How To Survive A Chess Disaster
Everyone gets tired from time to time, stress kills, and the periodic brain melt is pretty much impossible to prevent. — IM Jeremy Silman, Why Do Grandmasters Blunder?
No matter how hard he works, or how strong his willpower, or how vast his knowledge, or how acute his tactical vision, no chess player will ever reach a state of total perfection. The brain is a marvelous gadget, but — like any complex piece of machinery — it cannot operate without the occasional glitch.
As Silman astutely points out, no one — not even world champions — are immune to cerebral malfunctions. A blunder can nullify hours of hard work, causing unimaginable pain to the amateur and the grandmaster alike. In this regard, we can only embrace our imperfection and focus on the attainable.
However, not all blunders are created equal. Some (leaving your queen en prise, overlooking mate in one, etc.) are quite tragic indeed, but others are very much survivable. Indeed, my experience has convinced me that it is often a player's loss of composure following a blunder, rather than the blunder itself, that brings on his defeat.
Here is an especially memorable illustration from my own career:
Make no mistake: 50.Rb1 was a blunder in every sense of the word, yet the draw was still within reach. However, I was so discombobulated and flustered at my negligence that I lost my composure and committed a truly devastating howler a few moves later.
Inspired by this game, I hereby present to you the ultimate disaster survival guide. By applying the following three methods after a blunder, you will considerably increase your chances of emerging unscathed from the jaws of defeat.
Method 1: Reality Check
First, you must approach the situation from a purely objective, unemotional standpoint. Do not waste any time scolding yourself or lamenting the turn of events. Rather, make doubly sure that you have no saving resources at your disposal. If you look hard enough, Caissa may reward you.
One could argue that 38...a6 was a purely coincidental stroke of luck. Be that as it may, this game still highlights the importance of a positive mindset. As Tartakower once quipped, "no one ever won a game by resigning!"
Method 2: Apply the Carlsen Approach
After his miraculous win over Hikaru Nakamura at the 2014 Zurich Chess Challenge, Magnus Carlsen revealed the secret of his tenacity: "That's what it's about, keeping the game one move longer." When your position is objectively lost, the end goal of salvaging a draw (or even turning the tables and winning) usually appears unattainable.
But staying alive one move longer is a less daunting proposition. A few years ago, this mindset enabled British GM Peter Wells to survive a disastrous blunder against none other than Ian Nepomniachtchi.
Method 3: Bluff
At the 2011 Tata Steel, the following ultra-sharp position arose in a game between Alexander Grischuk and Anish Giri:
Black is two pawns to the good, but his king is tremendously vulnerable and the levelheaded 34.Qc1! secures excellent long-term compensation (see below). But Grischuk fell for temptation with 34.Nxe6??, and after 34...Qf6! 35.Qc1+ f4! quickly realized what he had done.
Black is threatening both 36...Qxe6 and 36...Ra1, a garden-variety double attack that is as devastating as it is straightforward. There is absolutely nothing White can do to save his knight, since 36.Qxf4+ Qxf4 37.Nxf4 merely expedites his downfall.
White's position is hopeless, but Grischuk had one last trick up his sleeve. He quickly banged out 36.Rc3 on the board, as if he had anticipated this turn of events all along. 36...Qxe6 wins on the spot, but a seed of doubt wormed itself into Giri's subconscious. The complications after 37.Qxf4+ are not all that easy to calculate, and Anish did not find the inner strength to call Grischuk's bluff.
This sort of psychological duplicity will fail most of the time, but it is a worthy last resort. Before throwing in the towel, force your opponent to demonstrate one last bit of mental toughness!
To be sure, none of these methods are applicable if you hang your queen.
Hopefully, though, they will enable you to consistently survive disasters of a lesser magnitude.