|Rudyard Kipling: Somewhat less deadly than his wife|
“If cunning alone were needed to excel, women would be the best chess players.”
A couple of weekends ago, as I watched live coverage of the FIDE World Cup Final in Khanty Mansiysk my wife took an interest (most unusual) and asked about the lady commentator, GM Anna Sharevich. We started to talk about women in the game and I explained that there was a women’s World Champion and that most top female players played in specific, women only tournaments. Quite rightly she asked me why there were separate women’s events and titles when the game of chess conferred no physical advantage to men as it does in most sports. “Surely men and women should compete together” she said and cited show jumping (horse riding is her favourite pastime) as an example of a sport where men and women compete on equal terms.
Of course my wife is right (she almost always is I find) to point out this strange state of affairs in chess. I must admit I struggled to justify why women competed separately from men although I did point out a very significant exception to the rule. Judit Polgar. When I provided my wife with Judit’s potted curriculum vitae and went on to add that she had performed very well at the same World Cup in reaching the quarter-finals and losing to the eventual winner she simply nodded and said “Well, there you go”.
That discussion caused me to reflect a little on the differences between women and men and how they think. I don’t want to get embroiled in a gender debate and I’m no scientist but, I reasoned that physiologically, there must be some attributes that are more prevalent in one gender or the other and that those attributes must have an impact on the workings of the mind even if it’s at a trivial level. I’m fairly sure that male and female GMs approach preparation and in-game-analysis in the same way but at an amateur level, perhaps different approaches are more apparent.
Of course there was only one course of action for me to take at this point and I immediately logged on to exchange instant messenger correspondence with this website’s most illustrious contributor, Lady Cynthia Blunderboro. Our chat progressed thusly:
Intermezzo: Do you think women approach chess in a different way to men or display any attributes more or less prominently then their male counterparts?
Blunderboro: Generally I’d say no because such a blend and balance of skills are required to excel and the best players, men and women, tend to demonstrate these universally. However, remembering the words of Rudyard Kipling, I’d suggest that maybe we ladies bare chess grudges longer than men do, and, baring in mind the words of Adolf Albin, perhaps we occasionally display greater levels of imagination in our deviousness.
Intermezzo: I assume that you have examples in mind?
Blunderboro: Of course. Shall I write you a blog post?
Intermezzo: Yes please!
So now, I’ll hand you over to Lady Cynthia who, as always, has an intriguing tale to tell.
Hello again fellow chess-heads! The gender debate surrounding the royal game has long been a cause of heated discourse. Personally I find such chatter to be rather dull as generally speaking it is, like the game itself, dominated by male opinion! Questions such as “Why don’t more women play chess?” and “Why are women not as good at chess as men?” tend to be questions that men ask when they want to pontificate about the perceived masculine intellectual attributes they possess. The truth of the matter seems to be that, proportionally, we women are at least as good at chess as men. Should any of my undoubtedly overwhelmingly male readership be interested in a more balanced female perspective on such matters then I can hardly do better than to direct you to the excellent Goddess Chess website.
From a Lady’s perspective, I’m not convinced that our approach to chess or the attributes we display are really all that different to men’s. Certainly I’m unable to recall any examples that would support such a theory. What I certainly can provide evidence to support is that when it comes to clear thinking, cold-blooded ruthlessness and down-right craftiness at the chess board, we ladies can behave in a most ungentlemanly fashion!
Today’s story begins in 1932 when I was 10 years old and attending St. Ethel’s boarding school for girls. Of course I was a member of the school chess team and we regularly played matches in the local chess league as well as against other schools around the country. At this early stage in my career I was not by any means an expert but the fire of competitive spirit was certainly stoked during my school days. This was never more evident than when St Ethel’s played our annual match against our great rivals, St Agnes’ Catholic School for Girls. By the time I represented St Ethel’s for the first time in this fixture it had already taken place 35 times previously and our school held an 18-17 lead. In 1932 then I had, for the first time, been offered the opportunity to defend the honour of St Ethel’s in this unfolding legend of inter-school rivalry. I was selected to play on the bottom board, board 10.
