The Difficult Opponent
The Kryptonite Effect
Many fans of chess are confused when one player in the world’s top 10 totally dominates another top 10 player in game after game. How does one explain this?
In boxing they say “styles make fights.” This means that sometimes two different boxing styles lead to very exciting battles, while other styles lead to a snooze-fest. And, at times, a clearly superior fighter finds himself in trouble against someone he should thrash.
Why? For reasons that are impossible to fully understand, his opponent’s style is kryptonite for him.
This happens in chess all the time. Players with equal ratings sometimes aren’t equal at all in battles against each other due to this “kryptonite effect.” The most famous modern case is the Carlsen vs. Nakamura meltdown.
This kind of thing creates the feeling that we’re watching a train wreck, but when we witness such an extreme overall result, we get insight into one important thing that makes a player’s bad result even worse: when you lose several games to a particular opponent, you start to suffer from psychological trauma (the brain begins to expect defeat) and your really bad result takes the logical next step -– a living nightmare.
This means you start to lose worse, equal, better, and even winning positions with sickening regularity. Fortunately, this psychological whammy will eventually vanish once Naka finally beats Carlsen (something I feel is, at some point, unavoidable).
However, such lopsided results aren’t based solely on luck, or psychology, or hunks of Kryptonian soil. They're based on a bad style matchup that instantly turns one of the players into the “difficult opponent.” This difficult opponent situation is found in all rating groups –- a 1600 player (who regularly loses to players in the 1500 to 1700 range) thrashes one particular 1850 opponent over and over again, and the poor “A” player can’t do anything about it!
When I was in my late teens/early 20s, I played quite a few games vs. the Whitehead brothers. Jay Whitehead (who sadly passed away at age 49) became a very strong international master, and I went through hell against him. (He usually beat me like a drum.) However, I had no trouble against Jay’s brother Paul, while Paul usually thrashed Jay.
International Master Elliott Winslow was a dangerous player in his prime, so my lifetime score against him can only be explained by a style problem. (I often joke with Elliott by telling him we have an even score: 6 to 6. Six wins for me, six draws for him.)
The same “difficult opponent” situation has occurred in the games between Sam Shankland and Alex Lenderman. One would think they would have back-and-forth battles, where either player could take down the other. Yet Sam has (so far) eviscerated Alex.
Here are two “difficult opponent” situations from the past:
LEONID STEIN vs. SVETOZAR GLIGORIC
These two players were both in the top 10 during the 60s, and both (rightly so) had world championship dreams. Due to their high standing, one might think that their games against each other were fairly even, but that simply wasn’t the case. Out of the first eight games they played, Stein was up seven wins, zero losses, and one draw. Total domination. It was only during their final game in 1972 that Gligo finally won, making the total score 7.5 - 1.5 in favor of Stein.
Stein won the mighty USSR Chess Championship three times and did very well against players like Petrosian (1 win, 1 loss, 9 draws), Tal (3 wins for Stein, 1 loss, 13 draws), Spassky (3 wins for Stein, 2 losses, 8 draws), Smyslov (1 win, 1 loss, 8 draws), and Botvinnik (1 win, 1 loss, 2 draws). In 1973, at only 38 years of age, the chess world was shocked when he collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Gligoric, a kind man who was loved by everyone, was one of the world’s dominant players during the 50s and 60s. He won the championship of Yugoslavia an incredible 12 times! He had good records against Max Euwe (2-0 with 5 draws) and Botvinnik (2-2 with 6 draws), and very honorable records against Smyslov (6-8 with 28 draws) and Petrosian (8 to 11 with 19 draws). Gligoric died in 2012 at 89 years of age.
This one is mind-blowing! If you haven’t seen this before, you’re in for a real treat.
JOSE RAUL CAPABLANCA vs. RUDOLF SPIELMANN
During his prime years, Capablanca had a plus score against all his regular world-class opponents. For example: five wins with six draws vs. Nimzowitsch. Five wins, no losses, two draws vs. Bogoljubow. Five wins, one loss, two draws vs. Reti.
One would think that Spielmann wouldn’t fare any better since he was, at best, equal to Nimzowitsch, Bogoljubow, and Reti. However, there was something about Spielmann’s style that made him a difficult opponent for the Cuban genius. Their lifetime score: Two wins each with eight draws.
OK, this isn’t the kind of domination I was talking about earlier, but Capa was so hard to beat that Spielmann’s score vs. Capa is a clear case of the “difficult opponent.”
JOSE RAUL CAPABLANCA
Considered one of the greatest chess geniuses in history, the Cuban powerhouse made chess look easy and was considered to be an unstoppable chess machine.
Please check out my article, “Rudolf Spielmann, the Lethal Gentleman!”
Here’s one of Spielmann’s wins, which shows the famed attacker completely outplaying Capa in fine positional style.
RELATED STUDY MATERIAL
- Read IM Silman's previous article: Readers' Games, Questions, and Comments, Part 6.
- Watch GM Kaidanov's excellent biographical video on Magnus Carlsen.
- Play as Capablanca in the Chess Mentor.
- Sharpen your tactics with the Tactics Trainer.
- Looking for articles with deeper analysis? Try our magazine: The Master's Bulletin.