Aronian, Agassi and the Project Triangle of Chess

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Every chess player, no matter how weak, has a high point in his career. Mine occurred in May 2007, during the last round of the Dutch Team Chess Championship. I was playing in the Master League, the highest level in Dutch chess, and I was surrounded by all the top players of The Netherlands. Moreover, I had prepared a spectacular line which was sure to make the headlines the next day. In reality, I was displaying typical amateur behaviour.

During the first moves, I was king of the world; never felt better. Everything went according to plan. From the outside, it looked as if we got a sharp position on the board, full of chances for both players. To be sure, everybody was looking at my game. What could go wrong? Yet it was then that it all went horribly wrong.

My opponent was the talented youngster Wouter Spoelman, now a respected GM who recently did live commentary for ChessVibes during the Tal Memorial. In a sharp Najdorf main line, I had 'prepared' an obscure variation which would guarantee me interesting play against the uncastled black king, and with my opponent unprepared, I hoped to achieve at least a draw and, most  importantly, gain the respect from my teammates, including several grandmasters. It wasn't to be.

Moll-Spoelman Dutch League, 2007

In this position, instead of the usual 14.f6, I played the little-analysed

14.g6!? and immediately got up from my chair. I walked around for a while and saw that Ivan Sokolov was studying my position with some interest. I also saw that my opponent had never looked at this move before as he buried his head in his hands and started thinking for almost 45 minutes. In the mean time, I walked around, ordered several coffees, chatted with friends and enjoyed life. When I finally came back to the board, I saw that my opponent had played the expected

14...hxg6 I remembered that John Nunn, in his seminal The Complete Najdorf: 6.Bg5 now gave 15.fxg6 fxg6 16.b4 Na4 17.Nxa4 bxa4 18.e5! leading to extremely complex play, as in the game Markzon-DeFirmian, New York 1991, which I had thorougly looked at in my preparations. So I instantly played what is in retrospect the most stupid move of my entire chess career:

15.fxg6?? and went in total shock after Spoelman played

15...0-0!! ... brutally ending my preparation by playing a novelty Nunn failed to mention and, more importantly, which I had failed to analyse beforehand. I immediately felt I was now lost in a higher sense: black's king is safe, he has an extra center pawn, a lead in development and apart from an isolated e-pawn, my pieces just don't coordinate at all. I cursed myself for my sloppy homework and my horrible attitude of walking around and being proud of myself instead of thinking about the game. Most of all, I realized how utterly untalented I was in 'feeling chess', in recognizing crucial moments and sensing the 'momentum', especially in such an important game. I felt utterly amateurish in such a professional setting, and I was truly ashamed of myself. 

Of course, if I had actually thought for a few minutes at move 15, I would have played 15.fxe6! regardless of what Nunn had written, if only because Black can't castle after that in view of the threat Nd5. Now, however, after the subsequent 16.Qh5 fxg6 17.Qxg6 Bf6 Black was already better and won easily in 32 moves. It was to be my last game in the Master League, and I think I still haven't fully recovered since. I'm a 'mere' chess amateur now - always was destined to be one - and all I have of that period is a few good memories of playing at a level where I totally didn't belong.

Well, to be honest I had it coming. My 'preparation' consisted of checking Nunn's book and looking at a few possibilities in the DeFirmian game. I hadn't really studied the tactical nuances of the position at all, let alone its strategical characteristics. I simply lacked the time to do more than I did, but I was also lazy. In short, I lacked both time and interest. I guess I just wasn't that into chess anymore.

Secondly, I found the fact that I was playing together with these top players in one room more important than actually winning the game. I was playing chess for all the wrong reasons: not because I wanted to have success, but because I wanted to be successful. I wanted to enjoy chess instead of playing it well. And thirdly, of course, I just lacked the talent to turn the game around after seeing it go wrong. In fact, I didn't even believe in being able to turn it around.  I played a few weak moves right after the crucial stage and found myself lost before I knew it. 

