Peoples’ Tournament, knuckleballs, etc.

by admin on July 22, 2012

This weekend I’m playing in the Peoples’ Tournament in Pleasanton, California. If you’re a Northern California player, that sentence should just sound wrong. The Peoples’ Tournament is supposed to be played in Berkeley in February, not in Pleasanton in July. It’s supposed to be at the student center. You’re supposed to spend half an hour looking for a parking place. There’s supposed to be a dance or a drum circle or something going on outside the tournament hall, so you can’t possibly concentrate on your chess game.

A while ago David Pruess wrote a nice retrospective on the mystique of the Peoples’ Tournament on (I’d ignore the part about him losing 300 rating points in one day, though.)

Anyway, all those quirks, whether you love them or hate them, are now gone and what’s left is Just Another Chess Tournament. One at which you can actually think and play decent chess!

So far, in the first three rounds, I beat an expert and drew two masters (including my teammate in the US Amateur Team tournament, Robin Cunningham).

My second-round game was notable because for the first time in my chess career I played 1. f4 on the opening move! I’ve been mulling over this possibility for a while. First, as a King’s Gambit player, I’m perfectly happy to meet 1. … e5 with 2. e4. Second, if Black plays 1. … d5 2. Nf3 c5 or 2. … g6 I am eager to play the Bryntse Gambit with 3. e4. That leaves the question of what to do if Black plays 1. … d5 2. Nf3 Nf6. I’ll admit I have done no preparation, but my inclination is to try 3. b3. It will probably lead to a slow positional game, not my usual cup of tea but I should learn to play this kind of position too.

As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry because my opponent played 1. …e5 2. e4 d5, and we were in the familiar realm of the Falkbeer Counter Gambit. I’m not quite sure what his mistake was, but he ended up wasting a lot of tempi on defensive moves and not getting his pieces out, which is never a good idea. I won a piece with a nice little tactic on move 23, and he resigned.

So I have now been baptized into the ranks of 1. f4 players! Somewhere, Michael Aigner (aka “fpawn”) must be smiling.

This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with my wife. We recently saw a segment on TV about R.A. Dickey, a baseball pitcher who throws the trickiest of pitches, a knuckleball. He has had an amazing year so far in 2012, with a record of 13 wins and 1 loss, and back-to-back one-hit games (an even rarer feat than a perfect game). My wife asked me after we watched the feature, “Why aren’t there more knuckleball pitchers?” I gave her the usual explanations: the knuckleball is hard to control, hard to catch, and when it doesn’t work you can get hammered. Earlier in his career Dickey tied some dubious records by giving up 6 home runs in one game (a record he shares with another knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield) and throwing 4 wild pitches in one inning in another game. It really takes a person with strong psychology to overcome these kinds of setbacks.

But I have to wonder if part of the reason is simply egos. Pro baseball players are elite athletes, and the knuckleball just doesn’t look like an elite-athlete pitch. It makes everyone look a little bit foolish: the pitcher who is just lobbing the ball up there, the hitter who can’t hit it, and the catcher who can’t catch it.

I think that the same considerations also enter into why there are so few chess players who regularly play 1. f4, Bird’s Opening. It’s really not so bad, but it just doesn’t look good. It looks as if it’s asking to be crushed. Just like a knuckleball, it dances up to the plate nice and fat and slow, and (hopefully) darts out of the way just at the right moment.

However, I’m not going to make a habit of it. In my third-round game I went back to the “serious” 1. d4 and did all right with that, too.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Schmidt July 22, 2012 at 11:22 am

Another reason that hardly any pros throw knuckleballs is that no one joins professional baseball in the first place throwing a knuckleball. Everyone who gets to even the low minor leagues was an awesome athlete in high school / college who hit lots of home runs and/or blew their fastball by everyone. Pretty much everyone who throws a knuckleball learned it as a last resort when they were in danger of being kicked out of professional baseball. So it’s always a Plan B.


Cortiano July 28, 2012 at 4:42 am

I see in chessbase 2012 that in 2006 you beat David Prues, who outranked you by 350 points! using the variation you mentioned ( 1. f4 d5 2. Nf3 c5 3. e4) but starting from a KG setup (1.e4 c5 2.f4 d5 3.Nf3). I was amazed that you sacrificed your Q on move 6! for a B and a N! Wow! That takes guts against an opponent rated 2461 in a serious game. Good show! I’m duly impressed.


admin July 30, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Hi Cortiano, I’ve told that story on this blog and on ChessLecture and even in a Chess Life article, because it was the best game of my life. It’s such a great gift to know (or at least guess) that you are playing your masterpiece WHILE you are playing it. However, I don’t want to bore people by telling the same story over and over again, so that means some newcomers to the blog may not be aware of it. Thanks for noticing!


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