Archive for December, 2015

Magnus, Manny and Me part one


(first published in British Chess Magazine 2014)

The tale of how I have become a second will be for another day. Suffice to say it has happened. We’ve been playing for a Genevan club – club des amateurs d’echecs de genève or CAEG – and it would not be overstating the case to say the operative word for our club is amateur. The top team was in the C division when Manny first joined, got promoted to B division and this year, well, we haven’t given up on getting to A. But why would we, without a pawn pushed in anger yet? Manny mainly plays top board.

Round one.

Now, if this were Magnus playing his first round of the Swiss B-league for 2014, his prep would be going something like this: a couple of weeks with his family in a resort somewhere nice. Perhaps he’d fit in a press meeting or two. ‘How do you think you are going to go against the Nyon Tigers’ first board, Mr Carlsen?’ Sun, spa, sport. Good food. Happy days. But it is Manny, not Magnus getting ready for the start of the season. I’d been priming Manny for months now about how he should be playing, how to make the most of himself. This is, I hope, something that might have wider interest. Not how the superstars of chess prepare for their best, but ordinary people with some talent and nothing much else on their side.

Manny came out of retirement here with the rating he had twenty years ago – 2300 in round numbers. Over the last 3 years it has stayed at that point. I think he can do better and I’ve been nagging him about it for a long time now. Manny’s pattern of play is like this. He generally gets a really awful position during the opening. He struggles on and achieves equality at some point. Then he offers or accepts a draw. He’ll say there was nothing in it, why should his opponent make a mistake?

This is why I’ve been nagging him. The point at which the draw happens is exactly the point at which he would now be playing at his full strength. Let’s say his rating of 2300 is an average of different parts of the game. In the opening he is much weaker than that. In the ending he is much stronger than it. He accepts draws out of the relief of having got through a bad patch, just when he should be rolling up his shirt sleeves for a fight. Does he listen to me? Not nearly as often as he should. The only reason he has been coming around to this idea is his observation of Carlsen, because Carlsen plays pretty much exactly like Manny except he wins more. He gets rubbish positions from the opening, but he doesn’t care as long as it is playable. If it is playable, now he is okay.

So, in brief this is the background to the start of this season. It was to be a season of renewed vigour, of playing the positions with an eye to extracting the most out of them. Yes, champ. We’re gonna get ‘em this year.

Oh, but the best laid plans. You know those shops you go to? The ones where you know the grim-faced person serving you is thinking how much better this shop could be run if it weren’t for the damned customers. I wonder how many other seconds feel like that about their players?

Exactly two weeks almost to the minute before the first game of the season Manny had a bad skiing accident. It was a compound fracture of the humerus – a broken shoulder in other words – and one of the breaks is not, as I write, healing properly, it is a bunch of splinters, not a clean break. We are waiting to see if it needs an operation. He has his arm in a brace and sling – his right arm, of course – and he spent a week knocked out on painkillers and the physical and mental stress of the accident. With a week to go before the round one, the first question is can Manny play? Yes, we decide. The team needs him to turn up, as it is the captain has had to agree to play and he doesn’t want to, so if Manny pulls out maybe they can’t even field a full team. Let’s face it, Carlsen’s interclub team doesn’t have to worry about things like this, but the reader probably knows the feeling.

The second question is how to make the most out of these rather invidious circumstances? For starters some time on ICC playing blitz. Usually he ranges between 2200 and 2400. Playing left-handed he started out more like 2000 and worked his way up until he felt like he could play at 2200. Next we got in one of the team for some practice with real pieces. Craig Thompson used to play for Scotland and is working in Geneva at the moment, a very welcome addition to our team. He and Manny played for a couple of hours to let him get the feel of pushing the pieces and the clock left-handed. What else could we do? Not much except hope that he could sleep okay the night before the game – it is an injury which is hard to sleep with for months. We’d done what we could. Manny sat down at the board and at move four he has already blundered:

Manny Rayner 2302 Murtez Ondosi 2421

1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7

4. 0-0? Usually Manny plays 4.d4 here, so he is already somewhere he doesn’t want to be. That is to say, the question mark is a subjective one about the pragmatics of chess, not an objective one about the theory of the move. Other players might want to play this move, Manny did not.

What happened? We were under the misapprehension that it was compulsory for him to write his moves. I found that rather unlikely, there must be times when a player can play, but can’t write, surely there must be some provision for this? Well, yes, but we didn’t know at the time of the game. Writing left-handed was as stressful and difficult for Manny as actually playing the game. So there he is, it is move four, he is playing a substantially stronger player, 2421, and he is already out of his comfort zone. The only good thing about this is that it isn’t so different from usual, Manny has had some atrocious positions by move ten, so it doesn’t get him down. Good temperament is worth its weight in gold. Or points in this case. He settled down, struggled hard, but made no headway. It should have been depressing for me, but I’ve learned never to give up because Manny doesn’t.

4…e5 5.d3 Ne7 6.e4 0-0 7.Nc3 d4 8.Ne2 c5 9.Nd2 Nbc6 10.f4 f6 11.Nf3 Be6 12.fxe5 fxe5 13.Ng5 Qd7 14.Rxf8+ Rxf8 15.Nxe6 Qxe6 16.Bd2 h5 17.Kh1 Nc8 18.Ng1 Nd6 19.a3 Nf7 20.Bh3 Qe7 21.Nf3 Bh6 22.Kg2 Kg7 23.Qe2 Ng5 24.Bxg5 Bxg5 25.Rf1 Be3 26. Nh4

We are at this position:

I could scarcely believe my eyes when Ondozi played 26….Nd8. Manny can play 27. Bf5! Indeed he did, having seen this a while before. Now White has a won game. So, why did Manny draw a few moves later by repetition? His plan had been not to get into time trouble, of course, given that he wasn’t going to be as reliable as usual and especially given he had to write down the moves too. But in fact he had started running short of time. It wasn’t time trouble yet, but he simply didn’t feel confident about playing on under the handicaps he faced. Hence he took the draw. The team won, despite an average rating deficit of 40 points.

26…Nd8 27.Bf5 gxf5 28.Nxf5+ Rxf5 29.Rxf5 Qe6 30.Qxh5 Nf7 31.b3 b5 32.Qg4+ Kf8 33.Qh4 Kg7 34.Qg4+ Kf8 35.Qh4 Kg7 36.Qg4+

This is not a publishable game, but that’s the point. Most chess is like this. It isn’t about evergreen, profundity, brilliance. It’s about struggle, not giving up, grabbing the moment if it comes. Pragmatism, optimism, staying power. Insofar as this is what Magnus does, there is nothing special about it. Anybody can bring this resolve to the table. And it’s amazing how much you can salvage if you set your mind to it.


December 26, 2015 at 1:09 am 1 comment

At the London Chess Classic 2015

I love watching tournaments like this. A hall of spectators dead silent watching 10 players deep in concentration. Some, like Adams, have eyes that never leave the board. Others prowl around from time to time, but you get the feeling they are thinking about their games for every second they are away from the table.

And then there is Anand. He fidgets and when he is looking around, he looks like he is looking around. He doesn’t look lost in thought. He looks like he is looking for something that isn’t on the board. Come on Anand. Pull your socks up! (He has just lost two in a row.) And stop looking at….us!!!

Concentrate, Anand!

Concentrate, Anand!

Click on the picture to make it big.

December 12, 2015 at 7:41 pm 4 comments

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