Salieri down the Rabbit-Hole

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Salieri down the Rabbit-HoleNow that I've finally accepted that I probably won't be World Chess Champion, it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to set goals in chess. What's worse, I've noticed I am trying to force my will upon my opponents by different means than winning the game.

If you play blitz or bullet online, you've probably encountered opponents who, after normal opening moves like 1.e4 or 1.d4, play stuff like 1...a5 followed by 1...h5 or 1...a4, or some other sort of nonsense setup. I used to intensely hate these players, because they seemed to destroy the beauty of chess and chess opening theory in such an obnoxious way- even if it was only bullet! - but some time ago during a game of 1-minute chess on ICC, I was shocked to realize that I myself was playing 1...a5 and 1...h5! After the game, which I won, I felt strangely satisfied. What the hell was going on?!

This happened to me at a moment when I had lost seven or eight games in a row. Moreover, I had lost all games quite unfairly (or so I thought), either by losing on time in a completely winning position or by allowing a simple mate after a nicely conducted attack or defence. I even lost one because, in a position with a queen and rook extra, my router suddenly crashed and I was disconnected from the ICC server. In short, I was suffering from Nimzowitsch's classic Why do I have to lose from this idiot syndrom so familar to all mortal chess players. I had already lost over 100 virtual rating points and I was really fed up with this crap. And this is when I suddenly started to play, almost by instinct, 1...a5 and 1...h5.


Mikhail Tal

I think it was an extreme form of a very familiar, in fact totally trivial, aspect of chess: forcing your will upon your opponent. Everyone does it to some extend, but some players seem better at it than others. Was it really a concidence that Tal's games were so full of crazy sacrifices? Surely this was a matter of style, whether consciously or subconsciously chosen by him. Looking at Tal's games, it's easy to understand the despair some of his opponents must have felt when they were yet again confronted with some weird sac or freaky concept. No matter how hard they tried, they were powerless to stop it.

But most players aren't Tal, and to be able to exert some form of pressure or will-power on your opponents, most of us chess mediocrities need to resort to different means. Some try it by imitating Tal, i.e. sacrificing pieces and pawns regardless of whether it's even remotely correct. It's a very tempting life style, often seem at club level, but its adherents often pay a high prize: if not sheer ridicule, at least they have to suffer at the board when the smoke has cleared and they're down two pieces without compensation.

4...Rb8I now realized I, too, had been doing this all along in my chess career, albeit often in milder forms. When playing stronger players, I would often try to 'impress' them by manoeuvres they were unlikely to have foreseen. It was as if I was saying to them: 'You may be a grandmaster, but I bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?' I recall one game in which after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 I surprised not only my opponent but all my teammates by playing the move 4...Rb8!? Yes, there was an actual idea behind it, and even if the fun only lasted a short while, it was priceless at the time. One of my very own '15 minutes of fame' moments.

Yet I must acknowledge that despite the attention it got during the game, playing 4...Rb8 really wasn't about being original, or about imitating great chess players, or even about enriching opening theory - it was about dragging my opponent down with me into the unknown jungle from the first moves on; to force him, like Alice, to fall together with me down the rabbit-hole into an unknown wonderland where both players don't know what's going on.

But why did I want to go to Wonderland so desperately, instead of just going to, well, chess land? Lack of confidence? Or the arrogant idea that I'm better in 'irrational positions'? I looked again at the bullet games I had lost before I played ...a5 and ...h5, and suddenly I noticed a pattern: in all these games, my opponents had played extremely monotonous, almost automatic openings, setups like 1.d3, 2.c3, 3.Qc2, 4.Nbd2, 5.Be2, without even looking at what I was doing. This had annoyed me profoundly, and by playing ...a5 and ...h5 I was trying to tell my opponents not 'Bet you didn't see that one coming, did you?' but rather, 'Hey, there's more to chess than just your own set-up, you know?'

Well, of course trying to teach my opponents a lesson with ...a5 and ...h5 was not one but a couple of steps in the wrong direction: sure, chess is a deep game and it suffers from shallow and superficial treatments such as the setups that my opponents chose, but my own play was even worse than that! It wasn't even boring chess, it was plain anti-chess. What I should have done was just refute their setups by logical, natural play. But unfortunately, I simply lack the talent to do this. And here's the real problem: mediocrity. I think it's the root of all hatred and envy in the world, especially on the internet.

In the movie Amadeus, the character of Salieri (wonderfully played by F. Murray Abraham), a rich and devoted but ultimately mediocre composer, devises a plan to kill his 'idol', Mozart. Not because he hates the genius, but because he hates God for giving him, Salieri, the capability to love music without end, but denying him the talent to compose music the way Mozart, that 'giggling dirty-minded creature', so effortlessly can. By killing Mozart and subsequently claiming that he, not Mozart, composed the divine Requiem mass for Mozart's death, God would be forced to listen how Salieri, the 'patron saint of all mediocrities in the world', got all praise for such a heavenly composition.

And God would be powerless to stop it. Salieri starts salivating at the very thought of getting even with his creator. It's one of the most powerful movie scenes I've ever seen. Salieri's plan is evil, of course, but I can't help sympathizing with him for attempting to fight his destiny and the unfairness of life in general. It's Salieri, not Mozart, who is my hero (at least when we ignore the music they composed).

That's why I think I'll keep on playing moves like 4...Rb8, and perhaps even 1...a5 (in bullet) from time to time: anything's better than to succumb to the bleak pragmatism of automated opening play. I will not go gently,  I'll show my opponent and the world (or even God, if he existed) that I won't accept my mediocrity. If I'm not going to be World Champ, at least this way I can still make a difference - even if that, too, like Wonderland itself, turns out to be just an illusion.


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