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Autobiography Chess

The human side of chess, 6

3 Tort – Norgaard

Fuck chess!

After playing three months at Club Mercenarios, this was the first time Jesper Norgaard, a Dane who fathered children with a Mexican woman, lost. In the end, everyone shook my hand, which filled me with satisfaction, especially the congratulations from Héctor Busto. Even the now deceased Ricardo Ramírez Honey published the game in the newspaper. But that is not the reason for picking it up here, but the agonies that I wrote down live during the game. My second retirement from tournament chess in my thirties (I had retired for the first time in my twenties) can be traced to this pseudo-victory.

Time control: 2 hours / 45 movements
November 12, 1992

1 e4 e5

2 Nf3 Nc6

3 Bb5

The Ruy López Opening is Jesper’s favourite, but here I am the one who plays white.

3 … a6

4 Ba4 Nf6

5 O-O Be7

6 Bxc6 dxc6

7 Qe1!?

The twice-postponed exchange variation surprised Jesper. The idea is to prevent the black pin Bg4.

7 … Nd7

It was not good 7 … Bd6 for 8 d4, with initiative. With the textual, which is the one recommended by theory, white recovers the time he lost by changing his ‘Spanish bishop’.

8 d4 exd4

9 Nxd4 O-O

10 Nc3 Ne5

Instead, Marcel Sisniega played 10 … Bf6 against Roberto Martín del Campo in the first game of the Closed National Championship, played three months after my game with Jesper, and won in thirty-five moves.

11 Nde2 Bc5

The Encyclopedia of Chess Openings analyses up to this move, and evaluates the position as equal play. The rest was our improvisation.

12 Kh1

The idea is f4-f5-f6 with a strong attack. Months later the story reached my ears that in a chess event held in Ciudad Juárez, Jesper was asked about this game and that he had replied he had fallen in ‘a laboratory move’. But it was not like that. I only knew religiously as far the encyclopaedia goes.

12 … f5

Jesper used half an hour of his time on this move because he knew he was in trouble. At postmortem he commented that he disliked 12 … Qh4 for 13 f4, which according to him would have led to an inferior endgame. Unlike Marco (‘I’m short fuse’ he told me the last time I saw him, in the sense that he exploded for anything), Jesper commented on the postmortem without any apparent discomfort.

13 f4 Ng4

14 e5 Be6

15 h3 Ne3

16 Bxe3 Bxe3

17 Rd1 Qe7

18 Rf3 Ba7

Two bishops against two knights! But if Black cannot activate them, they are badly parried due to the passed and protected pawn.

19 Rfd3 Kh8

20 Nd4 Bc4

21 R3d2 Rae8

Black’s last moves prepare the liberating …g5 that never came.

22 Qg3 Bb6?

23 Nxc6!

Jesper later told me he didn’t see it. On a blank sheet that I hid behind the score sheet of some games of this tournament, I wrote the agonies that I suffered in the live game. The idea was to calm me down, understand the situation and temper my nerves. On the sheet I wrote: ‘(11:19 PM). Having played 23 NxBP makes me the bitch nervous. That nasty! Fuck chess if this is what it does to me! What does it matter to me even if I have a clear advantage…!’

23 … Qc5

24 Nd4 Qb4

25 b3 Bf7?

In the postmortem Jesper explained to me that, since he looked bad positionally, he preferred to lose another pawn in order to complicate the game. But on the loose sheet during the live game I wrote: ‘(11:34 PM). Again after 25 PQN3: Stress, when discharged, makes you see visions!’ And it is that the chair in which I was sitting when facing Jesper was like an electric chair. It was as if it gave ‘shocks’ but I had to remain seated if I wanted to win.

26 Nf5

‘The stress continues at 26. I know it’s crucial that…’ and here I stopped writing because my opponent played:

26 … Bg6

27 Nd5 Qa3

28 Ch4 Bh5

29 Nf3 Ba5

30 c3 c6

31 Ne3 Bxc3

32 Nc4

This knight manoeuvre gave me the victory but I suffered a lot in finding it because I was in time trouble.

32 … Qb4

33 Rd7 Re7

From now on, I will call the chess programs that I had, Fritz and Chessmaster, ‘the machine’, which in this position analysed 33 …Rf7 to which a winning 34 Qg5 would also come, although without the next attack on the King:

34 Qg5 Rxd7

35 Rxd7 Bf7

In my home analysis the machine analysed 35 …Bg6, which could also have been followed by 36 Nd6. At this point the now-deceased Luis Vaca, who presided over the Mercenarios and whom I highly esteemed, called his friends with these words: ‘The Jesper-Tort game is very, very tough!’

36 Nd6 Bg6

The summoned onlookers made an exclamation: the attack on the King was overwhelming. If Black had defended himself with 36 …h6, 37 Qf5 would come.

37 Rd8 Qxf4

Jesper made a curious gesture of displeasure at this moment when we had all Mercenarios players on top. The truth is that they were fascinated by blood and wanted to see him lose. But I suffered more, although in this position it seems laughable, because I was forced to deliver a proper coup de grace and not screw it up, with the very little time on the clock I had.

38 Qxf4 Rd8

39 Nf7 + Bf7

40 Qxf7 h6

41 e6 Black resigns

Although I won, what no one found out and that I only now confess, is that the victory cost me dear. In my diary the next day I wrote down my agonies, although I will edit the comments on the moves to focus on the psychological aspect, and will correct some syntax:

How tough! There were moments of confusion and suffering and, obviously, of ‘ghosts’ like that Qd1 that I saw but the knight prevented it… Very annoying. It was no use writing down my agonies during the game, which was supposed to relieve stress. What did relieve me somewhat was talking to Jorge Aguirre, talking about anything. I hope that for the next game I don’t get like that. It is clear that the cause of stress is the duty to win in an advantageous position and the paranoia of making a mistake. But it’s mostly ‘self-consciousness’ by onlookers that triggers stress. How will I avoid it in the next game?