If further incentive to succeed were needed that day it was provided when I arrived for the match (which we played on a Saturday afternoon in our school library that year) and discovered that my opponent was to be Prunella DeLauncy. I knew this girl and we already detested each other. Prunella was the daughter of Sir Stephen and Lady Margaret DeLauncy who owned DeLauncy Castle, the nearest estate to my own family’s holdings. Although our families were not especially friendly we did operate in each others ambit on numerous social occasions and so I had already had numerous run-ins with this odious little girl. Prunella was three years older than me and took every possible opportunity to belittle, bully and taunt me for being smaller, weaker and younger than her. I reasoned that, on this occasion at least, her physical advantages would be of no use to her and resolved to take full advantage of the fact that the controlled conditions of the competition would prevent her from cheating. An deep irony baring in mind what was to take place that day.
When we took our seats at the board she looked at me as if I were something unpleasant and smelly that she had stepped in on the street and could barely bring herself to shake hands with me. When the handshake did come it was half-hearted and limp. At this point, as I looked along the two lines of players on my right, I noticed to my amusement that she was stationed beneath several girls who looked to be about my age whereas I was clearly the youngest in our team. This gave me a fresh injection of confidence for now I felt that my playing abilities would be a match for hers.
Sadly, on that wet autumnal afternoon I was to be disappointed and even devastated by my own naivety. The game started off well enough. She responded to my king’s pawn advance with the Sicilian Defence. I chose an anti-Sicilian line I’d been studying and elected to play it safe by swapping the queens off very early in the game. I felt confident of securing at least a draw from my enemy until we reached the diagram position below where Prunella was to play.
As I considered my response I noticed that her facial expression was slowly changing from smugness to concern. After a couple of minutes her face reddened, she muttered something to herself under her breath and then suddenly stood up, her chair scrapping noisily on the wooden floor as she did so, and stormed out of the room in disgust. The eyes of all the players followed her as she left. Amazed and excited at what had just occurred I studied the board again looking for the error that she obviously felt she had committed. It didn’t take long to for me to realise that she had left her pawn on f5 unprotected.
“A free pawn!” I thought. “Is there a trap?”
It took only the briefest of moments to check that after I captured with 19.Rxf5 there was nothing unpleasant that was going to happen to my king and saw that if she played 19…Rd1+ 20.Kh2 Bb8+ then 21.g3?? would be a dire error on account of 21…Rh1 mate! However, I soon saw that instead of this I could play 21. f4, or even better 21.Bf4 and would have simply gained a two pawn advantage.
“She must have missed 21.Bf4”, I reasoned and then wrote down the move 19.Rxf5, played it and pressed my clock confident that I had secured a decisive advantage.
Five minutes passed by and then another five. There was no sign of Prunella, where was she? I began to get restless, had she given up in dismay or been rendered physically unwell by her error? I was about to go and speak to the match referee when the door of the library creaked open and Prunella slowly crept back in. She looked like she had composed herself and she returned to our game tight lipped and serious. She sat down at the board, looked at my move and sighed meaningfully and then with a depressed air about her she responded as I had anticipated with 19…Rd1+. I played my only move 20.Kh2 and then she rocked back in her chair her expression completely transformed once again. Suddenly she was leering at me with a malignant twinkle in her eye. She paused only long enough to let me register that something was a miss before reaching forward and playing not 20…Bb8+ but the move 20…Be4!
I stared at the board in disbelief. My rook and knight forked by the bishop. How had I missed it? It was clear I had been duped by an acting performance of consummate skill. She had wanted me to think that she had made an error and so all I had done was look for one. It was a brilliant diversion. Looking only for a mistake I had found one and completely missed the best rejoinder! I couldn’t even escape with 21.Ne3 as Bxe3 simply reinstated the threat.
At that point, I confess that my world fell apart. I have never again since felt so abject at the board. Playing on in a mist of demoralised inertia I continued on auto-pilot until Prunella finally ground me down with her extra piece in the end game. To make matters even worse St Ethel’s lost the match by a score of 4½-5½! My naivety had lost us the match and it took me months and months to recover from the trauma of losing that game to Prunella DeLauncy who I should add, I never played again in the annual encounter as my game improved rapidly enough to stay above her in the board order in subsequent years. Never the less, in each year that I took part I had to endure her hard, sneering gazing on me every time I caught her eye.
