The hall was quiet.
A Saturday tournament wound down at the local club. Most of the players sat with slight smiles on their faces, doing their best to extract as much entertainment as they could from their entry fee. But on the top board, the tone was more serious. Money was on the line.
On one side was a strong expert, one of the tounrament’s top seeds. But here, after a series of tactical complications, he found himself down a piece for two pawns against his opponent, a grade-schooler freshly over 1900. I was directing the event, so I made a note to keep an eye on how it finished.
And then, after watching a game in the lower section finish up, I heard some noise from the top board. It sounded like sniffling. The state of the game had changed – the piece that constituted the younger player’s advantage was no more, blundered away while my head was turned. And the sniffles belonged to the child – he was in tears.
This story should be nothing new for most tournament players. I’d been there myself, tossing aside chances at breakthrough victories and tournament contention in momentary lapses of reason. Sometimes the very fear of blundering in high-pressure situations was enough to throw me off course, leading me to waste valuable times, shy from tactical opportunities, or just get lost in overthought. As Garry Kasparov liked to say, the threat can be more powerful than the execution.
And while competitive environments are unforgiving by their nature, but there is something uniquely brutal about tournament chess and the way it punishes error.
The advent of computer analysis shines an interesting light on this problem. Under the eye of a sufficiently advanced engine, no move played by a human in the game of chess can ever improve the evaluation of a position for the player making it. Accuracies are often difficult to find, and they should rightly be commended, but they seem so rarely to decide games.
The issue is compounded by the length of tournament games, the sheer volume of invested time and energy and willpower needed to find oneself with an opportunity that is just so fleeting. Worse yet, time pressure brings out the worst of our errors, and there is nothing like the agony of throwing an advantage away with minutes left in a multi-hour game.
I write this all not to condemn chess or discourage anyone from playing it – I spend much of my time as a promoter of the game, and I think it is great fun for all ages, a tremendous opportunity to challenge and expand the mind, and to make great friends doing so.
I merely offer my sympathy. To anyone who has been burned by the fickle nature of tournament chess, to anyone for whom the agony was too much to justify the ecstasy, I understand. I’ve been there. And tournament chess is not for everyone, nor is it any sign of weakness or cowardice to shy from it.
There is much to be learned from tribulations at the chess board, demons to be conquered and character to be gained. But we should not shy from the reality of the matter. Chess is fun, of course, and incredibly deep and wondrous. But chess, at a competitive level, is merciless and unforgiving, it is cruel and sometimes brutal to those who love it most. Chess is hard.