October 23, 2011

The hardest game to win is a won game

'I was so winning and I lost! What a badluck I had, to ruin such a good position! It's amazing how lucky my opponent is!' - common chess frustration. It happened to all of us and it will still happen as long as chess will be alive.

Indeed, luck plays a role sometimes. I forgot where I heard the following quote: 'If you are good, you can be 2nd, but to be 1st, you need some luck.' - or something similar to that. But no matter how much I was blaming Gods, destiny, weather and of course, badluck, I became wiser and reached a deeper conclusion: I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.

I got inspired for this post from my own games, from the Romanian League, which just finished a few days ago. Strangely enough, I had two games, two completely won positions, but managed to even lose one. This is clearly something to work on...and I sort of agree with Donner:
"I love all positions. Give me a difficult positional game, I'll play it. Give me a bad position, I'll defend it. Openings, endgames, complicated positions, and dull, drawn positions, I love them all and will give my best efforts. But totally winning positions I cannot stand."

The first diagram is from my game against Pia Cramling, where I was black. Optically, the position looks amazing for me, I was also quite happy about it and I was searching for a way to take the point. 'Unfortunately', Pia is a very strong player, fighting until the very end, setting traps and problems for the opponent as often as she gets the chance. Adding some pressure from the clock and stake, I lost myself in calculations, blundered and eventually...resigned. No matter how upset I was afterwards, I have to admit that I admired Pia even more, to defend so stubbornly a difficult position. 

The second example is from the crucial game I was forced to win, in order to get the gold medal with the team. I was white against Mihaela Sandu and we were both in the last and final time trouble, playing with a few seconds on the clock...don't want to think about what was in our captains hearts:)

During the game, I thought about the above diagram: finally, I stabilized it, I am two pawns up, what could go wrong? This was the moment when I had to face 60...Bxh3!? - the best practical try.
The seconds were running and so was my blood pressure:) I had to take back with the king 61.Kxh3 and after 61...Qd7+ to think wheather I should go back with my king to h2 or play g4. After many hours of playing, tired and stressed, you can imagine it's not so simple to take decisions. With literally, a few seconds on my clock, I realized that Kh2 will lead to a perpetual (62.Kh2 Qg4 63.Nxh4 Qxh4+ 64.Qh3 Qf4+ 65.Qg3 Qh6+ and draw; 65.Kh1, instead of Qg3, is not working because of 65...Rf1+ 66.Rxf1 Qxf1 67.Kh2 Bg1+ 68.Kg3 Qf4 mate! - just a sample of how fast things can go wrong) and played the correct move 62.g4. After a couple of moves, we reached the following diagram:

Decisions, decisions...here is again a painful moment, when probably tired of calculating many tricks that my opponent had, I chose to prevent Rf3+ with 67.Kg3?? Luckily, we both missed 67...Rg2+ and draw by perpetual... Instead of 67.Kg3, 67.b6 was the simplest way to win, where my knight from h5 would jump to g3, perfectly defending the white king. For example: 67...Rf3+ 68.Qxf3 Qxf3+ 69.Ng3 Bxb6 70.Rxb6 Qxc3 71.Rxd6 with a technically winning position.

What happened?!

Just imagine the following scenario: you are in a great mood, your position is almost won and you need a couple of correct moves to finally kill the enemy king. You are comfortably sitting in your chair, with a vague smile painted on your face, relaxed and thinking about how great life and chess can be. 'How many elo points will I get from this game? I think I'll make a walk afterwards and maybe watch that movie'...your mind starts to wander off, you are not there, at the board anymore. This is the most dangerous state of playing chess. This is where the most mistakes occur, when you lose focus and play as if your position will win by itself. Sometimes it happens without even noticing it, your brain takes a short break, which will turn out to be fatal.

Meanwhile, your opponent will try to make the game as complicated as possible in order to confuse you and make you trade a position you know how to win on a position you just think you know how to win. In general, this is not a good deal. He has nothing to lose anyway, since the game is already lost, and comes up with a new plan of how to make your life miserable. He starts to feel less nervous, less pressure...he makes a move here, one there, waiting and searching for any possible opportunity that might give him hopes. 

On the other side of the board: you continue your winning plans...but which line to choose?! This one, or this one? So many appealing variations, the clock is ticking, people are watching, I am winning and I should win for God's sake! Hmmm, it takes longer than I thought, am I doing something wrong?! Maybe I should have chosen the other plan. Do I give any counterplay here? I'm afraid so, oh! That would be a nightmare, to screw up such a fantastic game.

And this is how you start to have doubts, to get irritated, since you can be the one who didn't win that completely won position. A stubborn defense and a poker face contributes greatly to the development of these thoughts.
So I would rather say that, in most of the situations, your opponent had something to do with the advantage reversal. And not luck. It's also part of your own fault that you left yourself plunged into unuseful emotions.

Better follow the old saying "the hardest game to win is a won game", concentrate and get that well deserved win!


  1. This happens a lot to me. Reaching a good or even winning position changes my mind of state. I am not focused anymore.
    I need a psychologist or a haptonomist.

    [Tom Bus]

  2. I know the feeling. Too well even. At least we know now what we are dealing with, so we won't be taken by surprise anymore:) Just to be careful not to go to the other extreme, being over focused:)

  3. Hey there! I'm a twelve year old chess enthusiast and, my god, you wouldn't believe how many times I've encountered this situation. I personally think that stalemates are the worst, because a "turn the game around checkmate" is very unlikely, while stalemates gnaw at your mind like some sort of evil, evil rat, and when it does happen it's like a nightmare come true.

    As for me, I very rarely surrender. I figure it's better to fight on, tear at his mind, maybe get a stalemate than just quit.

  4. nice and thoughtful article, thank you. There is also perhaps that shift of pressure from trying to get the better position in the game, to actually having achieved it, and then a new pressure arrives of playing elegantly/efficiently or whatever. This has its pleasures, but also its dangers sometimes if not in the right mindset.


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