See Bruges and Die
Last weekend I was the very fortunate winner of Chess.com's Death Match 19, which was quite an experience. As ominous and morbid as it sounds, a Death Match is just three hours of really, really fast chess games between two grandmasters, without a break, for the entertainment of the Chess.com commentators and pundits. Of course, there's some compensation: the winning grandmaster gets to take home the lion's share of $1,000. Trust it to the Americans to sensationalise chess in this way, but truth be told, it's working: the Death Matches are incredibly entertaining to watch, and having taken part in one now as a competitor, I'm now a converted fan of the format.
As some of you might know, my task for the November 2 match was complicated somewhat by the fact that I had accidentally double-booked myself - my girlfriend and I had scheduled that weekend in the romantic Belgium town of Bruges for our one-year anniversary. Yeh, 'oops'. Fortunately, my girlfriend lives up to few of her German stereotypes and is as far off the scale of 'understanding' as you can get, and so I had the green light to bunker down for three hours on the Saturday night against the talented English Grandmaster Simon Williams.
By the way, did you know that the brilliant black comedy "In Bruges" is called "See Bruges and Die" in the German translation? Somehow, the German title seemed more appropriate for what I had to face. The format of the Death Match is a three hour, no-break slugfest, roughly made up of: one-third 5-minute games, one-third 3-minute games and one-third 1-minute (the so-called 'bullet') games. In the latter format, players virtually have less than a second on average to think before making a move. By the end of the three hours, having finished with 15 of these bullet games in a row without a break, my hands were literally shaking and my heart was racing with a heavy overdose of adrenaline. Yes, from chess!!
Anyway, in the end I was successful, but only scraping home by the skin of my teeth. I was losing through almost all of the three hours and was down 30-29 with a few minutes left, but managed to win the last three games to sneak home 32-30. (The official write-up of the match is here, and if you are feeling really adventurous (or really bored), you can actually watch the full three hours, complete with grandmaster commentary and pre- and post-match video interviews, here.)
For those of you who don't know, Simon is one of the most dangerous tactical players England has ever produced. He has this uncanny ability to whip up incredibly venomous attacks out of thin air, and he has a swag of 2700+ grandmasters scalps to prove it (I, on the other hand, have none). You can see one of his big wins on the official pre-game promo here(yes, they decided to call the match the 'Battle of the Ashes'. Well, at least Australia finally won something against England). Simon's also a fantastic author - check out his website www.gingergm.com for links to his excellent DVDs and books. Despite all of this, he's also decidedly modest - a rare trait on the grandmaster circuit, I can tell you.
So I knew I was going to be up against it, which is why I devised a cunning plan to maximise my chances in the match. Most likely, without my strategy I wouldn't have won, as Simon is generally just a stronger blitz player than me. I formulated my three-pronged plan on the long train ride from Amsterdam to Bruges as follows:
Dave's Plan To Beat Simon
1. Take the initiative in the opening - whatever it takes, put him on the defensive.
2. If that doesn't work, head for an endgame, even if it's clearly better for him. The chances of saving the endgame are higher than holding off his tactics.
3. If that doesn't work and he does get an attack, COMPLICATE things as much as possible to force him to use up precious time.
Okay, it may seem simplistic and naive, but I really stuck to this plan, and I really think it worked. Of course, the approach was most likely to be successful in the faster time controls where Simon wouldn't have as much time to convert the endgames/work out the complications, and so I focussed my preparation on the 1-minute bullet games. I got to practise about 70 bullet games on the chess.com servers in the week leading up to November 2, giving me ample opportunity to hone my swindling and trap-setting skills. I decided that sacrificing a pawn in the opening was worth it, even if it was unsound, if it gave me a temporary initiative that was likely to force him to use up roughly 10-20% of his allocated thinking time. I angled for the endgame whenever I could. And when things really went pear-shaped, I mixed things up with the most ridiculous moves I could think of to shock him into time trouble. A cunning plan!
Here's an example of a successful Strategy 1:
Here's Strategy 2 in action: heading for the endgame. Actually, this was the last game in the match and a win for Simon would have forced a tie-break. Once I got to the endgame, though, things went reasonably smoothly.
And finally, here's an example of Strategy 3: Shock value!
It's a bit mean to just feature my wins, of course. Simon won some incredible attacking games (there are some examples on the official Chess.com post-match report) and generally outplayed me over the three hours. In fact, from the first game he was leading the match, and even had a 30-29 lead with about 5 minutes to play. Fortunately, I got a lucky run right at the end and won the last three to finish with my nose in front when the timer ran out. Simon definitely had the advantage in the vast majority of games, but I didn't earn a reputation as a 'swindler' for nothing (I used to give my captain, Manuel Weeks, all sorts of headaches with the rubbish positions I'd fall into before trying to slime my way out). Really, I got a ridiculous number of lucky breaks. The following game was probably the luckiest; as you play through it, bear in mind that had Simon won one more game, such as this one, the scores would have finished level after 3 hours and we would have gone to tie-breaks.
Super, super lucky. Anyway, having finished the match, it was of course necessary to try and make ammends with my better half. Actually, she snuck in to check out the final few games and was surprisingly excited that I won. She even found us a restaurant in Bruges playing blues/jazz and with a late-night kitchen serving - would you believe it, in Bruges? - kangaroo steak. Not a bad way to celebrate! I have to say I was suspicious of the Death Match format at first - it sounded like a sacrilegious American attempt to sensationalise chess, to be honest - but now I'm a bit of a convert. The (thousand+!) spectators and commentators really got into the match, and the pre- and post-match player interviews give a nice sense of interactivity between the spectators and players. Having said that, I don't think my nerves could handle another Death Match any time soon. Plus, I've already seen Bruges now.
EDIT: The final match score was 17-15, not 32-30! 32 games in total. Thanks to Mike Klein for picking that up.