The Swindler and the Swindled

Chess is not just a fine test of intelligence: more than that, it is a stern judge of character. Like all competitive sports, it teaches us-or should-how to win with grace and lose with dignity. The difficulty is that in order to play to the best of our abilities, it is important to mind desperately, to love winning as much as life itself, and to hate losing as if it were a form of death: to care much less would detract from the necessary motivation.

Generally, we grow to keep our emotions in check. At tournaments I have seen precociously young competitors cry-real floods of tears-after losing; but by the time they are in their late teens they will have learned to hide the depth of their misery at defeat.

There are times, however, when even the experienced adult player finds it hard to    disguise his upset at losing, or at failing to win after gaining an overwhelming advantage: this is when he has been what chess players call “swindled”. The term does not literally mean cheated, as in its normal usage. There is no illegality involved: it refers to the situation in which a player in a very bad or losing position sets a trap which, successfully sprung, averts otherwise inevitable defeat. 

This is devastating for the victim of the swindle, as it means that the winning position gradually built up over many hours of diligent effort is instantaneously reduced to rubble. It is what can make chess an especially cruel game. In football, a team leading 5-0 with only a minute left to play cannot fail to win. In cricket, a batsman who has scored 99 runs might be furious to lose his wicket to a tricky delivery-but at least he keeps all the runs he has accumulated: his score does not go back to zero. But that, in effect, is what can happen to the chessplayer who has been “swindled”.

Sometimes the swindler does engage in morally questionable tactics when setting his trap. On the 20th move of Game 16 in the 1890-91 world championship match between the champion Wilhelm Steinitz and the challenger Isidor Gunsberg, the latter moved his Knight to attack Steinitz’s Queen, but then (according to Steinitz) “began shaking his head”. The move had allowed Steinitz to capture one of his opponent’s pawns; and taken in by Gunsberg’s play-acting, he instantly snatched the bait. Just as quickly, Gunsberg replied with a move which trapped Steinitz’s Queen. Afterwards Steinitz wrote that, before resigning, “I taxed my opponent on the manner in which he had made his twentieth move, which was calculated to mislead.” I’ll bet he taxed him: Steinitz was a notoriously abrasive character. Yet the world champion would also have realised he did not really have an excuse: in chess one should never take one’s opponent on trust.

Though this sort of play-acting became rarer among grandmasters than in the more piratical 19th century, it never died out. In a game from the 1952 Olympiad between two of the world’s strongest non-Soviet players, Miguel Najdorf and Svetozar Gligoric, the former-according to one of the watching Russians-“left a pawn en prise in time trouble and then desperately clutched his head and reached out as if wanting to take the pawn back. Gligoric took the pawn and soon thereafter lost the game. It transpired that Najdorf had staged the whole performance to blunt his opponent’s watchfulness. This can hardly be called ethical.” No indeed; and it might also have proved foolhardy of Najdorf to try this on-in the war Gligoric had been a notable member of Marshal Tito’s ferocious partisan units.

The fact that this incident occurred when the grandmasters were running short of time is probably not coincidental. That is when it is hardest for players to control their emotions, when they are under maximum stress and most liable to commit howling blunders. Samuel Reshevsky, the strongest American player of the 20th century before Bobby Fischer arrived on the scene, was especially prone to run very short of time. Usually his extraordinary natural talent meant that he could negotiate such scrambles without making a single error; but every now and then the rushed Reshevsky would fall victim to a swindle-and the whole point of a really good swindle is that it exploits the hidden weakness of the most natural-looking move on the board, the one the opponent is most likely to play without thinking.

Here is an astonishing example of Reshevsky being swindled-indeed, the game was given the unofficial title of the “swindle of the century” as soon as it was played, in the US Championship of 1963-64. Reshevsky is playing Black, and his opponent was Larry Evans, himself a five-time US champion: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 c5 5.Bd3 0-0 6.Nf3 d5 7.0-0 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nbd7 9.Qe2 a6 10.a3 cxd4 11.axb4 dxc3 12.bxc3 Qc7 13.e4 e5 14.Bb2 Nb6 15.Bb3 Bg4 16.Ra5 Rac8 17.c4 Nbd7 18.h3 Bxf3 19.Qxf3 Rfe8 20.Rfd1 Ra8 21.c5 Rad8 22.Ba4 Re7 23.Rd6? (This allows Reshevsky to spring a trap which wins a pawn) b5! 24.Bc2 Nxc5! 25.Rxd8+ Qxd8 26.Qe3 Ncd7 27.Qd3 (the point is that if 27.Rxa6? Qc8! forks two of White’s pieces, winning one.) Qb6 28.Bc1 h6 29.Be3 Qb7 30.f3 Nb8 31.Ra2 Rd7 32.Qa3 Kh7 33.Kh2 Qc7 34.Bd3 Nh5 35.Rc2 Qd8 36.Bf1 Rd1 37.Rc1 Rd6 38.Qa2 Qf6 39.Rc7 Nd7 40.Ra7 Nf4 41.Qc2 h5 42.Qc8 Rd1 43.Bxb5? Qg5 44.g3 axb5 45.Rxd7 (if 45.gxf4 exf4 46.Bf2 Rd2 wins) Re1 46.Rxf7 Rxe3 47.h4! (setting up a truly diabolical swindle) Re2+ 48.Kh1 Qxg3?? (The obvious move, which seems to force immediate mate for Reshevsky. But the win was to be found by 48…Qg6 49.Rf8 Qe6 50.Rh8+ Kg6 51.Qxe6 Nxe6 when White can resign; however….) 49.Qg8+!! Kxg8 50.Rxg7+ and the players agreed a draw! It’s stalemate if Reshevsky captures Evans’s only remaining piece (see how essential to the plot was 47.h4) and if he doesn’t, the Rook can stay   on the seventh rank checking Reshevsky’s King ad infinitum. Evans later wrote of         the concluding moments of the game:      “With unseemly glee I strained to hear Reshevsky curse himself under his breath. He uttered just one word: ‘Stupid!'”. In the        circumstances, that was admirable self-control.

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