Saturday, 10 September 2011

"Lost on time"

Ok, so the cover looks like it was designed
by a simpleton, but don't let that put you off.
This book is superb!

They are the words chess players hate seeing at the end of a scoresheet. Yes, today’s post is all about time forfeits. It’s also a first opportunity for me to offer readers a bit of a book review for a title I purchased recently called “The Joys of Chess” by Christian Hesse. I purchased it last month and it was the first chess book I had bought in quite some time. My attraction to it probably reflects my changing needs as a chess player, or, to be more precise, a chess publisher. That’s because this book is not an opening treatise or a self-help manual. It is pure entertainment and there is a bucket load of material here for a chess blogger.

To be blunt, I can’t recommend this book heartily enough. Rarely has the title of a book so aptly reflected its content. This work is a gem that has been some years in the making. Hesse has been gathering material throughout his 30-year career as a chess player (he is a Professor of Mathematics by trade). The format of the book makes it very easy to dip in and out of and so you don’t need to spend hours at a time pouring over it with a board. In my household we call this type of publication a “good toilet book” because you can easily consume a chapter during the course of a call of nature! The chapters are mostly fairly short and there are enough diagrams in it to allow you to follow the course of any play without having to use a computer or a board. The subjects are many (there are over 50 chapters in here) and varied cover such diverse topics as “Chess and Psychology”, “Quantum Logic in Chess”, “Retreats of Genius”, “Brilliant Bad Moves” and “Provocation”. I already know that I’m going to be sharing and expanding on some of the contents of this book here on the blog for a long time to come. Fans of Tim Krabbe’s “Chess Curiosities” will love it.

Amongst the chapters is a section called “Time and Time Forfeits” and it is from here that I would like reach for some entertaining examples for today’s post. I’ve written about time management and time trouble on these pages before and the drama of "zeitnot" can be most compelling for spectators watching a game. For the participants however it is exceedingly stressful and yet, some players across every level of competitive chess get into habitual time trouble.

On occasions the likely outcome of a game can be completely turned on it’s head due to one player blundering in time trouble or even running out of time. I’ve only forfeited on time in competitive play once or twice and I can well remember the anguish of feeling like I had wasted my efforts on a game that I had “thrown away”. Let’s face it, most time forfeits are conceded when the game situation is still unclear and often complicated. Losing in such a way with the potential of the game unfulfilled can leave a deep psychological wound.

For example, Hesse mentions Nigel Short’s traumatic loss in the first game of his World Championship match with Garry Kasparov in London in 1993. I had not long started playing chess at the time of this match and remember it vividly. Short had a winning position at the board but over stepped the time limit and forfeited the game. He never really recovered from that loss and went on to lose the match by some margin. As a small diversion however I'd like to recommend the following You Tube clip to readers which is very funny indeed and cleverly made...

Right, back to the task at hand. Hesse references two further examples of time forfeiture that I was not aware of.

Position after 35.Bc5.
Spassky vs. Hort, Game 15
Candidates quarterfinal, Reykjavik, 1977

The position on the left was reached in the penultimate game of a Candidates quarterfinal match. With the match score level the Czech superstar Vlastimil Hort had succeeded in giving himself a wonderful chance of qualification after gaining a winning advantage with Black in this position. An eyewitness to the encounter, Australian Grandmaster Ian Rogers, picks up the story.

“Hort had 4 minutes left in which to reach move 40, and his hand was over the queen about to play the winning move 35…Qg4. Just one of several variations is 36.Rf2 (36.g3 Qh3 is just as bad) Rd1+ 37.Rf1 Rxc1 38.Rxc1 Qd1+ 39.Kf2 Bc5 and White must resign. But Hort’s brain refused to let his hand play the move and the numerous spectators witnessed the horrific drama as Hort’s clock ticked down to zero and he lost on time.”

This is a bizarre case that seems to be analogous to a golfer getting the yips and being unable to execute his putting stroke. Hort was later moved to say in an interview “It was the blackest day of my life”. Truly it scarred him deeply for he was unable to win the last game of the match with the White pieces and lost the match never again to qualify for the Candidates cycle.

Hesse then recounts another extraordinary rabbit-in-the-headlights case of time forfeiture.

Position after 39.Kh3
Larsen vs Gheorghiu, Olympiad
Siegen, 1970

This case (on the right) occurred in another high profile and high stakes environment, the Olympiad, but this time there was some history between the two players that seems to have effected the Romanian’s psyche. He had a terrible personal score against Larsen and admitted that he found playing the irrepressible Dane to be extremely wearing. Never-the-less, in the position above he had managed to secure a winning advantage and needed now only to play 39…Nf3 (threatening 40…Ng5 mate) and Black will be able to convert his material advantage after, for example, 40.Kg2 Ng5+ 41.Kf1 Qxc4+ 42.Qe2 Qxd5. Instead of doing this however, the history books recorded another point in Larsen’s favour. In their book about the Siegen Olympiad, David Levy and Raymond Keene described what happened.

“Eye-witnesses of this remarkable encounter report that Gheorghiu stretched out his arm to play the decisive move 39…Nf3, but just at that moment the said arm was seized by a convulsive shake to such an extent that the Romanian grandmaster was not able to move the piece to the target square. As he tried to summon up the willpower to overcome this unfortunate case of paralysis he over-stepped the time-limit.”

The Larsen hoodoo had triumphed once again.

At least in both of these two cases the victims were aware of their imminent plight despite their physical incapability to doing anything to mitigate against it. In this last case from my own files the victim remained blissfully unaware of what lay in store for him.

Position after 61...Kc5

This is the final position from my third round encounter at the recent British Championships. It had been a tough battle and I had had my opponent on the ropes for much of the game. Having missed some chances to convert my pressure into a win, White now had the better of an endgame that was however, most likely, still drawn. Both of us were down to our last 2 minutes to complete the game and I was expecting my opponent to offer me a draw or try and play for a win. As I sat and waited, along with a gathering crowd, it became apparent to me that my adversary was not aware of the time crisis he was facing. He sat looking at the board as his clock ticked. He didn’t look up, he just thought... and thought... and ran out of time!

When I informed my hapless foe that he had forfeited the game he stared at me with glassy, vacant eyes and then, as realisation dawned on him, he shook his head miserably and said "I didn't realise. The game is drawn. It's a draw." But unfortunately it wasn't, he had lost!

I would only like to add by way of a salutory note that my opponent had arrived 20 minutes late for the start of the game. I leave it to readers to draw the moral from this tale of woe. 

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