A World Champion Encounter

ChessMost people strive to be good at their jobs and hobbies, and this often requires a considerable amount of dedication, effort, and innate skill. To be great at these, however that is defined, is more difficult still. To be considered by one’s peers to be one of the best in that field is rarely achieved. To be known as the best in the world at something…well, that achievement is nearly incomprehensible.

A month ago I played a game of chess against the current world champion in chess in his age division:12 and under. Daniel Naroditsky, who goes to school in the Bay Area, won the world championship in Turkey last fall. The achievement, the skill and effort required, of becoming a world champion in chess in any age bracket is mind-boggling. My game against him was less so. Herein are the details of that game.

Daniel conducted a 17–person simul, where he played against 17 people at the same time. I was one of those 17 people. Playing against many people simultaneously is not a new concept; The great American player from the 1800s Morphy used to play blind simuls with regularity. It doesn’t take a world champion to be able to play a simul successfully, but if there are reasonably ranked players among the challengers, then such a contest can be interesting.

One doesn’t play against a world champion chess player and expect to win (unless one is delusional or also ranked as a grandmaster). When playing against someone rated much higher than you in a simul, your best chance of success is for the higher-level player to offer you a draw if you give him a decent challenge; the higher-rated player would do this if he wants your game out of the way so that he can focus on other games that are more challenging. This was my goal. By the way, I also have hopes to hit a hole-in-one when I play golf, to have my luggage be the first one unloaded when I am waiting at an airport carousel, and to have celebrities talk to me with great interest when I see them in public places. Basically, expecting to win or draw against the world champion in chess is like expecting to beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.

Back to the simul.

The rules of a simul differ from regular competitive chess in that there is no clock dictating the amount of time allotted for moves. In a simul, you make your move when the champion appears in front of you—not before, and you certainly don’t continue to think about or hesitate in making your move once he appears before you. He then makes his move and proceeds to the next table, upon which the next nervous challenger must immediately make his move. Interestingly, the champion has no time constraint on his moves. After you make your move, he can think as long as he likes. Of course, he’s got other games to get to, so he usually doesn’t take too long. Also, the person in my simul is the world champion—how much time does he really need to decide how to respond to my castling? I can answer that, in fact: less than a second is how much time he needed.

Before the simul began and the challengers were standing around waiting for instructions on how the event would be conducted, it was clear that the majority of the challengers were young kids—possibly Daniel’s classmates from his school but clearly not typical students: they all had that dead-stare in their eyes indicative of a well-honed and massively complex calculating machine behind them. These kids wouldn’t be going to go back home after the game to play hacky-sack, they would likely immediately reference several chess books from their library of similarly sounding titles (“Variations in the French Defense,” “Countering the Sicilian”) and study how they could have better played the opening before firing up the latest Fritz computer program for some quick games of blitz chess.

Five of the adult challengers, including me, stood together before the event, nervousness in our body language. This group was clearly insecure about its age. There was a “please let at least one of the adults put in a good showing” attitude, not wanting our age to be proven irrelevant in this arena, our intellect crushed by a 12–year old. I’ve played chess competitively before (reaching a temporary Master’s rating, sort of…see the link), and one quickly realizes that age and ability do not have a high positive correlation. Sitting down against a 10–year old in a chess tournament, shaking their tiny limp hand at the beginning of the game, hearing their high-pitched “good luck,” facing them across the board as their head barely sticks up above the table, and having them proceed to suffocate the life out of your King while laying waste to your supporting pieces is a humbling experience. I was under no illusion about the fate of us adults, given that only one of us (not me) appeared to have had any experience with chess over the past few years: we would likely be among the first to relinquish our seats at the game for the observation gallery.

