Losing It

The psychology of bad losers at a great open tournament

Dominic Lawson

The glory of playing in a great open tournament, I wrote here last month, is that amateur competitors such as your correspondent can stand within a foot of the games of the greatest players, close enough to touch their pieces. At the Gibraltar Tradewise Open in February, I discovered something else: you can get close enough to hear what the grandmasters say to each other at the end of the game—which in some respects is more revealing of their personalities than the moves they play.

Towards the end of the game between the US number one Hikaru Nakamura and his closest rival for the first prize, the 24-year-old Briton David Howell, I didn’t have to be that close to understand that the American was not too happy. He was shaking his head, and furiously banging the pieces down when he made his last few moves. Actually, he was not losing. But he had been clearly winning against his much less highly rated opponent, before somehow allowing the Sussex-based grandmaster to establish a technically drawn position. At the end, after snapping “It’s a draw” (when one is supposed to offer it to the opponent), Nakamura told Howell that he had been “lucky” (preceded by an adjective not publishable here) and then made a disobliging reference to the Englishman’s chess understanding. Howell looked amazed, but otherwise retained his own composure admirably.

On the very next day, another immensely strong grandmaster was similarly confounded by a slightly weaker rival, allowing what seemed a certain win to slip from his grasp. This was the six-times Russian champion Peter Svidler, and his nemesis was the women’s world champion, 21-year-old Yifan Hou, from China. I was standing right next to the board when Hou produced an astonishing endgame trick, which abruptly destroyed all Svidler’s hopes of victory. The Russian was obviously upset, pulling at his hair as he studied the position with increasing exasperation. But then he did something rather wonderful. He smiled, and said: “Well played. Congratulations. Would you like a draw?”

There could not have been a greater contrast between the two disappointed grandmasters—although I should point out that Nakamura’s stepfather and original chess coach, the charming Sri Lankan master Sunil Weeramantry, later went up to Howell to apologise for what had happened. And in a way Nakamura’s behaviour was just the flipside of what the chess world finds so attractive about him as a player. He plays the game with an unquenchable desire for victory, never opting for safety and always on the edge: such a style takes an emotional toll.

One shouldn’t assume from this that Svidler cared less than Nakamura about failing to win. I spoke to Peter at the dinner marking the tournament’s close, and he was still bitterly disappointed, saying that his failure to beat “that girl” had “ruined” the event for him. He is, however, at 38, more than a decade older than Nakamura: and it may be that the American number one will become better at containing his emotions at the board as the years go by.

On the other hand, it seems quite likely that this is more a question of personality than maturity. After all, the former world champion Garry Kasparov never changed his combustible behaviour even as his hair colour went from black to grey: his feelings during the game were always transparent to his opponents, sometimes unpleasantly so. When he won, it was as if the sun itself was emanating from him; but on the rare occasions that he lost, the thunderburst was spectacular.

I recall the former Israeli deputy prime minister Natan Sharansky telling me how, when he and two others had beaten Kasparov in a simultaneous display given by the then world champion in Jerusalem in 1996, the star of the evening’s display not only stormed out of the hall but even failed to turn up later for the awards ceremony at which he was the guest of honour.

And perhaps the most-watched of all chess resignations is that of Kasparov similarly storming off the set, after he lost the final decisive game against the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997—the match which demonstrated that emotionless software had the better of frail humanity.

Still, Kasparov follows in the spirit of his great predecessor, the first Russian world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine, who was generally regarded as a very sore loser. Legend has it that after he was beaten by the six-times British chess champion Frederick Yates in the 1923 Carlsbad tournament, Alekhine went up to his hotel room and demolished every piece of furniture in it. The chess historian Edward Winter has cast forensic doubt on the accuracy of this tale, but it gives me the excuse to publish the greatest chess game ever played by a Yorkshireman, which won the tournament brilliancy prize. This alone would have enraged Alekhine, who would have counted that as his prerogative.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 (Yates plays the King’s Indian defence—highly unusual back in 1923, though standard today) 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 0-0 5.Nc3 d6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.d5 Nb8 (Nowadays Na5 is invariably played here, but Yates prefers retreat to decentralisation) 8.e4 Nbd7 9.0-0 a5 10.Be3 Ng4 11.Bd4 Nge5 12.Nxe5 Nxe5 13.c5 dxc5 14.Bxc5 b6 15.Bd4 Ba6 16.Re1 Qd6 17.Bf1 Bxf1 18.Rxf1 c5 19.Bxe5 Qxe5 20.Qb3 Rab8 21.Qb5 f5 22.Rae1 f4 23.Qd7 Rbd8 24.gxf4 Qxf4 25.Qe6+ Kh8 26.f3 Qg5+ 27.Kh1 Rd6 28.Qh3? (28.Qg4 was much better, but Alekhine was still trying to attack) Be5 29.Re2 Rdf6 30.Nd1 Rf4 31.Ne3 Rh4 32.Qe6 Qh5 33.Ng4 (Setting a trap . . . into which Yates deliberately falls) Rxg4! 34.fxg4 Rxf1+ 35.Kg2 (Alekhine’s point: Yates must give up his Rook to save his Queen. But from now on the fun is all the Englishman’s) Qxh2+ 36.Kxf1 Qh1+ 37.Kf2 Bd4+ 38.Kg3 Qg1+ 39.Kh3 Qf1+ 40.Rg2 Qh1+ 41.Kg3 Qe1+ 42.Kh3 g5!! (No check—but it’s a lethal attacking move) 43.Rc2 Qf1+ 44.Kh2 (If 44.Rg2 Qh1+ 45.Kg3 Qe1+ 46.Kh3 Qh4 mate reveals the poison in Yates’s 42nd move) Qg1+ 45.Kh3 Qh1+ 46.Kg3 Qd1!! (The second non-checking move in the attack: and this closes the mating net) 47.Rc3 Qg1+ 48.Kh3 Qf1+ 49.Kg3 Bf2+ 50.Kf3 Bg1+ and Alekhine resigned, rather than face the indignity of 51.Kg3 Qf2+ 52.Kh3 Qh2 mate. No wonder he was furious.

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