The Difficult Opponent

  • IM Silman
  • | Aug 5, 2014

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!


Kryptonite by Carl Black

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:



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.


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.”



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. 

In Spielmann’s second win, he dominated Capablanca in the opening with some nice tactical fireworks and then demonstrated good endgame technique to score the full point.



  • 17 months ago


    my comments about 'styles' were not intented to be taken seriously. actually, description of styles, like i mentioned, is completely irrelevant here i presume. indeed i can believe there is such a thing as the 'difficult opponent'. interesting statistics. gimme more :)

  • 18 months ago


    In the first Gligoric vs Stein game, I'm thinking about the deflection 26... Nd3! but all it does is hang the f3 pawn.

  • 24 months ago


    Indeed "styles makes fights" A can beat B and B can beat C , but it doesnt necessarily follow that A can beat C!


  • 2 years ago


    Stein was a fantastic player.  I really enjoyed his best games collection by Gufeld.  Stein was a very aggressive and creative player.  He qualified for the interzonal right before he died.  Karpov was one of the few players who beat him twice with zero losses. He was featured prominently in kasparovs volume 3 of his predecessors book.  Thanks to Mr Silman for showcasing some of his amazing attacking games.

  • 2 years ago



    I've posted the stats on the second page. Karpov has +31-8 against Timman, a margin of +23. Only Kasparov's margin against Short is greater on the GM level: +28-2.

  • 2 years ago


    Three questions here:

    1)Here is how  someone described Gms styles. Does this kind of assessement would provide any sense of which matches could produce a case of difficult opponent?

    • Anand : all-rounder, quick player, with an intuitive sense for initiative and attacking play
    • Carlsen : universal player with a natural feel for piece positioning, photographic memory allows him to play any opening under the sun, very good endgame technique, likes to play seemingly equal positions and push his opponents to death in the endgame - slightly less sharp tactically (this is relative, of course)
    • Aronian : strategic player with a knack for small combinations that he can see at lightning speed (he is blitz WC). Good at endgame play.
    • Kramnik : very strong technical player, very good in endgames, superior opening preparation ; very deep positional understanding allows him to play confidently for unbalanced positions
    • Karjakin : Fischer-like player - very concrete, deep opening specialization (1.e4, Najdorf...), very pragmatic : plays whatever works; positional active style as white and counter-attacking style as black
    • Topalov - great attacker, very strong opening preparation, plays for initiative at all costs - uneasy in dry technical positions
    • Mamedyarov - great tactician, looking for offbeat lines, uses tactics to reach slightly superior dynamic endgames positions where he revels
    • Nakamura - chess samuraï, natural player, moving target (playing all kinds of different openings, including some crappy stuff), can play well when short of time
    • Grishuk - inspired player with a deep sense of initiative and a fondness for space, enjoys poker a lot
    • Ivanchuk  - chess genius, can play well any position - loves complications and queen sacrifices, tremendous endgame player, less strong mentally than other top players

    2) Arent the cases of difficult opponent explained better by reference to somehow subtle bad habits of play that one's opponent is able to take advantage of?

    3) How Gms themselves explained there winning streaks?

  • 2 years ago


    In the long term the trend shows. Fischer was confident that he was a stronger player and was happy that a long match would make that to be known.

  • 2 years ago


    It would be funny to find chains of this kryptonite/angst(german) phenomenon. Chains of smaller fishes eating up bigger fishes

  • 2 years ago


    Before 1972 big match Spassky had a plus score against Fischer.

  • 2 years ago


    Very interesting theme. We call this an "Angstgegner". A fine exemple is Timman vs Karpov. Timman was the number 2 player for a long time, but his score agains Karpov is ridiculously poor. I haven't counted the total of their games, but Karpov is winning by a major landslide.

  • 2 years ago


    Hey! I'm really getting to like this Silman dude. He's got the Mark Twains about him.

  • 2 years ago


    Fischer-Tal, anyone?

  • 2 years ago


    Korchnoi only beat Kasparov once!

  • 2 years ago


    Fischer said the trick wasn't to start winning, it was to just stop losing.

  • 2 years ago


    Wow and lol !! Not a single comment about Stein, genius tactics, super score with all, who knows his problems in life and medicine problems, from this maybe he was best player in the world at that time ( or most talented ).

  • 2 years ago


    Why did Elliott Winslow give up after 23 ...Bh3 ?  I understand that he's down material, but is there more to it?

  • 2 years ago


    Interesting statistics .

  • 2 years ago


    Who is your "difficult opponent", Mr Silman?

  • 2 years ago



    Efim Geller is one of the very few players who has an overall plus score against the World Champions (+39-36, to be exact). He has plus scores against Botvinnik (+4-1), Smyslov (+11-8), Petrosian (+5-3), Fischer (+5-3), tied with Euwe (+1-1) and Tal (+6-6), and minus scores against Spassky (+6-10), Karpov (+1-2), Kasparov (+0-1) and Anand (+0-1).

  • 2 years ago


    How about Garry Kasparov vs Viswanathan Anand? Is that more psychological than style based?

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