Why am I telling you all this? I think the three factors I've mentioned quite accurarely define amateur chess life in general. I thought about this during a project management course in which the teacher showed us the following picture:

This dilemma (here applied to restaurants) is also known as the Project Triangle, which states a project can't be done cheap, fast and good: it's always a combination of two, not three of these. Similar examples can be found in other fields, such as operation systems (fast, efficient, stable), engineering parts (strong, light, cheap), dateable men (handsome, high-Earner, faithful) and, inevitably, women (single, sane, sexy, smart – choose three). 

Can this principle also be applied to chess? Well, a club member of mine has long ago suggested that for chess players, it's impossible to be succesful in relationships, work and chess all at the same time. But what about more specific chess-related aspects? Looking at the above example, I came up with the following 'Chess Triangle':

Chess Triangle

Pick any two. It's funny how this triangle works for me: I can have fun and not spend time studying chess, but I will lose games as a result of this relaxed attitude and therefore not be successful. Or I can enjoy chess and aim to be successful, but it requires hard work and there's no way to take it easy. Finally, I can relax and be successful, but at the very least it forces me to play systematic, mechanical and - to me - dull chess; trustworthy openings I know like the back of my hand, instead of experimenting with interesting new ideas.

I think this pretty much works for most chess players, but some seem to defy the rule gloriously. Levon Aronian seems a case in point. The Armenian super-GM has a reputation of not being a hard worker at all. He seems the ultimate example of the relaxed chess player who's still successful and has fun playing. Asked about the single most important factor in his current success, he answered: "Pure luck". This seems to echo Artur Rubinstein, arguably the greatest pianist of the 20th century, who once proclaimed: "It is said of me that when I was young I divided my time impartially among wine, women and song. I deny this categorically. Ninety percent of my interests were women."

Aronian likes to sleep late and has claimed to be "lazy" in his opening preparation. Is he the Rubinsteinian exception that proves the rule? Perhaps, but I, for one, do not believe for a single second that he doesn't prepare his ass off, together with Gabriel Sargissian, when he faces the big guys. Apart from his reputation of being lazy, Aronian, just like Rubinstein, also has a reputation of being ironic in his answers - perhaps to disguise his true intentions, perhaps because he equates being serious with being boring.

Looking at some of Aronian's colleagues, however, it's easy to see hard work is a necessary part of being succesful in chess even for those who could theoretically compensate it with sheer talent. This is the same message Malcolm Gladwell brings home in his recent book Outliers: it's all about hard work, or: practice, practice, practice. (Gladwell mentions both chess and music as clear examples.) Sadly, that's exactly what chess amateurs like me lack: time to practice. Even ignoring the fact that most amateurs, including myself, lack any talent for the game, it's simply a matter of not having enough time to spend on chess, resulting in such awful things as my game against Spoelman.

Like so many others, I try to compensate it by telling myself it's all about "having fun" and "taking it easy", but somehow it feels bad when the results don't follow. No matter how hard I convince myself of the opposite, I still feel positively annoyed whenever I lose. Then again, I don't want to play 'solid' or 'safe' chess and at least avoid the worst kind of catastrophes. I want to have fun in chess, not only by scoring good results but also by playing itself.  But maybe this, too, is over-ambitious.

I've often wondered whether a chess 'pro' like Vladimir Epishin, who used to play in about every European tournament imaginable, routinely grinding amateurs down in the first three rounds only to start playing seriously against his colleagues in later rounds - whether he actually enjoys chess as a game. Sure, he often wins prizes and he works hard for it, but that's preciesely the point: it's work for him (and many others), but where's the fun in playing? Does he enjoy trying out a new idea in the Sicilian? Somehow, I have my doubts.

I am reminded of Andre Agassi, one of my teenage tennis-heroes, who recenlty stated (in his autobiography) that he hated tennis during his most succesful period. (And he wasn't alone: his wife, Steffi Graf, used to hate it, too.) Again, the triangle seems to work not only for amateurs but for most (chess) players I can think of. You can't have fun and relax and be successful at the same time - come to think of it, this is especially true for professionals.

Well then, may it be a consolation for us patzers! We'll remain amateurs for the rest of our lives - and boy, don't we hate it? - but at least we get to choose whether we want to have fun, to relax or to be succesful (at least to a certain extent). Against Spoelman, I chose to relax, and got kicked for it hard. Andre Agassi didn't have that option. Sometimes being an amateur isn't so bad after all.
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