Team chess for fun and team chess for blood

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Team matchesI've always found it difficult to take the concept of chess as a team sport very seriously. The U.S.A., arguably the country most obsessed with team sports, didn't have a national chess team competition until 2005. Makes you wonder, doesn't? Then there's the fact that a team sport seems to require by definition, cooperation - which is pretty much the only thing strictly forbidden during a chess game. And without cooperation, what is a team but a random collection of individuals pursuing their own individual goals?

Look at Germany. Their Bundesliga is the strongest team chess competition in the world. They've got the strongest players in the world, including the World Champion, Vishy Anand. This makes for a great line-up and some great chess afternoons, but I've always wondered: does a professional like Anand, who happens to play for Baden Baden, really care for his team? Does he look at the games of his team mates with any more interest or excitement than the games from other teams? Is he upset when his team loses? Is he upset when his team loses while he played a great game? Is he happy when his team wins in any way comparable to the joy a football supporter experiences when his team scores a goal?


Vladimir Kramnik once played in the Dutch League for Groningen...

A couple of years ago I was doing a report for ChessVibes on Vladimir Kramnik's debut in the Dutch chess team competition. Back then, he was still the reigning World Champion, and it was quite a spectacular event in the Dutch chess world, especially for the city of Groningen, for which Kramnik played. I noticed several interesting things. First of all: Kramnik did shake hands with his team captain and several officials - sponsors, perhaps - but not with his other team mates. I remember thinking: 'Okay, so why is he sharing a team with them anyway?' What 'was' this team, apart from a name consisting of a city and its sponsor? As far as I could see, the usual reasons to form a team were absent in this case: almost none of the players lived in the city in which the team was based, nor did they seem particularly chubby with each other.

The second interesting thing was Kramnik's opponent: Dutch young grandmaster Jan Smeets. While a great player already, Smeets hadn't won the Dutch title yet, nor was he at the time the strongest player of Groningen's opposing team HSG, which also included, for instance, the higher-rated Loek van Wely.  It was clear that HSG had resorted to what is known in Dutch as a 'tactical line-up'. I don't know if there's an English translation for this phrase, but it basically means mixing up the line-up to confuse the opponent's preparation.


...and he drew with Black against Jan Smeets

Usually, a tactical line-up means putting a weaker opponent on first board, hoping for a 'miracle' against the opponent's top player, and trying to secure an advantage on the lower boards with stronger players. The additional advantage for Smeets, of course, was that he knew Kramnik would be sitting on first board - you don't put the World Champion on board 3, do you? Smeets had no doubt prepared for Kramnik, perhaps together with some of his team members, and achieved a solid draw with White. It must have been a bit of a showstopper for the Groningen team, watching the World Champion draw against this promising but not yet world-classy Dutch junior.

Although tactical line-ups are not necessarily a bad strategy when you don't know how strong the opposing team will be, they are forbidden in many team competitions, and for good reasons. Smeets was still a good player, but imagine the look on Kramnik's face when he realized he had to face a really weak player - someone like me, for instance. (It could have happened, you know. I played in the same league as Kramnik that year - although not on board 1, obviously!). Come to think of it, imagine the look on his sponsor's face when he realized he payed thousands of euros to have Kramnik done what any decent IM could have! It would have been outrageous.

This is why, even when they're not stricly forbidden by rules (for instance demanding a line-up based on FIDE ratings), tactical line-ups still feel very weird intuitively. Some even think it's unsportsmanlike. (I imagine Kramnik's sponsor would.) And quite apart from the message it sends to the opponent, it can also lead to difficulties within the team. Loek van Wely is a nice guy and I'm sure he didn't mind Smeets playing on a higher board than him, but of course there are situations when such a line-up simply cannot be tolerated. We all have ego's, don't we? (In The Netherlands, everybody recalls the days when there was incredible fuss within the Dutch Olympiad team about the order of boards.)

To avoid all these problems, in the Bundesliga the line-up is simply announced beforehand. This certainly prevents the kind of issues described above, but it does make the competition more predictable and, in my view, even more individualistic, since personal preparation is now even more crucial. But this is great, right?  Is chess an individual game, or what? Well, yes, but when you're playing in a team, this individuality does sometimes leads to difficulties.

I am always kind of annoyed by team members who refuse to share their team's gloom after a lost match, just because they themselves happened to have played a good game and gained some rating points. On the other hand, I've personally never been able to be really happy with a team victory if my contribution to it has been a lousy zero. We all know a loss in chess is a personal loss, and can be quite painful. Although I think it's extremely impolite to just leave when the match is not over yet, I've occasionally done it myself as well. Sometimes, it's just too much to face one's team members after a loss.

Of course, it's precisely because of this individualistic nature of the game that many like some kind feeling of 'being together' from time to time. It's just fun! Travelling together to a different town, discussing possible opponents with other team members, drinking beer afterwards while analysing each other's games - these are pretty good reasons to play chess in teams. Usually, this is all there is to it. But sometimes, the team result influences the game itself, and this is where things can become confusing again. I have witnessed players who were forced by their team captain to make a draw even when they had a very good position - all in the team's interest, of course. I myself have many times been in a position where I simply had to win my game to save the match, even when I was aching to go for a move repetition after surviving a worse position. On top of that, making a bad decision for the benefit of the team (trying to push for a win when all you really can get is a draw, or accepting a draw in a good position) is often, at least in my experience, not only pretty bad for your own mood after the game, but also for the team spirit.


Ljubojevic: "Team games shouldn't count for the same rating as individual tournament games"

The problem is not that this is somehow unfair, but that the result of a chess game can still only be 1-0, 0-1 or 1/2-1/2. The FIDE  rating system does not take into account this kind of 'twisted' results, let alone team results. I recently heard that already back in the 70s, noone less than Ljubojevic tried to negotiate that team matches would not count for FIDE rating, if only because some players always want to play with either black or white, thus corrupting a 'fair' colour distribution. 

Here's a dilemma: imagine you need a draw for an IM norm, and your team captain suddenly tells you that in order for the team to win the league cup, you need to really try and win your game! You have a forced perpetual, but you can also play a risky piece sacrifice for a speculative attack which you can't calculate till the end. What would you do? I'm sure most people would go for their own personal interest, and, for what it's worth, so would I. But this is an extreme scenario. I've often seen players trying to force matters in the interest of the team, sometimes successfully so. It's an admirable character trait, but I myself usually experience extra pressure when playing in a team - causing me to play more cautiously than when the result is only 'mine' and not in any way connected to others.

I recently heard a theory that in team matches, you shouldn't play risky opening lines because sacrificing a pawn is actually sacrificing a pawn that belongs to the team! At the time I thought this made perfect sense, but now that I think about it again, I think it's absolute nonsense. If you can't play the moves you want to play, why play chess at all? On the other hand, I must admit that I have sometimes used the team's interest as an excuse - usually for plain bad play, such as 'I could have made a draw, but I tried to win because of the team' or 'I could have played this solid line but since we played with substitutes, I thought it would be better to play agressively'. Jonathan Rowson aptly calls this what it is: story-telling.

Perhaps chess players - being, after all, chess players - just tend to think too much about stuff. It's hard to imagine a football player sleeping badly if his team wins the world cup, just because he personally received a red card. His team has won, so he has won, end of story. But still ... a chess player still has to personally extend his hand and stop the clock. It's an individual act of resignation. For me, no team result will ever change that. Playing chess may be done for fun, even when it's done in teams - but resigning is always for blood.

Arne MollArne Moll regularly writes columns for ChessVibes. Here you can find previous columns all listed together.
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