When the fat lady hits the wrong note

by Jonathan Speelman
3/21/2021 – Star columnist Jon Speelman explores the topic of players sometimes failing to find the finishing touches after getting a big edge during a game. “Sometimes things go wrong and rather than ‘the fat lady singing’ truly, she hits the wrong notes: and while it is over it ain’t in the way it ought to have been.” | Pictured: Nils Grandelius | Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit – Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

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Double Bong Clouds and other stories

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

Over the past week or so, it’s been a real pleasure to watch — and sometimes stream — the Magnus Carlsen Invitational. During lockdown, we’ve become accustomed to almost constant top class internet chess, and after a hiatus it was great to have it back.

Of course there are idiosyncrasies to internet chess which are different from normal over-the-board practice. Under a system in which fully half of the players in the preliminary all-play-all progressed to the knockout phase, quick draws made sense and the fact that they were banned as such didn’t deter the players from halving out when they wanted. Indeed, with a small twist in move order (you can play Nxd4 and then d5 or d5 and then Nxd4) there were no fewer than eight games, five of them involving Hikaru Nakamura, which ended in a repetition on move 14.


I also doubt whether in an over-the-board tournament the world champion and one of his greatest rivals would, even with nothing to play for, have indulged in the Double Bong Cloud variation.

It ain’t chess but, of course, the Bong Cloud is actually a very macho gesture. Will you try to take advantage of my posturing and fire first in the gunfight?  


Hikaru Nakamura

Streamer extraordinaire — Hikaru Nakamura

Chess is a highly emotional game, and it requires huge emotional strength to keep yourself together, especially in the final moments when the result is irrevocably determined. Sometimes things go wrong and rather than “the fat lady singing” truly, she hits the wrong notes: and while it is over it ain’t in the way it ought to have been.

There have been at least a couple of instances of this during the Carlsen Invitational (I’m writing on Friday morning, so there may have been more instances in the final days).    

One was the horrible blunder Jorden Van Foreest  made at the end of his game with Levon Aronian. Yes, it was awful, but Aronian had really worked to make if difficult for Van Foresst. Luckily for the Dutchman, it was the last game of the day, so he had time to recover before re-entering battle on the final day, when he immediately beat Daniil Dubov and finished with four draws.


Another instance was the draw that Ian Nepomniachtchi acceded to against Nakamura in a position which turned out to be winning. Watching with an engine, this may have looked like an egregious error, but it absolutely wasn’t obvious to me at the time that White can separate his king and pawn with Kc8 and pawn c5 and then win, and while I’d have hoped to have seen this in a classical game, in rapid play I suspect I’d have made the same mistake as Nepo.


After watching the games I sometimes riff on them later, and the finish of the first day of the semi-final between Carlsen and Nepo led to a thought process which saw Carlsen getting the minor piece ending he wanted but then getting his knight trapped after he took on g3.


Ian Nepomniachtchi

Ian Nepomniachtchi during the 2020 Candidates Tournament | Photo: Lennart Ootes

It was a ridiculous scenario but led to something a little interesting when I started wondering whether with White having the wrong rook’s pawn the ending of White having king, bishop and pawns on e4 and h4 versus Black having king and pawns on e5, f4, g4 and h5 would be winning.

I believe that, as long as the bishop can’t get to e8 and the white king can’t reach d5, then it is a draw. But a little more riffing led to an attempted stalemate defence which doesn’t work and so can’t be used as the finish of a probably rather slight study.


There have been examples throughout chess history of people agreeing draws or indeed resigning when they were winning/drawing. I covered a couple of these more than four years ago at the end of 2016, and I am repeating them. The first is Van Popiel v Marco, a very famous example in which Black resigned since he failed to see a winning tactic. The second is the winner of the “best blunder competition” in Murray Chandler’s famous spoof “Not the BCM” in 1984.


To finish, a very famous example in which Garry Kasparov no less resigned in a drawn position against IBM’s monster Deep Blue

Later, there was a row after Kasparov alleged that the move 37.Be4! in particular was too sophisticated for machines at the time and must have required human intervention. At the end, he not-unreasonably trusted the monster, but it had succumbed to its own horizon and in fact Black can draw.


Garry Kasparov, Deep Blue

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Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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