Chess is Hard, Part Two

Chess is Hard, Part Two

NM GargleBlaster
Feb 19, 2012, 9:04 AM |

Hello there. In this, the second installment of my "Chess is Hard(tm)" series, I'm going to try and explain why chess and poker are similar.  At first the two games seem fundamentally apart: in chess everything is "known", there are no secrets, whereas the opposite is the case with poker.  However, this is based on the common misconception that, because everything is visible on the chess board, it therefore follows that what we see is understandable.  In actuality, this is, at least for me (and I suspect the great majority of players), untrue - after even a few moves the concrete possibilities of any given opening/middlegame position are far too great to have complete knowledge of, and most of my OTB analysis is based as much on guesswork and intuition as upon concrete variations.  Thus, when seen in this light, chess in many ways begins to resemble incomplete knowledge games like Poker, where calculation and intuition must compliment each other.

To demonstrate more clearly what I mean, here is a game of mine from the fifth round of the 37th Guernsey Open where I, as White, had to repeatedly either call my opponent's "bluff"s... or make some myself!

Chernoff,J (2140) - Downey,K (1950), 37th Guernsey Open Guernsey 2011

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6

An unpleasant surprise, as I'm suddenly out of my opening repertoire on move two.  I try to react with simple, natural looking moves, but Black was playing quickly and confidently and was establishing a clear psychological advantage.  Of course, a psychological advantage means nothing unless converted into a chess advantage, but - as we shall see many times in this game - that often happens by way of intimidating one's opponent from pursuing necessary complications due to lack of confidence.

3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Nf3

If 6. Nf5, d5!


Here is a perfect example of how psychology makes itself felt in chess.  White's most natural move is to "call" Black's raise (6...Bb4!?) with 7.Bc4, countering pressure on e4 and c3 with threats of his own against the Black King, but Black's rapid play suggests that he knows the opening and therefore, in a chess sense, has the "nuts". On the other hand, "folding" with 7.Qd3 (defending e4) is awkward, and it is difficult to believe that White should, after six unquestionably natural moves, be forced to give up any chance for an advantage.  Thus, it seems to me that the situation here is bit like, say, someone with pocket aces (i.e., White, after 6.Bc4) facing a heavy raise with a low pair showing on the flop.  Of course, one can argue that this position, unlike any in Poker, is calculable, but I offer the following two lines to show how impractical it would be for me to attempt to exhaustively analyze the situation over the board:

  • A) 7.Bc4 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Qa5 9.Qd3 Nxe4 10.Qxe4!! Qxc3+ 11.Ke2 Qxa1 12.Bxf7+! (12.Ba3? Qc3!) 12...Kxf7 13.Ng5+ Ke8 14.Qc4 Nc6 15.Qf7+ Kd8 16.Ne6+! and wins.
  • B) 7.Bc4 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Qc7 9.Qd3 b5 10.Bb3 Bb7 11.Ng5 0-0 12.Ba3 h6 13.Bxf8 Kxf8 14.Nxf7 Bxe4 15.Qd6+ Qxd6 16.Nxd6 Bxg2 17.Rg1 Bd5 18.Bxd5 Nxd5 19.Nf5 Kf7 20.Rd1 Nf4 21.Nxg7 d5 22.Nf5 Nd7 23.Nxh6+ Ke6 and though the position is still murky, White is better.

 Can you see now what I mean by Poker and Chess being similar?


After much thought (too much, really) I call, and it is difficult to explain how much nerves are required to do so in an actual OTB tournament game.  It just seems at any moment as if you could be missing something simple, and then the game might be simply over - and against a much lower rated opponent to boot!  In fact, in the first round of this tournament something very much like that befell me and the memory of it was still painfully fresh in my mind when playing this game.


So it was a bluff after all!


Having won the psychological battle on move seven, I get cocky here and continue to leave open the possibility of 8...Bxc3, figuring that had Black wanted to exchange he would have done so a move earlier.  Objectively speaking, however, 8...Bxc3 is much safer now, and after 9.bxc3 Qc7 10.Bd5 Qxc3 11.Rb1 Nxd5 12.Qxd5 d6 13.Qxd6 Qxc2 14.Nxe5 Qxa2 (14...Qxe4? 15.Ba3 Re8 16.Rbe1 Qa4 17.Nc4) 15.Ba3 Re8 16.Rfc1 Qe6 17.Qxe6 Bxe6 18.Rxb7 a5 the position is more or less equal.

8...Qc7 9.Qe2

In retrospect, it is amazing how much time I spent deciding between e2 and d3 for where to develop the Queen - truly, it's things like that that explain why it is so easy to get into time pressure in a two hour chess game.  Anyhow, I eventually decide to continue my own "bluff" on c3...


...and Black folds!  This was his last and best chance for Bxc3: 9...Bxc3 10.bxc3 b5 11.Bd3 Qxc3 12.Bd2 Qc5 13.a4 bxa4 14.Rxa4 Nc6 15.Rfa1 Re8 16.Bg5 Qd6 17.Bxa6 Bxa6 18.Rxa6 Rxa6 19.Rxa6 h6 20.Bxf6 Qxf6 21.c3 Rb8 22.Ra1 and the position is completely drawn.


