Dealing With "Off Balance" Opponents

Dealing With "Off Balance" Opponents

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Anpu3 asked:

I would like to broach another aspect of “the psychology of chess” that always seems forgotten. While the focus of your “psychology” post is on the internal mental struggle, I always wonder about the more visceral expressions in OTB tournaments. For example, opponents drumming their fingers, eating at the board or making intimidating comments, etc. While one might think this doesn’t occur at the professional level, I must mention that in Josh Waitzkin’s book THE ART OF LEARNING he relates an incident of his opponent kicking him in the shins under the table during the game.

Is there any book that deals with preparing oneself for dealing with this “psychological” aspect of chess? Let’s face it, whatever the game or sport, there are those who use less than fair behaviors to influence their game. Preparation to deal with that unsavory aspect is just as important as the struggle Over The Board.

Dear Anpu3:

I’ve actually addressed this topic in an older article (published on on 7-13-2009 – it’s in my archive. Wow, have I really been doing this Q & A for such a long time? The link:, but it’s fun to discuss it again. This isn’t really about chess psychology since the topic here would be, “How Do You Deal With Opponents That Cheat or Are Mentally Ill?”

Suffice it to say that - over many years - I’ve been spat on, kicked under the table (on many occasions!), faced overt cheating (quite a few players have touched a piece or even picked it up, only to put it back down and deny any wrongdoing - others left the board to look up our opening in books), had messages pushed under the table into my crotch, experienced the “joy” of an opponent flossing at the board – bits of his food falling all over the pieces, and on and on it goes. I’ve also witnessed players stabbing each other with pens, other players beating each other in the face with their fists, a woman offering her body in exchange for a win, quite a few amateurs blatantly cheating their opponents by placing new pieces on the board when the opponent wasn’t looking (that wouldn’t work in the pro ranks since we’d notice right away!), and outright threats of violence!

My “favorite” was some person who ordered 100 burgers in my name. Imagine my surprise when tray after tray was carried into the playing hall, with the servers screaming, “Mr. Silman, the burgers you ordered are here!” Needless to say, I wasn’t pleased, all the more so since I was a vegetarian at the time.

What can be done about these things? How should you react? In every instance (except the “woman offering herself situation” – the decision here depends on your sexual preference, on how good looking she is, or on your personal level of desperation), you should immediately go to the tournament director! Let him work it out (seriously, that’s his responsibility), and if you can’t prove it (no witnesses might mean you’re up the creek) just smile and continue … and hope your insane/hyper-aggressive opponent doesn’t beat you senseless after the game!

How can you avoid getting bummed out by these kinds of behaviors? Meditate, learn to fight, hire a bodyguard who will also act as a witness, and/or bring an umbrella to the game so an opponent’s food doesn’t pop out from between his teeth and hit you and/or the board when he flosses. You might also read a copy of the underground chess classic (1928, by Dino Giordano, a well known Mafia soldier and lover of chess), HOW TO END CHEATING OPPONENTS, where he gives one example after another about how to ensure that an unpleasant opponent never bothers you, or anyone else, again.

I’ll share one final tale about an opponent’s bizarre behavior:

It was at a large event, but I hadn’t done very well and was out of the money. However, I decided to play the last round anyway since I’d get someone in the 2250 - 2300 rating range and felt that clobbering whatever poor fool they placed in front of me would make me feel a bit better during the long trip home. When the director told everyone to begin playing, my opponent was nowhere to be seen so I started his clock (I was White) without making a move and waited a while for him to appear. [This is common tournament practice … when your opponent shows up he’s supposed to simply press the clock, thus stopping his time from ticking away and starting yours].

After 10 minutes or so I got up and looked at a few other games, and when I returned to the board I noticed that my clock was now ticking, but there still wasn’t any sign of my opponent. I looked around, thinking it a bit strange, then tossed out 1.d4 (which I always played at that stage of my career), started his clock again, and waited. Still no human. Getting up, I took another stroll, looking at the games of some friends, and when I finally returned to the board I was shocked to see my clock ticking, my d-pawn (which I had moved to d4) pushed back to d2 (!!), and my e-pawn (which I had never touched at all) pushed to e4!

