Sheridan's Ride

Jun 7, 2012, 3:08 PM |

This game, to some degree, recreated Sheridan's Ride, one of the great events that helped win the Civil War for the Union Forces. Appropriately enough, it was played in the US Women's Championship, an American chess event.

On October 19th, 1864, the Union and the Confederate Forces were locked in battle near Cedar Creek, Virginia. The South had been checked at Gettysburg the year before and the Union had found a strong general in Grant to match the great Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But the outcome was still in doubt as the South still had the capability of entering into the North, tying down Union divisions.

The South launched a perfectly executed surprise attack on the morning of the 19th in Cedar Creek at around 5 a.m., catching the numerically superior Union forces completely by surprise, taking advantage of the fact that General Phillip Sheridan was 10 miles away. By 10 a.m., the Confederates, despite being badly outnumbered, had control of the field and the Union forces were fleeing in panic.

But the Confederates failed to press their advantage and the Union forces counterattacked. Union General Phillip Sheridan made his mad dash from Winchester, 10-20 miles away, to the front, stopping people from fleeing, and rallying his forces. By the end of the day, the battle was a total disaster for the Confederates. They were never again able to invade Union territory, opening the way for the final assault. Lincoln was reelected President, the Union forced surrender next year, and Sheridan's ride was immoralized in a famous poem.

The game presented from the US Women's Championship has some interesting parallels. Badly outrated, Iryna Zenyuk (2224) gave eventual runner-up Anna Zatonskih (2510) all she could handle for 38 moves before making two critical mistakes (39. gxf5?; 41. Bf4?) in the next three moves that irrevocably swung the game in Black's favor. Zatonskih did not hesitate as her King made a mad dash into the White camp to decide the battle as White gave up two pawns down and another one about to fall. Like the game in question, the Confederates were badly outnumbered, with only 21,000 troops to 31,000 for the Union. Zenyuk avoided a trap on move 21 (21. Bc3? Rc8! -+) that would have left her down for the count and reduced the game to a position where her Two Bishops and Queen were slightly better than Black's Queen, Bishop, and Knight.

And like Cedar Creek, there was a moment in the battle where the losing side hesitated. At Cedar Creek, the Confederates could have followed up their victory by attacking again and following up their initial surprise. Their general's refusal to do so was second-guessed 'till Kingdom Come well after the final shot was fired. And in the game in question, White hesitated at a critical moment. On move 32, she could have played 32. Ba3!? and followed up with Qb4, setting up a battery against f8. 

But the thing about second-guessing is that we never know what would have happened if reality had taken an alternate course. Therefore, the second-guesser is never accountable for his actions. And that is why reams of paper and jillions of blog posts are written second-guessing someone else's actions because you never have to worry about the consequences if your preferred course of action fails.