White now has a small but distinct positional advantage.

10...Nxd5 11.Bxd5 Bg4 12.c3 Ba5

I've no idea why Black avoids the more natural 12...Bc5.

13.h3 Bxf3 14.Qxf3



By now I was fairly happy with my position, what with two good bishops and attacking chances on both sides of the board.  The first of order of business seems to be to restrict Black's possibilities for counterplay, especially in the center, and my next few moves were played with that aim in mind.

14..Nc6 15.h4

Though mostly an aggressive gesture, this push also serves to discourage the Black Knight from visiting g6.

15...Ne7 16.Bb3 Kh8

Here is a great example of why Chess is Hard(tm).  White, by all rights, should have an easy game here, but with the clocks ticking it is very difficult to decide how dangerous Black's threatened ...f5 break really is: with the two bishops shouldn't White want the position opened up?


I think this is, paradoxically enough, the right call.  If, say, 17.Rd1 f5! 18.Bg5, Black can equalize with 18...fxe4 19.Qxe4 Bb6 20.Rd2 d5!


Around this point time begins to play a increasingly large factor; I interpreted ...Qc6 as an attempt to enforce ...d5, completely forgetting that the "threat" of ...f5 had been renewed due to White's unprotected Queen.  This, btw, is a typical chess mistake: to forget to consider a threat that had been once prevented.


As it turns out, the ...f5 break is far more double-edged now than previously, but I cannot take much credit for bravery here - I simply overlooked the move completely!  In any event, 18. Kg2 was a good and safe alternative, e.g., 18...Rad8 19.Rd1 Ng6 20.Kg3!


Of course the psychological advantage shifts to Black now, and with great difficulty I attempt to maintain my composure in a radically changed situation.

19.gxf5 Rxf5 20.Qg4

This move is possible mainly because of the valor of White's h pawn which, at h5, will control the absolutely vital g6 square.


Now it is Black's turn to overplay his hand in my time pressure.  Having achieved ...f5, he needed to now consolidate his position with 20...Rff8 21. h5 Ng8!, but instead decides to press another "bluff" by way of an optically dangerous looking exchange sacrifice.

21.Bg5 Raf8

There's no turning back now... 


I can't quite resolve upon parting with my all-important Queen's Bishop just yet, so instead I take a moment to prevent ...Ng6 once and for all.


Black insists!

23.Bxf6 Rxf6

It may not seem to you, dear reader, that, in spite of his glaring dark square weaknesses, this position is so terrifying for White as all that.  However, try to imagine the situation for me at the board at this hour in the game: I've spent a good deal of time and energy and thought into defusing various opening traps, emerged with a good position and much relief, spent even more time and energy in trying to prevent any dangerous counterplay, and now, what do I have to show for it in time pressure?  A ruined Kingside and a Rook bound for f4 where it, at first glance, mates White all by itself!

Of course, as I'm sure you can see, all that is nonsense, as after 24. Rae1 Black has no real compensation for the exchange (24...Bb6 25.Re2 Rf4 26.Qe6 Qe8! 27.Qh3! or 26...Rxe4 27.Bd5!), but there was no way I could confidently calculate complicated defensive variations at this point after missing 18...f5.  Therefore, I tried to find a way to simplify the position, even at great material cost, to one where Black's hyperactive rook gets exchanged off.


Again, objectively speaking, this is bad, but on a practical level I'm loath to criticize it much, as I could at least calculate the following more or less forced moves...

24...Bb6+ 25.Kg2 Qxe4+ 26.Qf3

The point!  Not only do queens come off, but White manages to activate his remaining pieces (and King).

26...Qxf3+ 27.Kxf3!

Paradoxically the better recapture, as 27...Rxf4+ 28.Ke2 Rf6 29.Rf3! highlights all of White's advantages: up the exchange, Black's weak back rank, etc.


Now Black is again the one reeling from the psychological turn of events and misses 27...g5! with rough equality.  That said, the idea behind ...d5 (utilizing his central pawn majority) was very good, just slightly flawed in its execution.

28.Rad1 e4+ 29.Kg4 Nf5!

Black's idea of forking everything White owns with Ne3+ is now best met with simply 30.Rde1! Ne3+ 31.Rxe3 Bxe3 32.Bxd5 with an extremely good position.  Instead, with minutes left on my clock, I cannot help but just take whatever I can as quickly as possible...

30.Bxd5?! Ne3+ 31.Kg3

Black now spent much of his rather large time advantage realizing that regaining the exchange doesn't completely solve his positional problems.  However, there nevertheless exists a really good move here for him - can you find it?


Not this!  The right move was 31...g5!! with at least equality (32.hxg6 Rxg6+ 33.Kh4 Nxd1 34. Rxd1 Bf2+ 35.Kh5 Rd6).


The rest is simple.

32..e3 33.Kf3 Kg8 34.Rg1 Bc7 35.f5 Bb6 36.Rg6 1-0


P.S. -> Here's the full game: