Falling Into The Abyss

Falling Into The Abyss

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During a road trip, GM Walter Browne once told me, “I would happily buy a huge steak dinner for my upcoming opponent since the blood would rush to his stomach, and his brain wouldn’t function properly.”

He repeated this many times over the years, but what does it really mean?

Take a look at the following game in which I play the worst move of all time:

So why did I play one of the worst moves of all time? I wasn’t really sure, so I shrugged my shoulders and continued to eat various candy bars.

As the years rolled by, I continued to hang stuff from time to time. I just viewed it as “one of those things.”

In our next example, I was floundering in the New York Open. In fact, I was far worse than floundering, the tournament was a total disaster! When I asked the late GM Edmar Mednis if there was a cure for a “falling into the abyss tournament” he said, “Yes, there is! The cure is the next tournament!”

Keep those tournaments coming!

What he meant was that a player who is in horrible form and completely off kilter cannot expect to right the ship. Instead, after rest and lots of introspection, the next tournament might well turn out to be brilliant.

Alas, I had another game or two to play, which meant more misery for me. My lucky opponent (Anyone who got paired with me was lucky — chances were good that I would hang my face.) was the late IM Michael Valvo.

The position is very sharp. White’s king is in the middle, but White’s bishop and queen own the h1-a8 diagonal which just so happens to be aiming at my king. Best is:

I did not play 22...Bc5. Instead, my brain turned to mush, and I couldn’t see anything. It was a horrible feeling; I felt helpless. Since I wasn’t coherent and couldn’t calculate, I tossed out the horrific:

When I was hanging out with GM Pal Benko in Budapest (I was getting material from him for our book, Pal Benko: My Life Games and Compositions.), he told me that he almost never hung anything, EXCEPT rooks. He had a certain “habit” of hanging his rooks.

I found it hard to believe, but after going over his games, I saw what he meant. He really did hang rooks! He never figured out why he did this, but towards the end of 1988, I FINALLY understood why I, from time to time, turned into a beginner: low blood sugar.

Realizing that gobbling candy bars (or any high sugar drinks and/or foods) during a game often lobotomized me, I sought something that would keep my brain chugging away without any unfortunate side effects.

After trying various things, I gave ginseng a try and it made an enormous difference. I beat IM Jack Peters in a six-game match. The match ended early when I drew one game and won three.


A year later I played a different six-game match against IM Douglas Root. The first five games were good to me. I tallied one win and four draws.

If I made a draw, the match was won. It was drawn if I lost.

I felt very confident, and with my top quality ginseng root in my shirt pocket, I expected nothing but good things to occur.

This loss was devastating. It still hurts badly 26 years later!

So, what have we learned here — other than that you should offer me a nice piece of cake right before we cross swords over the chessboard?

The lesson here is to know your body, know what affects your thinking processes (these things are different for everyone), and come to terms with a simple truth: good chess only occurs if you take care of your mind AND body.

Some people can handle candy bars during play. Others sip apple juice to keep their energy level up. Others eat a bit of something or other so they remain alert. NOT a huge steak... don’t forget what Walter Browne said!

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