I asked the guy playing next to me if he had seen what just happened, and he said, “Yes, your opponent rushed to the board, put your pawn back on d2 and moved your e-pawn to e4. Then he got up and ran away. I have no idea what the hell he’s doing.”

At this point I made a beeline to the tournament director (see, I followed my own advice!), and explained the bizarre situation. He said my opponent, a conservative looking middle-aged guy, was a nice fellow and had never acted strangely before. He began to look for him and, after another 10 minutes passed, finally caught up with my “invisible man” and asked what was going on. Mr. Invisible, acting extremely agitated, said, “I was watching the game from a distance and saw Silman play 1.e4. Then he retracted it and played 1.d4. He’s a dirty cheater!”

I replied, “I haven’t played 1.e4 in 15 years. So that’s just not true.”

He then added another level of bizarreness to the proceedings by sticking his face in mine (our noses were almost touching!) and saying in a very loud voice, “Can you honestly tell me that you’re not a cheater?”

How should you react to that? Did he think I would crack and say, “You’re right! I am a dirty cheater. I’m Satan himself, and I intend to not only win the game, but to also kidnap your firstborn child!” But no, I didn’t say anything. Instead, I kicked him in the groin and stuck my right index finger through his left eye. When he fell screaming to the floor, I began to stomp on his skull as spectators rushed over to pull me off of his blood-caked, convulsing body …

Okay, I didn’t do that, but I thought a few of you action movie fans would have wanted to hear something of that kind and I didn’t want to disappoint you.

No, there wasn’t any physical violence. Instead, I did what you’re supposed to do in these situations and acted in a polite manner. I said nothing, and just turned my attention to the director, asking him to fix the situation so I could play the game. The director did just that and, after he had an animated conversation with my very distraught opponent, the e4-pawn was returned to e2 and my d-pawn was placed back on d4. I played 2.c4, he replied 2…d5 and the game continued as if nothing strange had happened.

The fun didn’t stop there, though. I did indeed rout him, and when it became clear that he needed to resign, he got up and walked away, leaving his clock ticking. This was clearly another ploy – he hoped that I would take that as resignation and put the pieces away, but instead I sat there until his time finally ran out and his flag fell. Then I once again went to the director, told him what had occurred with the time, and signed the score-sheet so it was all official and done with. When I got back to the board to collect my pieces, I found them all over the floor. A young woman was standing there in shock and when I asked her what had happened, she said, “I was looking at the position when some guy rushed up to the board, cursed, and knocked all the pieces right at me! Then he ran away.”

As you can see, it’s a jungle out there. However, staying calm in every situation and making use of the director will go a long way in making ugly incidents easier to handle (bringing a can of mace to every game is also a thought).

For those that are curious, here's the game vs. the invisible opponent:

Silman – Mr. Invisible (the poor guy was having a really bad day – no reason to give his name)

Vegas 1987

1.d4 c6 2.c4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 e6 5.e3 Be7 6.Bd3 Nbd7 7.0-0 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nb6 9.Bd3 Nbd5 10.e4 Nxc3 11.bxc3 c5 12.Qe2 cxd4 13.cxd4 0-0 14.Bb2 Qa5 15.Ne5 Nd7 16.Nc4 Qd8 17.a4 f5?

This terrible move (most likely a symptom of his unfortunate mental state) creates tons of self-inflicted weaknesses.

18.exf5 exf5 19.Rfe1 Bb4 20.Red1 Nf6 21.d5!

White has a clear advantage.


Also bad was 21...Nxd5? 22.Ne3 Nf4 23.Bc4+ Kh8 24.Bxg7+ Kxg7 25.Qb2+ Qf6 26.Qxb4.

22.Nb6 Qa5 23.Nxa8 Re8 24.Bc4+ Kh8 25.Qc2 f4 26.Bb5 Rf8 27.Nc7 a6 28.Bxf6 gxf6 29.Bd7 Bc5 30.Ne6 Bxd7 31.Rxd7, 1-0.

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