Joys of Chess – Selfmate activists

by Prof. Christian Hesse
2/22/2014 – The Darwin Awards "honour" people who have improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it by an involuntary death in a particularly grotesque manner. In chess, where danger is always lurking, there are some remarkable examples of Freud's thanatos (death) drive in action. They are uncovered by Professor Christian Hesse in his very enjoyable book: Joys of Chess.

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Well, people just stumble into mate all by themselves.
Berlin master Walbrodt, famous for his modesty, after a brilliant victory

They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist...
General “Uncle” John Sedgwick, commander of Union troops in the American Civil War, while standing at a parapet on 9.5.1864 and looking towards the enemy lines.

The molecular biologist Dr. Wendy Northcutt has for some time been collecting reports of bizarre, self-inflicted deaths and set up the Darwin Award. This is an unconventional nonsense prize imbued with a good dose of black humour, which in memory of Charles Darwin is awarded to those people who have improved the human gene pool by removing themselves from it by an involuntary death in a particularly stupid or grotesque manner. This 'honouring' of unimaginable and fatal stupidity happens once a year. Amongst those nominated and the prize winners in recent years are those whose self-mating took place in the following horrendous ways:

  • 22-year-old Eric Barcia from Reston, Virginia, plunged to his death on 12.7.1997, when he leapt from a railway bridge with a home-made bungee rope. "The cord was longer than the bridge was high" was the laconic comment in the police report. – The Washing ton Post, 13.7.1997

  • Lawyer Gary Hoy (39) from Toronto attempted on 9.7.1993 to demonstrate to a group of visitors the strength of the window panes in the Toronto Dominion Bank skyscraper. In order to back up his words he threw himself against the glass, which promptly shattered. He plunged 24 floors to his death. – United Press International, Toronto

  • A 42-year-old man died near Kaiserslautern on 11.8.1999, on the day of the solar eclipse over Europe when he wanted to observe this natural happening while driving. The special glasses for observing the sun which the man wore during his trip blacked out everything, except the corona. He left the road, ran into a tree and departed this life. – As reported by A. Dufter: Alfred Dufters Totale Sonnenfinsternis (Alfred Duster’s total solar eclipse).

On the chessboard too, there are remarkable forms of active but unintentional causing of one’s own demise. Here are two ways of committing this ultimate form of self-immolation, both candidates for the Darwin Award for chess.

In the first example, White has a very advantageous position and it ought to be possible for him to decide matters in his favour. But his automatic move allowed a bombshell.

Short,Nigel D (2685) - Beliavsky,Alexander G (2620)
Linares 10th Linares (2), 1992

Position after 57...f6+

After the check Short changed the standpoint of his king: he brought it energetically forward. This was one of the rare cases in which a player has managed to find what was, by a long chalk, the worst move on the board. On the other hand, for Black it was the super-GPPL, the Greatest Possible Piece of Luck. You see, with 58.Ke6??? the king stumbled into a mate in one: 58...Bc8#.

Whereas Short’s selfmate can still be considered as a one-move oversight, the disaster in our second example required concerted action:

[Event "?"] [Site "?"] [Date "????.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Bouwmeester"] [Black "Beni"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E00"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2r5/ppp1k3/3n2p1/3P3p/7P/2P3P1/PP4B1/5RK1 b - - 0 28"] [PlyCount "8"] {With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how the black king could be mated quickly, and it is quite impossible if the king and his men behave in a plausible fashion. But that was just the fate which this tragedy had in store, starting with} 28... g5 29. Re1+ ({There was nothing wrong with 28...g5, because} 29. hxg5 Rg8 30. Re1+ Kd8 31. Kf2 Rxg5 {makes Black's struggle for a draw somewhat easier.}) 29... Kf6 {This king move is not quite the best option, but an obvious choice.} 30. Re6+ Kf5 {Beni's king crosses the Rubicon. After} 31. Bh3+ g4 32. Bf1 {Beni resigned, since 32.Bd3+ and then mate can only be delayed with 31...Ne4.} 1-0

The next episode is even a tad more remarkable for the painstaking, purposeful preparation phase of the involuntary selfmate. White had to indulge in some acrobatics in order to wall in her own king and bring about the mate. Yet she managed effortlessly. She fell prey to her false evaluation of the position and a faulty sense of approaching danger.

[Event "Bled Olympiad"] [Site "?"] [Date "2002.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Caoili, Arianne"] [Black "Medic, Mirjana"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "E00"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2b5/3nk3/4Bp1p/pp3P2/3B1KP1/P7/1P5P/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "12"] {In this case too it is hard to see how the white king can get mated. But the Australian player Arianne Caoili 'found' a way.} 1. Kg3 {Still okay.} Kf8 2. Kh4 {Couldn't be better!} Kg7 3. Kh5 {and the white king has got into a tight corner. So far so good. But the stage is now set for the tragedy to run its course. White, on the other hand, thought here and later that she was doing the correct thing by attacking Black's h-pawn.} a4 4. h4 {The noose is drawn tighter round the neck of the white king, escape routes are being restricted. But Caoili still thought she was on the right track and was aiming to put her opponent inzugzwang.} Kh7 {Clever, the sideways move of the king is a friendly invitation from Mirjana Medic. Now all that is needed is one check on the white king, which came after} 5. Bxd7 $2 Bxd7 6. Bxf6 $4 {White is not expecting any danger. But the danger is already there:} Be8# {Words are not necessary. A picture will do it! [#]} 0-1

The unique, must-see and refined portrayal of an unintended selfmate, perhaps without its counterpart in the whole history of chess. A textbook example for the chess version of Freud’s thanatos drive to unwitting self-destruction. My nomination for the Darwin Award for chess!

Note: The Joys of Chess contain an extensive seven-page list of bibliography with references to works that were used in researching its 94 essays. This list is not included here with the above sample chapter.


The Joys of Chess is an unforgettable intellectual expedition to the remotest corners of the Royal Game. En route, intriguing thought experiments, strange insights and hilarious jokes will offer vistas you have never seen before.

The beauty, the struggle, the culture, the fun, the art and the heroism of chess – you will find them all in this sparkling book that will give you many hours of intense joy.

Christian Hesse is a Harvard-trained professor of Mathematics who has taught at the University of California, Berkeley (USA), and since 1991 at the University of Stuttgart. He has written a textbook called 'Angewandte Wahrscheinlichkeitstheorie'.

Chess and literature are his main hobbies, and he also likes fitness and boxing. His heroes are the ones who fall to the bottom and rise again, fall and rise again…

From the foreword by by Ex-World Champion Vishy Anand: "A rich compendium of spectacular highlights and defining moments from chess history: fantastic moves, beautiful combinations, historical blunders, captivating stories, and all this embedded into a plentitude of quick-witted ideas and contemplations as food for thought."


Topics Hesse

Christian Hesse holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley until 1991.
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Errol Errol 2/23/2014 08:41
Unfortunately, too many confuse selfmate with helpmate.
spudmaster spudmaster 2/23/2014 05:17
Good afternoon from Australia,

In the example Bouwmeester–Beni 0–1, I believe the result of the match should instead read 1-0 as Beni, playing black in this instance, had resigned.

Regards,
Pete.G
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