want to underline their wisdom and strategic thinking. Unlike dice, cards, and other games of chance, chess is a game of skill and a stronger opponent generally beats a weaker opponent.

I could be totally wrong here, but it seems to me that the major appeal of poker is that if you study it seriously for six months, then you have a chance to beat even the strongest poker player in the world. Meanwhile, you can practice chess for 10 years and still have no single chance against Magnus Carlsen. If chess is such a logical game of skill, how can you bluff? We are going to discuss that today.

First of all, let's define what a bluff is and what it isn't. The problem here is that many people confuse bluff and risk. Here is a simple example from two classical games by Mikhail Tal. In the first game (versus Fischer), the players reached the following position.

Here Tal explained: "I was faced with a choice: Should I go into a slightly inferior endgame after 18...Qxf3 19.Rxf3 Re2 20.Rf2 Rxf2 21.Kxf2, or, after accepting the piece sacrifice, subject myself to a very strong attack? I could not see a forced mate, it is true, but, perhaps, only because I wasn't looking for one."

Later the game reached this famous position:

Here is Tal's comment:

"Every player has his own habit: One will first make his move and then write it down, while another will do things the other way around. Incidentally, in recent years Fischer has actively objected to this 'other way round,' expressing the opinion that a scoresheet is not a black-board for writing down exercises. However, in our game Fischer first wrote down the move 22.Rae1!, without a doubt the strongest, and wrote it not in his usual English notation but in European, almost Russian! Then he not very deftly pushed the scoresheet towards me. 'He's asking for an endorsement,' I thought to myself, but how was I to react? To frown was impossible; if I smiled he would suspect 'trickery,' so I did the natural thing. I got up and began to calmly walk up and down the stage. I met Petrosian, made some joke to him, and he replied. The 15-year-old Fischer, who was essentially still only a large child, sat with a confused expression on his face, looking first at the front row of spectators where his second was sitting, and then at me.

Then he wrote down another move. 22.Qc6?, and after 22...Rd7 23.Rae1+ Be7 24.Rxf7 Kxf7 25.Qe6+ Kf8! 26.Qxd7 Qd6, I held on to my extra piece and adjourned the game in a won position. When I later asked Fischer why he hadn't played 22.Rae1, he replied: 'Well, you laughed when I wrote it down!'"

A younger and, as yet, all-too-trusting Fischer.

Long story short, here is how the game ended:

So, was Tal really bluffing in this game? I don't think so! In my opinion, bluffing is when you make a move which leads to really bad consequences against best play. Even though you see that possible outcome, you still play it hoping that your opponent doesn't find the correct response. In this particular case, Tal tells us that he didn't see a win for White.

This verdict was later proven correct by Kasparov and his powerful computer in "My Great Predecessors." So, here Tal took risk, a huge risk to be precise, but he wasn't bluffing! Now, compare this to the following game where the critical moment happened on move 22:

Tal saw that he could force a draw after 22...Qh4, but at that point, he was in a must-win situation in his Candidates' match versus Bent Larsen. So, he took a gamble even though he knew that after 22...Qg2 23.Ke1 Nh4 24.Nf2! Nf3 25.Kd1 Nd4 26.Qc3, his attack would have been gone. The game continued as follows:

Of course, in a different tournament situation, Tal played a different move!

The common belief is that the name "Tal" is a synonym for the word "bluff." I think that is a popular misconception since Tal didn't bluff that much. Many of his brilliant combinations and attacks were later refuted, especially when computers became strong, but it only proves that Tal's chess style was incredibly risky. It would be difficult to find many games by Tal where he played a move even though he clearly saw that he would be losing if his opponent found the correct response.

So should you bluff in chess? While generally I am against bluffing in chess, there are some situations in which you must bluff. It could be a desperate tournament situation, like the one we saw in the game Larsen vs Tal.

Alternatively, it could just be a desperate position in your game. If you are losing anyway, you can play pretty much any move that increases your chances for a positive result. It is not a big deal if your idea doesn't work since you were losing anyway. I wouldn't really call any move in a lost position a bluff since you are losing in any case. There is no real risk involved!

Some chess players bluff even in good positions. We discussed such a situation from my game versus Viktor Korchnoi in this article.  Here is another shocking example.

Miles wrote in his annotations here: "Now 27...Qa3 28.Kd1 Qf3 would be a fine logical end to the sporting contest as the Russians like to say. However, I didn't feel like a fine logical end, so, relying on his time trouble, I took the sort of gamble one should normally reserve for five-minute games, weekend Swisses, the British Championship and that sort of thing"

A genial and true bluffer | Tony Miles, courtesy Dutch National Archives.

Black still could draw by 30...Qa3+, but he took the gamble. Miles admits in his annotations that he saw that after the correct move (31.Re1) Black would be lost, but he felt that after 31...Qa3 32.Kd1 Qb2 32.Ke2 Qc3, he could still "confuse matters." In the game, his bluff brought a win!

There is no answer to the simple question, "Should chess players bluff in their games?" Personally, I think that you should bluff only in lost positions because, as I stated above, a bluff in a lost position is not really a bluff. Of course, the decision to bluff strongly depends on a chess player's personality. It would be interesting to hear our readers' feedback. So, do you bluff in chess?

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