What grandmasters fear most – in simuls (1)

by Alexey Root
7/31/2016 – Your best chance to draw or win against a grandmaster is to play one in a simultaneous exhibition. In part one of this article by WIM Dr Alexey Root, grandmasters tell us what they fear most during simuls – and why, despite those challenges, they enjoy giving them. In part two, two amateur players reveal how they scored in simuls against the world’s best and created memories that last a lifetime.

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What grandmasters fear most – in simuls

By WIM Alexey Root

The problems that grandmasters sometimes face in tournaments (rules violations, physical and mental fatigue, and well-prepared opponents) happen in simuls too. What is manageable in one tournament game (for example a touch-move violation with an arbiter nearby to help) may seem overwhelming when happening on several boards simultaneously. In a three-hour tournament game, a grandmaster can lose only once. But in a three-hour simul, a grandmaster might lose one or two games and give up a couple of draws. In part one, grandmasters tell about the challenges and the pleasures of giving simuls.


Grandmaster Susan Polgar is a former world record holder for simul games. Although she announces that her opponents should wait for her to appear at their boards before they make their moves, violations occur. While the grandmaster is away, the mice will play (with their pieces). As Polgar emailed, “Opponents who are new to simuls may not know the proper etiquette. They sometimes analyse while I am away from the board, and then may ‘accidentally’ fail to reset the pieces back to the game position.” Polgar’s latest book for new chess players is Learn Chess the Right Way!

Grandmaster Keith Arkell plays about 15 simuls a year. Like Polgar, his simul opponents sometimes misplace pieces. Arkell emailed, “I don't think anyone has cheated. Well, maybe a kid put a pawn on the wrong square or something, but that was sorted out without any problems.” Although some of Arkell’s simuls are against adults, as chronicled by Richard James in a Chess Improver blog posting, Arkell also plays frequently against schoolchildren. In one of those simuls, the children were unsupervised by a teacher and the pieces went flying--literally. As Arkell wrote, “I was joking with one of the players - playfully ridiculing one of her moves and she threw the offending piece at me, and next thing they all joined in! However, the mood was good and we quickly resumed. The other players only threw pieces which had already been captured.”

Since an article about how to defeat Grandmaster Larry Christiansen mentioned using computer assistance to win simul games, I asked Polgar if her opponents had likewise cheated. She replied that the friends and family members of simul participants sometimes have mobile chess engines on their smartphones or tablets. And that this type of cheating is hard for her to notice in large simuls.


Both tournament chess games and simul games can be mentally tiring. Since simuls require walking from board to board, they can be more physically demanding than tournament games. When mentally or physically exhausted, grandmasters may make mistakes. Polgar wrote, “I make silly blunders once in a while, especially when the simul takes place shortly after a long day of travel. After all, we are humans and we need to be in good physical shape, even for simuls.” Polgar’s world record simul was over 300 boards and took the entire day.

Grandmaster Julio Sadorra plays smaller simuls, with 15-20 participants. That size simul is a vigorous workout for Sadorra, who wrote, “I really enjoy doing simuls simply because I like being active! When playing a simul, both my mind and body are forced to stay active and alert until I finish all the games. Due to my athleticism, I particularly like the part of walking or running around the boards.” Reporting on his July 23 simul at the North Texas Chess Academy, where he is Grandmaster In Residence, Sadorra said that his 15-0 result left him “drained, relieved, and satisfied.” Sadorra mentioned that simul opponents who play long games give him chances to “make inaccurate moves.”

Julio Sadorra at the end of a simultaneous exhibition [photo North Texas Chess Academy]

Well-prepared opponents

When grandmasters play in tournaments, they know the ratings of their opponents. That’s not necessarily true in simuls. And simul participants often prepare specifically for the simul-giving grandmaster. About the North Texas Chess Academy simul, Sadorra wrote, “There were no rating cards next to each board so I simply had to sense each player’s rating through the pace and quality of the player’s moves. One particular player was comfortably playing through the early moves of a popular opening line which I have played to a draw before in an international tournament. I didn’t doubt for a second that he had seen this game in the databases. Who knows how long he sat with a running engine looking though that game?! Therefore, I quickly decided to deviate from it, forcing him to think on his own! My decision paid off as three moves after the deviation he made one positional mistake after another landing him in an almost lost situation.”

Arkell listed several challenges that his simul opponents present to him: “The most awkward games are those in which my opponent plays gambits. Any kind of sacrifice for initiative can be hard to handle because the need for careful analysis slows the whole thing down. Players often keep queens on because it is widely known that it is better against me to do this!”

Despite these challenges, grandmasters like giving simuls. Polgar and Arkell used almost identical descriptions of their desires to entertain and to win. Polgar wrote, “I usually try to make my simul a memorable occasion for my opponents. But of course I would try my best to win.” Arkell wrote, “First of all, when I give simuls my priority is to entertain, and help to create a warm, jovial atmosphere. . . . I try to win every game and don't like losing.” In contrast, Sadorra did not mention entertainment but did focus on winning. He wrote, “I take simuls very seriously; I always aim to win all the games.”

– Part two will follow soon –

About the author

Alexey Wilhelmina Root (née Rudolph), is a chess player, teacher, and writer, who was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion. She holds the title of Woman International Master, and received a Ph.D. degree from UCLA. Root is Senior Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and has written many books on the relationship between chess and education. [Wiki]

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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