The 17 chessboards were set up in a U-shaped table arrangement, allowing the champion to walk from board to board inside the U while the challengers sat in front of their board around the outside of the U. Looking at the game setups, I was surprised at first to see that all of the boards were arranged so that Daniel played as White on all of them. At the grandmaster level of competition, playing as White is a considerable advantage because White makes the first move, and the best that one typically hopes for when playing as Black is a draw (tie). Thus, I was surprised to see that the simul was set up to give Daniel the advantage of White. Even though he was playing against 17 people simultaneously, giving him White in all games seemed an unnecessary advantage for a world champion. After his first move, though, I realized why the sides had been arranged this way.

We challengers sat at our tables and awaited the start. Daniel approached the first table, shook the challenger’s hand, and played Knight to f3. An unusual opening, and certainly a confusing one for a novice, who is used to seeing a pawn advance as the first move—usually the King’s or Queen’s. Daniel then moved to the second table, leaving the first challenger to ponder his response to this opening.

At the second table, Daniel shook the challenger’s hand and played Knight to f3 again. He moved on to my table, whereupon he shook my hand and also played Knight to f3. Daniel in fact opened every game with this move. Now I saw the reason that he was playing as White. Doing so allowed him to keep some consistency among all of the games. Each one had the same starting point and therefore was a a little easier for him to adjust his thinking as he approached each board. Makes a lot of sense.

At first, I had quite a lot of time to consider my moves. The rules were that a challenger had to make their move as soon as Daniel appeared in front of them. They couldn’t make their move before because Daniel needed to see what the move was. They couldn’t delay their move once Daniel showed up because that would hold up the whole process. At first, I had a whopping 2 minutes to consider my move between the time that Daniel left my board and he returned again, which was quite a bit of time to think about a move, particularly early in the game.

Time passed quickly. As Black, I created a King’s Indian Defense, developing the pieces on the King’s side and being cautious with pawn movement in the center and the Queen side. Whenever Daniel appeared before me, I made my move, he thought for a second (perhaps thinking about a game 34 years ago that had produced this same position), made his move and walked on. It wasn’t long before I looked around and saw one of the challenger’s seats empty. The pieces had been put back to their starting position except for the Black King, which lay on its side in the center of the board, slain by Daniel. Victim number one: one of the adults. Mere minutes later, I saw the second victim extend his hand in defeat to the world champion. Another adult gone.

As the position on my board started getting complicated (at least by my judgment), the time between Daniel’s appearances seemed to accelerate. I realized that as more players dropped out, there were fewer moves that Daniel had to make between moves in my game and thus I had less time to spend between my moves. With only 10 games in play, I figured that I’d have just over a minute between moves. If I made it to the final five, I’d have little more than half-a-minute. Time would get tighter the longer I played. For Daniel, however, the time he spent on his moves at my game remained the same.

The game went on. I played it fairly safe, developing pieces and slowly acquiring territory on the Queen’s side while he built space on the King’s side. More players dropped out of the competition, more Kings lay dead in the center of their boards. I had no illusions that I was going to win this game. I also had no illusions that I would give him a good game. With half of the players gone now, I also had no illusions that he was going to offer me a draw in order to focus on more critical games. He was in it for the kill. Most of the time, Daniel watched my move, thought for a second, then made his. I considered it a minor victory each time he actually had to stop and think for 5, 10, 15 seconds about his response before making his move. One time, he actually put his hand up to his chin in contemplation! In the face of certain defeat, I took such minor satisfactions where I could.

In chess, resigning doesn’t have the stigma that it does in other games. In fact, it is considered not only dignified but also good manners to resign if the game is clearly lost. Unlike most sports where one plays one’s hardest even if it is clear that there is no chance of winning, playing chess to the bitter end in a tournament is considered a waste of time and disrespectful of the person who won. This is in fact why the game ends on checkmate and not on the actual taking of the King—if there is no way to avoid the King being taken on the next move, then the game is over.