I thought I would never have the chance to avenge that painful defeat. But then, over twenty years later, in 1953, fate dropped an opportunity into my lap. I received a letter from the St Ethels’ Head Mistress of that time informing me that the annual chess match against St Agnes’ had reached it’s 50th edition (the fixture was not held between 1940-45 on account of World War II) and, to commemorate this, a special anniversary match between chess-playing alumni from each school was to take place alongside the traditional match for the pupils. Of course I accepted the invitation to take part as, by this point in my life, I was an accomplished player and wanted to repay in some way the chess education I had received from my old school.
The day of the match arrived. Once more the venue was St Ethel’s School Library. I had arrived early and was enjoying chatting to several old friends who I hadn’t seen for years when suddenly on of them drew my attention to the library doorway. Prunella DeLauncy had just arrived. I hadn’t expected her to attend but I would guess that she wouldn’t have wanted to miss another opportunity to flaunt her success of 21 years previously. There she was, as tight faced and smugly superior as ever. She glared at me as she made her way over to her team mates and I found myself yearning for a re-match even though I imagined that she would not be their top board player.
When we saw our Captain’s match card I couldn’t believe what I saw, for Prunella was indeed playing on board 1 for the St. Agnes Alumni team. Her game must have improved somewhat over the last twenty odd years for I was sure there were others in the St.Agnes line up who had previously been her betters. As we sat across from one another I could sense her disdain but forced myself to be polite and looked up smiling at her.
“Good luck”, I said as I shook that limp, cold hand.
For this return game I was fortunate once again to have the White pieces. My improved skills as a player in the intervening years between our encounters had given me the confidence I needed to play for a small but enduring advantage out of the opening. I played solidly, possibly too solidly and Prunella, to her credit defended staunchly, and at times, resourcefully. As the game meandered on my advantage dwindled and I began to realise that Prunella, whilst having no winning chances herself, had succeeded in neutralising my attacking potential completely.
Stubbornly, for in all other circumstances I would have offered a draw, I played on, politely declining her curt offer of a draw when the queens came off the board as the end game began. We were now the last board playing and the match was tied at 4½-4½. Vainly I scoured the position for any opportunity to create complications and managed to find a clever way of sacrificing a pawn to reactivate my pieces. I conjured up some significant problems for my opponent and she began to spend more and more time trying to solve them. Finally though, she dug herself out of trouble yet again and, with both our clocks down to their last two minutes, we reached the position below.
Very swiftly we now both banged out the moves…
62. Bf4+ Kg7
63. Be5+ Kh6
64. Bf4+ Kg7
I’d made a point of calling out “Check” throughout this sequence. First of all because I knew it would annoy her and secondly because it was integral to my plan. I paused here for a couple of seconds with my hand hovering over the bishop. Prunella, flushed with adrenaline looked at me intently expecting that the repetition of moves would follow and enable her to thwart me again and draw the match. However, I now played 65.Bd6 and called out “Check” again. Immediatley Prunella’s hand darted out to her king and moved it back to h6. She pressed her clock again and then said, mockingly, “That wasn’t check.”
“Sorry! Yes, you’re right. My mistake” I replied as I paused again for a few seconds. I must have had about twenty seconds left. I used ten of those to allow Prunella to realise the full horror of her mistake before playing 66.Bf8!
“But that,” I said “is checkmate. If I’m not mistaken.”
And so it was that on this occasion it was Prunella who was left devastated. My vengeance felt very, very sweet and my team mates crowded round to congratulate me on my play. Later on, at the local pub they also congratulated me on my gameswomanship. The ultimate compliment.
As a post script to this story I should add that recently I was most surprised to find this last little set piece (listed as being played by NN and NN) in Christian Hesse’s new book “The Joys of Chess:Heroes, Battles and Brilliancies”. The position features in a chapter named “Gamesmanship” and I will end this article with a quote that features at the beginning of that chapter which seems very appropriate to the subject and an object lesson for all chess players regardless of their gender.
“As a medium for demonstrating one’s mastery of the game the board and pieces are, in fact, most unreliable.”
Since I published this post (by a bizarre coincidence) Chessbase have put up a very interesting related article on their website which I would commend to all readers interested in the gender discussion. It turns out that some research now suggests that there are differences between men and women when it comes to how they approach their chess playing. Or, rather, there are differences to their approach when men play against attractive women! Evidently a man playing a game against an attractive woman is much more likely to essay an aggressive opening system and take more risks to try and win the game. On the other hand, women are unlikely to change their approach when playing against men, regardless of whether or not they think they are attractive! So, there you go, some kind of answer to the original question I posed in the introduction to this post.