Playing chess like an idiot

Here’s a post that brought back some memories for me.

I haven’t played any chess in several years now, and not against any humans other than my son for a lot more years than that, but back in my high school days I was a member of the chess club. From my sophomore year on the strongest players were classmates of mine: George and Phil at the top, Howard a little behind them, and then, several notches down, Mike who was a little better than me. Maybe more than a little.

We sent a team of three or four players every year to the County Scholastic Chess Championship. In my junior year Howard and Mike couldn’t make it and George and Phil gritted their teeth and brought me along. With them on first and second boards we did pretty well; with me on third board, I didn’t help a great deal. In the third and final round we went up against Christian Brothers Academy, whose third board player was the county Junior Chess Champion. “Third board?” we asked them, and they shrugged and said they’d played a tournament to decide, and he’d come in third.

He destroyed me in the opening. I think I resigned after something like 17 moves. Nevertheless after three rounds, we were tied for first. Against CBA. So there was a playoff round, us versus them, again. I got destroyed in the opening again. I think I resigned something like 12 moves in. He sat there laughing at me. I think Phil won and George lost, so we took second place.

The next year Phil and George and Howard and Mike couldn’t go. So I was drafted again, this time for first board — not with any hope of doing very well, but to bring three underclassmen along to give them the experience of tournament play, so they could carry the torch the next year.

I decided to do better this time; I couldn’t very well commit winning lines in all the major openings to memory in the time available, but I could study one opening. I boned up on the French Defense. In the first round I was Black, and White played 1. e4; I played 1. … e6 and there I was, French Defensing like a boss. Kind of. I ended up losing the game, but not in 12 moves. Afterward White buttonholed me and pointed out all the mistakes I’d made, but also told me he’d played his favorite response to the French and I’d been the first to equalize against it, as a result of which he was giving up playing that line. I felt pretty good about that game even though I lost.

(Some years later the same guy apparently tried to seize the controls of a passenger aircraft and crash it into downtown Syracuse. I don’t think that was my fault, though.)

My second game was against someone who played like an idiot. Well, relatively speaking. Especially for a first board player. I made several blunders of my own due to being flummoxed by his blunders. In fact, at one point he could have checkmated me on that move, and neither of us noticed. In the end I won, and I felt pretty bad about that game.

(In the third round the three younger players played. They did okay. We didn’t come in last.)

Aside from that one game, most of my chess play was distinguished by weak opening play. I just didn’t have the determination to study and memorize opening books. And then I found a book that almost seemed to have been written for me: Baroque chess openings : or, How to play your betters at chess and on occasion win by Richard Wincor. The premise of this book is: If you don’t have all the standard lines of all the standard openings memorized, maybe you should play a non-standard opening your opponent probably doesn’t have memorized. If they do, you’re hosed: it’s a non-standard opening for the simple reason that it doesn’t work against someone who knows it. A grandmaster will know how to play against it and win. Then again, a grandmaster will win against you anyway.

Not that I made a lot of use of the book. After that school year I didn’t play a lot of chess. When I did, though, I liked to play the Dutch Stonewall Reversed or the Queen’s Indian as taught by Wincor. And I often wonder how I would have done against the County Junior Chess Champion had I bought and studied that book a couple years earlier. Probably still would’ve lost, but maybe not with the getting laughed at.


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