We all know that feeling in a game. Dozens of moves have been played, pieces have been traded, regroupings and regrets (you’ve both had a few) have been demonstrated and – after all your blood, sweat and tears – you’re left with pure chequered stodge.
You exchange a rueful smile with your opponent. You’d both begun hoping to create fire on the board but, in the cold light of day, realise you’ve somehow created quiche instead.
This great meeting of minds, this great chess duet between Black and White has turned out so bland and utterly middle-of-the-road that it makes Ebony and Ivory look cutting edge. Surely in such a dull, lifeless position all that’s left is the formality of one of you biting the bullet and offering a draw?
Hell no! If 30 years of playing chess have taught me anything it’s that this is precisely the time that you need to hunker down and go to your grit locker for a top-up to prepare for a long attritional struggle to come.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not averse to draws, in fact as I get older I’m increasingly amenable to them (in the same way I’m also increasingly amenable to commercial radio). The thing is that so many games are drawn early with huge amounts of play left, and even when you do end up with a level, simplified position after many moves, there are still many ways you can gain a decisive edge over your opponent.
It’s often unmentioned in chess that a lot of time ½ – ½ is agreed because both players have nagging concerns about playing on for the win, or even if it comes down to it, confidently holding the draw. The more turgid the position, the higher the stakes are psychologically – after all nobody wants to admit they’re worried about playing on that opposite-coloured bishop ending so many armchair chessers claim they could draw in their sleep.
Added to this there are other issues to at least consider before signing that peace accord:
- What’s my opponent’s grade/rating? Yeah, yeah I know, chess players are obsessed with grades, and often to their detriment. However let’s say you’ve had a hard-fought struggle with a guy graded 30+ points below you and reached a level “drawn” ending. It could be that they’ve played out of their skin (or you’ve been a little short of your best) but, equally, it could be that having sailed through the opening and middlegame when it comes to the endgame they’re about at comfortable as Bambi on ice.
- What’s the match score/situation? This is a bit of a dry one I grant you, but as somebody who’s captained teams before I can honestly say there’s nothing that makes you want to garotte your affable Board 7 more than finding out they’ve split the point without having at least a cursory glance at what’s going on in other games.
- What’s the audience like? If there are a few people taking note of your game have a look at how your opponent responds to the attention. Do they look under pressure? Irked? Or are they making eye contact with a few friendly faces, possibly team-mates who’ve already finished their games? Maybe they’re all carrying a lovely cold drink and only serving to remind your opponent that he/she’s left slugging it out with a stubborn goat like you. Perhaps they have several exasperated children sat waiting impatiently in the wings for mum/dad to finish. That frustration could come in handy down the line.
- Visual clues Have a look at your opponent’s body language – do they feel they have something better to do with their time? Maybe they’re wearing a football shirt and the match is going to start in 10 minutes; or they’re a businessman who had to turn off two phones and a Blackberry before making their first move. They could sign that multimillion-pound deal off if only you’d agree to shake their hand first…
- The hunger games You started this match several hours ago so have you kept yourself well-fed? It was once pointed out to me during a 4NCL weekend that one of the other players on a rival team had more than half-a-dozen (!) Pepperamis stashed next to his board (a fact I struggled to forget when returning my own game). This seems a little excessive but fuel is important. Also, ask yourself, does your opponent seem the “hangry” type, maybe they’re dreaming of that post-match team curry and not the yawnfest of a position in front of them.
- What’s your bladder rating? Finally – and let’s not forget this game is played on a clock – when push comes to shove and you’ve matched each other’s consumption plastic cup for plastic cup, can you simply hold your water better than your opposite number? The longer the game goes on the more pressing the “need” can become and if you have an iron will and are 2700 in bladder strength, why not just play a few more moves…?
Ok, I admit some of the above suggestions are not completely serious and, for all my bluster, I would say there are a few team-mates who definitely outmatch me when it comes to pure killer instinct and the will/stubbornness to keep on playing on. However, I do think over the years I’ve managed to gain a bit of a “read” on opponents whose desire to play on dull positions is even less than mine, and this has sometimes paid dividends.
The following game was played in an international open in Denmark where my rating sat me right at the bottom of the top half of the field. This made for a bit of a yo-yo tournament where I was alternating between struggling grimly – and usually in vain – against titled opposition, and trying to squeeze out wins against lower-rated players. It was a very friendly competition, epitomised by my opponent, an amiable Norwegian called Dag, who when it came to draws, unfortunately found me very disagreeable…