Overthinking the silence

by Jonathan Speelman
6/6/2021 – Often times during a chess game you have to make a choice between waiting and initiating concrete action. Star columnist Jon Speelman notes that “this eerie silence before battle is perhaps the most difficult moment psychologically”, and goes on to show how even world champion Magnus Carlsen can take a wrong turn from time to time. | Photo: Georgios Souleidis

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A psychological battle

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

Chess (as played by human beings) is both a technical and a psychological battle, and once players become reasonably proficient at the technical side then the psychological one becomes equally important.

Decision-making isn’t that hard as such when there are forced lines, since you have to do your best at calculating them and make a choice. But in the space that precedes hand-to-hand combat it becomes much more a case of how you feel.

There may be a decent move which improves your position, by either moving a piece to a better square or (allegedly) upgrading your pawn structure (always remember though that pawns can’t move backwards). Or you may have to make a choice between waiting and initiating concrete action.

Magnus CarlsenThis eerie silence before battle is perhaps the most difficult moment psychologically — and one way in which stronger players often outplay weaker but good ones is by persuading them to break the equilibrium a move too soon. In a balanced position it’s quite possible that the best course is to “do nothing well”. But in chess as in everything else, people yearn for certainty, and so there is a strong inclination to clarify matters even among the world’s very best players.

I was drawn to this by a couple of Magnus Carlsen’s games from the recent FTX Crypto Cup. Of course, he is the world's best player — and arguably the best player ever to have lived. But he was in very patchy form (even though he won the tournament in the end), and when he had the chance to make choices they went badly wrong a couple of times.

It must be rather overwhelming to play so many rapidplay games in a little over a week, and even Carlsen was bound to lose a few, but the manner was very instructive in these two especially.  

[Photo: Lennart Ootes / Grand Chess Tour]


Select an entry from the list to switch between games

To finish, a magnificent example of winding your opponent up in what I shall call “The Immortal Bulls**t Game”. Ulf Anderssoon is a fantastic player, and adept at going backwards well like nobody else I’ve ever played. You’d attack and he’d retreat, and suddenly you’d lose self belief – or rather I would. We played more than a dozen times and he won once with the rest drawn.

Only against Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov did the spell seem to be broken. They simply didn’t believe him, and while he beat Karpov twice (no wins against Kasparov), more often than not he didn’t bounce back from the edge of the board but was driven into the sea.

When Ulf played Michael Basman in Hastings 1974 he was very much the favourite and quickly gained a nice advantage. But the wonderfully eccentric Basman (future hero of the Grob, the Borg — Grob reversed — 1.e4 g5,  and the St George Defence 1.e4 a6) just sat there and moved his pieces backwards and forwards. Eventually, even Ulf couldn’t resist advancing, and when he did, he lost control and Basman cut him down.


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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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