Speak? Talk to onlookers? ‘How was your game?’ for example—or whatever, whatever to lower the excruciating stress! I wish there was therapy for this. I wish I was as calm as Romanishin [a Ukrainian GM I saw playing in an international tournament], I wish I was a laid-back! But that’s opposite to the spirit of the chess player, the opposite to the spirit of the fighter. I still have to try something or it’s pure masochism every tournament.

The funny thing is that when I thought I was wrong by not taking the Bb6 I relaxed. Maybe it’s because it loosened my tension as I no longer had a perfect game. Perhaps perfectionism causes stress because the paranoia of making a mistake comes. Or maybe it was that I had already talked to these guys…

What a strain relief once my rival gave up! Alejandro Tirado (who yesterday called those in my book about Cuba ‘worms’) watched the game for a long time. Afterwards I felt that he was envious that I had defeated the number #1 player. He had lost his game. Also after …QxP; QxQ I made a pause which contributed that my win be appreciated by the onlookers. It’s funny how at home I like to remember that they saw my attack and victory, but that at the time it was an extreme torment. The sign is changed. The torment becomes glory.

I played the game in the only tournament I have ever won: a club tournament. The memory still comes to me perfectly that when I got home after my decisive victory over Argentine Silvio Pla, three rounds later, with which I secured the first place, I slept the quietest and sweetest night I had slept in a long, long time. Excited, I signed up for the next club tournament. But my victories were still expensive. It’s amazing how chess players keep their emotions to their souls. I have come to the conclusion that it is perfect nonsense to approach chess from a purely logical viewpoint. The heavy intellectual analyses of chess literature not only fail to reflect our inner life: they are misleading to know what’s going on in our little heads. Only if the confessions of the players were written and published would we get to the core of the game.

In my diary I underlined in red my comments about a miniature that I inflicted on Willy de Winter in the first round of my second tournament in Mercenarios:

I lost this game a hundred times in my inside, paranoid insides!

What should I do?

I’m a failure as a chess player…

Today’s suffering was incredible: the greatest stress of all that I’ve experienced. I’d have accepted a draw on any move!

Note the ‘I am a failure as a chess player’. After playing with de Winter I had played ten games on Mercenarios, and except for a single draw I had won them all. None had defeated me. But I was right: these agonies screamed at me, over and over again, that I was in no way a tournament-playing guy, and augured something ominous for my competitive future.

The Spanish writer Fernando Savater stated in an interview: ‘I think that the great secret of chess, what makes it so superior to other logic games, lies in its tremendous intensity. This game compromises the ego of the person. A card player may feel affected because he has lost a lot of money, but he has not bet himself, which is what the chess player does. In this sense, chess can be dangerous’.

Wise insight! To Javier Anaya of the Mercenarios I owe the comparison of chess with mountaineering, where horrors are also suffered although mountaineers continue to climb mountains. I will be told that the comparison is defective since in mountaineering you risk your life and in chess ‘only the ego’. I disagree, and the best answer I can think of is to weigh the following anecdote.

There was Keres, called ‘the champion without a crown’ playing a tournament in 1944 in Estonia in the middle of the world war when an air raid sent everyone fleeing to the shelters. Those who saw him stay asked him in amazement if he wasn’t afraid. Keres replied: ‘I am hardening up my nerves for the World Championship fight’. The torment of sitting in a kind of electric chair at an important chess event causes more stress than the fear of bombings!

One last comment on the total lack of communication between fans. No one at the club realised that my victory over de Winter had been Pyrrhic. In the autistic bubbles in which they live locked up, between players it isn’t politically correct to speak about a lost soul. From the outside we appear to be scientists engaged in a game of pure logic. The truth is that when we play we twist in the magma of emotions. The colour of chess is not the black and white that onlookers see: it’s scarlet red.

After my game with de Winter in my second tournament at Mercenarios, a tournament appropriately called ‘Guerra y Paz’ (War and Peace), in the next round I beat Jesús Casillas. Interestingly, when I was aware that I had made a hideous mistake in that game, my nerves magically calmed down. The experience with Casillas and an identical one with René Sánchez, the only one who had obtained a draw from me until then, suggests that it’s precisely the desire for perfection, to want to play as flawlessly as the algorithms of a computer, which causes the crisis in the chess player. We have to understand that human beings do not have silicone minds. We are creatures of emotions. There is no such thing as ‘Mr. Chess Spock’, not even the world champion. It is known how nervous Kasparov was in his games with Anand for the World Championship, and let’s not talk about Ivanchuk.

After my game with Casillas, which I won only thanks to a very human mistake he made, my tortured invincibility in Mercenarios evaporated. Jesper Norgaard was the first to snatch a point from me in a very close duel that ended at 2:30 in the morning. Those still present at that time, engrossed to see the then invincible fall, congratulated the Dane as they had congratulated me when I won the previous tournament. In the next round something worse came: ‘the shortest game I’ve played in a tournament’, Roberto González, my opponent, told me. I resigned in the middle of the opening because of a crude trap that he tended to win my queen. That would be the beginning of the great collapse of my level of play both in that and in the following tournaments that I played in ’93.

Although with some exceptions, as can be seen in the next game.