#zwischenzug: how to lose a won chess game (and hate yourself)

tonight i played my final game in the Exeter Chess Club championship.

coming into the final round i was standing on a modest 2.5 out of 5. however, i had been drawn against a lower graded player for the final round and, although i was playing black, i knew i should be able to win and finish on 3.5 out of 6. given my game was one of the last to be played it already looked like 3.5/6 might be enough to tie for 4th place (which would have represented my best result in the championship to date).

i knew my opponent liked to play queen’s pawn openings with white, favouring queen’s gambit or colle type setups. i was quite happy to play against either of these, but i also thought i might be able to throw my opponent with a few move order variations since i figure him to be confident to churn out moves in a sequence he knows, but might fall down if he faces something a bit different.

the game played out as follows:

1.d4 e6 (i’d love my opponent to allow me to play the french, but i’m not really expecting e4) 2.e3 c5 3.c3 cxd4 4.exd4 d5 5.Bd3 Nf6 6.Bg5 Be7 7.Nd2 Nc6 8.Nf3 Qb6 (attacking b2 and opening up some tempting looking possibilities along the a7-g1 diagonal) 9.b4 e5 10.dxe5 Ng4 (cheapo mate threat if he automatically plays Bxe7) 11.0-0 Bxg5 12.Nxg5 Ncxe5 (i’m hoping my opponent will be tempted to play Bxh7 which walks straight into Qh6) 13.Be2 Qh6 14.Bxg4 Nxg4 15.Nf3 Qb6 (the game has settled down and become all about my isolated d pawn against his backwards c pawn and i reckon that with the centre at my mercy i can consolidate whilst causing all sorts of trouble on the diagonals and closing in on his weakness).

16.Qe2+ Be6 17.Nd4 0-0 18.a4? Qc7 (my forces were coordinating, but he had a move to try to do something to about his c pawn. instead he wasted it and played a loosening wing-pawn thrust.) 19.N2f3 Rfe8 20.Qd3 Rac8 21.Rac1 Bd7 22.b5 Re4! (throttling the queen) 23.Rfe1 Rxe1 (my opponent seems to think the open file is worth a pawn – i disagree) 24.Rxe1 Qxc3 25.Qe2 Qb4 (from here on in it’s all about creating as many threats and holes as i can whist holding everything solid at my end.)

26.h3 Nf6 (by the time he finally kicks my knight i’m ready for it to be repositioned anyway) 27. Qa2 Rc4! (a second rook incursion and this one comes with a real threat) 28.a5 Rxd4! 29.Nxd4? Qxe1+ 30.Kh2 Qe5+ (the coup is complete and i was expecting a resignation here.)

31.g3 Qxd4 32.b6 a6 33.Qc2 Ne4 34.Kg2 Qc5 35.Qa2 Be6 36.Qb2 Qxa5 – here we reached the time control, which i had totally forgotten about.

i had been looking ahead to Qe5 followed by Qc5 but my concentration was broken by having to mess about with the clocks and i became far more focussed on the threat i was about to create on f2 than the fact that the key reason to play Qc5 was to cover c8 allowing Bc8 in reply to Qb8+. when we resumed my opponent played the predictable last throw of the dice Qe5, but for some reason that i simply cannot explain it suddenly popped into my head that Qxb6 left me on the same attacking diagonal as Qc5 and given that it captures the last of the sorry queenside pawns it would no doubt force the resignation i had been waiting for. i swiped off his pawn quickly and confidently.

of course if you’ve followed the game this far then you know enough to know that i just threw away a game that i was only one or two moves away from winning convincingly. when my opponent unblinkingly played Qb8+ (effectively mate) my body jerked and i felt immediately sick.

for those of you who don’t play chess, but have for some reason read on this far, what i just did is only a small step down from the chess version of Kei Kamara’s embarrasing miss kick/fall over and handle the ball for LA Galaxy earlier this year or Lindsay Jacobellis’ infamous last and unnecessary trick in the olympic snowboard cross final in 2006. i’d concentrated hard for an hour and half and finally had the game absolutely at my mercy and, in one second, threw it all away.

it was all i could do to shake my opponent’s hand, gather my things and leave very hastily. i walked home choking back actual tears. i haven’t cried over a chess game since i was 7 years old. perhaps only chess players will understand how i felt, but it’s something to do with the levels of concentration required to play well, suddenly and crushingly collapsing into utter nothingness.

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there are several pieces of advice that present themselves from the embarrassing embers that are my play in that game:

1. never get frustrated that your opponent hasn’t yet resigned when you are in a winning position – the frustration will cause you to lose focus.

2. don’t allow an interruption like a time-control to break your concentration, or if it does, take your time – get up from the table perhaps. NEVER play your next move quickly unless you absolutely have to.

3. mentally check, check, and recheck every move then check it again before you touch anything.

4. don’t play chess as an escape from the stress of finishing a thesis.

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