While in casual games it’s fun to play to checkmate, that rarely happens in competitive chess (except in the movies, where pieces are also slammed on the board and moves are made with the speed of a boxing match). At the grandmaster level, the play is so precise that if a player gets a piece down then the game is over. Players will even resign when they get a pawn down and their opponent has a good board position; the skill level is so high that the slightest advantage is enough to guarantee a win. As my game progressed, I became a pawn down, then we exchanged pieces, then I lost a rook for a Knight and pawn—plenty to cause another grandmaster to resign, let alone a patzer like me. Yet, to resign at a slight disadvantage against a world champion would be absurd, because realistically I should have resigned after his first move were I to resign once I realized that I had no chance of winning. The point of this game was not to play until it was clear who would win—that point occurred even before the game started. So, to resign after being a pawn down was to pretend that losing a pawn was a critical turning point against the world champion: “Oh, now you have me, sir; your pawn advantage has tipped the scales to ensure you a win.” So, I wasn’t going to resign just because I knew I was going to lose. However, I wasn’t going to keep playing until he checkmated me either; to force a world champion to checkmate me would be an insult (“I’m sorry, you are going to have to prove that you can win with a K-Q-B-B-R against my K-N pair…”) I decided that I would resign when I got more than one piece down.

As more challengers bowed out, Daniel’s appearances came quicker. With the time to ponder moves shortening and the game becoming more complex, I started to feel as if I had stalled into a death spiral. Daniel would appear, I would move, Daniel would spend 1–2 seconds considering what I had done (What was he thinking just then: Idiot? Book? How sad? That Hannah Montana is quite a talented singer?), Daniel would quickly make his move and walk away, then reappear seemingly seconds later. I no longer had enough time to assess the move choices that I had—I had to start doing partial analyses and taking my best guess. Soon, I made a mistake and he took my Rook. And then…and then…

And then I saw it. Two moves later I would be able to fork his King and Rook! This was kind of move one giggles with anticipation of playing in a normal game, and I was going to do it against a world champion. I was going to put the world champion in CHECK! This move would simultaneously attack his King and Rook at the same time, so that when he moves his King to safety, I could safely take his Rook. This was my moment, far beyond any outcome that I had anticipated. A series of scenarios rushed through my head once I saw what I was going to do. “Check, sir,” I would say, calmly taking a pawn with my Knight while simultaneously attacking his King and Queen’s Rook. Or I would simply make the move, and he would look up into my eyes with appreciation, reach out to shake my hand and give me the game. Or, making an unforgettable spectacle out of it, I would suddenly rise up out of my chair with the palms of my hands slamming down flat on the table, snatch up my Knight and slam it down on his pawn’s space, knocking the pawn sideways into the board beside me, and growl as loudly as I could, “Check, punk!!” while glaring over the table and looming an easy two feet above Daniel’s head. With this last possibility, of course, I would have been immediately humiliated by his play on the following moves, assuming that the parents in the room didn’t throw me out of the building first. While fantasizing about how I would play my pending check move, Daniel suddenly appeared at my board. I reached forward, moved my Knight while simultaneously taking his pawn with the same hand; he paused for two seconds, moved his King to safety, and disappeared to the next table. Hmm, not the dramatic event I was expecting.

The game lasted a few more moves but, as I said, the end result was a foregone conclusion. I made a couple more mistakes (that I knew of) and then resigned, embarrassed that I hadn’t resigned long ago. I reached my hand across the board, said “Good game,” got out of my chair and stepped back among the rest of the observers. As the organizer put the pieces on my board back to their starting position, except for the Black King which he laid on its side in the center of the board, I looked at all of the other boards similarly set. Two players remained, but it was a matter of minutes before those two also resigned. It was over: 17–0, a clean sweep.

Everyone clapped for Daniel’s performance. I’m not sure what he thought about the whole event, but it was fun and thrilling for me to have the opportunity to play a world champion at their own game, even if the result was a foregone conclusion before the first move.

Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe, says an ancient Indian proverb. I would say that I’ve slurped from it a little bit in my life, while Daniel is not just bathing but swimming in it and diving deeply. It was great to have been in the water however briefly as Daniel temporarily entered the shallow-end, taking a short rest from his deep-sea diving.