For as long as chess is played by humans, there will be dreadful blunders — even at world championship level. Proof — as if it were needed — came in the recent match for the supreme title between Magnus Carlsen and his challenger, the previous world champion Vishy Anand.
The scores were level going into the sixth game, but by move 26 Carlsen had established a tremendous bind on the position. Then he played an astonishingly careless move, allowing a simple combination which would most likely have given the Indian victory. If that had happened, Anand would have taken the lead in the match with a good chance of regaining the title — a sensation, given that at 44 the Indian was supposed to be over the hill.
But Anand, barely without pause, instead played the move which fitted in with his existing strategy. When he did so, Carlsen instantly rectified his error — and then slumped forward with his head almost touching the board. He was clearly trying to communicate to Anand that something extraordinary had just happened: only then did the Indian realise, and began shaking his own head.
This was close to gamesmanship by the Norwegian. He admitted later that he had realised his own blunder the instant he played it; but if he had shown any emotion at that point, Anand would have sensed something was not right and spent time to find the correct response. By somehow forcing Anand to understand that he had failed to exploit a tremendous opportunity, Carlsen played havoc with his opponent’s peace of mind — as even the battle-hardened Indian showed only too well: he put up little fight in what remained of the game, or indeed the match.
Yet this was not the biggest blunder in the history of the world championship, not by a long way. Perhaps the worst — in terms of its immediate consequences — occurred in the 23rd game of the 1892 match between the defending champion Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin of Russia. Chigorin had achieved a winning position; victory would have tied the match at nine wins each, at which point the rules specified a play-off. Incredibly, however, Chigorin played a move which allowed his opponent to mate him on the spot — and the match ended there and then with Steinitz the victor 10-8.
Perhaps it wasn’t so incredible: and not just because both players drank alcohol during the games (champagne for Steinitz, brandy for Chigorin). At moments of the greatest excitement, blunders are more rather than less likely to occur. That is why some beginners’ chess books advise children to sit on their hands while playing. That was advice which even Bobby Fischer might have regretted not taking in the first game of his epic match against Boris Spassky in 1972. On move 29 Spassky left a pawn en prise and Fischer, without a great deal of thought, grabbed it with his Bishop. It turned out that with a simple manoeuvre six moves later Spassky could snare Fischer’s voracious Bishop — a simple trap which normally Fischer would spot in a split-second. But the first game of a world championship match is anything but normal, especially if you have never been in such a situation before: I remember Nigel Short telling me how in the first game of his 1993 world title match against Garry Kasparov he had the peculiar sensation that he was looking down on himself — a true out of body experience and hardly conducive to calculating variations accurately.
Anyway, the prevalence of confused thinking and even blunders at the very highest level should come as some encouragement to all chess players, not just because it links us amateurs to those great masters, but also because it should teach us not to be desolated by our own inevitable errors.
One of the most charming books by an amateur, The Quiet Game, contains a wonderful selection of blunders (wonderful for everyone, that is, except for the perpetrators). The author, the late John Montgomerie, who represented Scotland in the 1937 Stockholm Chess Olympiad, explains better than most what it actually feels like at the moment the blunderer realises what he has missed: “All the symptoms described by the novelist as indicating shock can be experienced at such a moment: that sinking feeling in the stomach, a shiver down the spine, gooseflesh, blushing, deathly pallor: I have experienced them all!”
As a connoisseur of such agonies, Montgomerie considers that the most painful is one which causes the perpetrator to lose a game he has been playing brilliantly up to that moment — and when it also means he has thrown away not just that single game, but a championship he was about to seize.
He gives as example the following game between J. Gilchrist and D. MacIsaac, in the final round of the 1928 West of Scotland Championship, when both players shared the lead: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.c4 (coincidentally Gilchrist plays exactly the same line as Carlsen did against Anand’s Sicilian defence in their fateful 6th match game) Qc7 6.Nc3 Nf6 7.Be2 Bb4 8.0-0 (a perfectly sound pawn sacrifice) Bxc3 9.bxc3 Nxe4 10.Bd3 Nf6 (10…Nc5 was better, but not 10…Nxc3 11. Qc2 trapping the greedy Knight) 11.Bg5 d6 12.Re1 Nbd7 13.Nf5 Kf8 14.Ng3 Ne5 15.Rxe5 (This, however, is unsound: but Black has to be very careful) dxe5 16.Bxf6 gxf6 17.Qh5 e4 (Understandably Black tries to bring his Queen into the defence. Yet 17…h6 was much better, taking a vital square from White’s own Queen) 18.Qh6+ Ke7 19.Nxe4 Qe5 20.f4 Qf5 21.Nf2 Qc5 22.Kf1 (Neatly unpinning; unfortunately for White, it seems he later forgets his King is no longer on the standard square g1) f5 23.Qg5+ Kd6 24.Rd1 Kc7 25.Ne4 Qf8 26.c5 fxe4 (Fatal greed, or it should have been: after 26…Bd7 Black would have excellent chances to defend) 27.Qe5+ Kd8 28.Bb5+ Ke7 29. Qd6+ Kf6 30.Qe5+ Ke7 31.f5 (After repeating the position Gilchrist finds the winning move. As Montgomerie comments: “White is poised for victory and the championship. If 31…axb5 32.f6+ Ke8 33.Qc7 forces mate”.) 31…Qh6 (Now 32.Qxh8 Qf4+ 33.Kg1 exf5 34.Qd8+ Ke6 35.Rd6+ Ke5 36.Qf6 is checkmate. But instead….) 32. f6+??? Qxf6 + and a doubtless traumatised Gilchrist resigned, as with the forced exchange of Queens Black’s extra Rook is decisive. Of course White had thought he was mating in two by 32…Qxf6 33. Qxf6 34.Qd6 — not realising that with his own King on f1, Black’s capture on f6 is with check. However often I play over this game, I can’t watch its grisly denouement without a shudder. There but for the grace of God . . .