Getting Inside Your Opponent’s Head

by admin on February 24, 2020

At last week’s U.S. Amateur Team West tournament, one game stood out for me as the most important. It was the fourth round of the tournament, and the Kolty Club team went into the round with two wins and a surprise defeat in round three. We were paired against the Caltech team, and from the beginning things went wrong. On first board, Mike Splane lost his second game in a row. On second board, Juande Perea agreed to a fairly early draw. On third board, my game seesawed; it looked quite good for me for a while, but my opponent handled his time pressure better than I did and by the time control the position looked drawish.

Then there was fourth board, where our player, Marshall Polaris, was playing White against Dillon Holder of Caltech. Marshall lost the exchange in the opening or early middlegame, and his position looked awful. Black’s queen and pieces dominated the board. After a while the time pressure in my game kept me from following his game any more, but I just assumed that Marshall was going down to defeat. That would mean we had only 1/2 point out of 3 games, so I figured that I was only playing for pride because our team had lost the match.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I managed to win a nice rook-and-pawn endgame and Marshall said, “Congratulations! We won the match!” I looked at him in disbelief and asked, “Wait a minute. You won that game?” Thanks to his amazing comeback win, we won the match by 2.5-1.5. That set us up very nicely to win our matches in round five and six, also by 2.5-1.5 margins, and come home with third place in the tournament.

For the last week I’ve been curious how Marshall did it. When I asked him at the time how he won his exchange-down game, he just said, “You’ve got to be tough.” But yesterday I finally had a chance to see the whole game, as we had a team meeting at Paulo Santanna’s house to celebrate, receive our prizes, and look at our best or most interesting games.

I didn’t write down the game and I couldn’t quite reconstruct the whole game this morning, but I do remember the finish, which is the most important part.

White to move.

FEN: 5r1k/pp3p2/2p2Npp/4P3/4R3/5Q1P/q4rPK/8 w – – 0 1

Here’s a short description of how we got to this point. In an exchange Queen’s Gambit, Marshall got careless and played f3 and e4 too quickly, weakening his dark squares. Black’s knight descended on g4 and his bishop on g5, and bad things happened. Black not only won the exchange but was completely in control.

But then a funny thing happened. Black decided the best way to capitalize on his advantage was not to improve the position of his pieces and attack White’s king, but to gobble all of White’s queenside pawns. This gave Marshall time to mobilize his remaining pieces and get some semblance of counterplay. In the above position we see the result: White’s entire queenside has been wiped out and Black has three pawns plus the exchange, but Marshall has gotten his knight to f6 and there is a definite whiff of cheapo in the air.

Black has just played … Rf2, attacking White’s queen, and here Marshall plays a move that says, “I’m not going to be bossed around any more.” He threw down the queen sacrifice, 1. Rh4!

This came as a total shock to his opponent. Years ago, when Jerry Hanken wrote his “Parting with the Lady” column in Chess Life, he said that queen sacrifices — even if they are fairly simple ones like this one — have a huge psychological effect on your opponent. They lead to shock and then panic. That is definitely what happened in this position.

Of course Black cannot take the queen, because 1. … Rxf3?? 2. Rxh6+ Kg7 3. Rh7+ is mate. In fact, Black’s move is basically forced (but also good): 1. … Kg7. White would love to sacrifice his rook here with 2. Rxh6, but Black can simply take it and White’s follow-up is too slow. So Marshall first had to play 2. Qg3, getting his queen in position to “threaten” 3. Rxh6 Kxh6 4. Qh4+.

I put “threaten” in quotes because the whole thing is completely a mirage. White has no real threats. Black can simply play 2. … Rd8, and if 3. Rxh6 then the zwischenzug 3. … Rxg2+! puts the kibosh on White’s attack. 4. Qxg2 Qxg2+ 5. Kxg2 Kxh6 recovers the material for Black and he wins the endgame easily. Or if 4. Kh1 then Black can simply take the queen, because the move 2. … Rd8 created an escape route for his king.

But let’s talk about the curious psychology of lost games. Marshall doesn’t need to worry about whether his moves are objectively winning. There aren’t any winning moves; his position is lost. Instead, he’s trying to get inside his opponent’s head. That’s how you win a lost position. The queen sac and the mate threats have shaken his opponent to his core, and therefore he plays essentially the worst possible move:

2. … Rxf6??

Meaning no disrespect to his opponent, Marshall said that he could tell this move was coming. In Black’s panic, he wants to get rid of what looks like White’s most threatening piece. After all, he’s going to be up four pawns in the endgame, right? What could go wrong?

3. ef+ Kxf6

By the way, there was no chance for Black to bail out with 3. … Kh7, because now the rook sacrifice 4. Rxh6+! is winning.

4. Qc3+ Ke6

At this point, the whole strategy of the game changes. All of a sudden, White’s task is not to construct an ingenious deception out of smoke and mirrors, but to bring the win home with some very precise moves. In fact, it’s a little trickier than you might think, and Marshall spent 15 minutes (!) on his next move.

There is actually only one way to win, and Marshall found it. As he told us yesterday, “The next two moves were my only good moves of the game.”

5. Re4+ …

This is what I would have played too, but you’ve got to follow it up right.

5. … Kd7 6. Qb4! …

Only this move brings home the full point. Black cannot defend both of the invasion squares at e7 and b7, and oh, by the way, his rook is hanging too. Black resigns. (Actually, he may have played on for a couple moves, but this is where Marshall stopped showing us the game.)

A very nice swindle, made even more piquant by the fact that Black really swindled himself, by playing the completely unnecessary move 2. … Rxf6?? To me the psychology of lost games is very interesting, because the goal changes from finding the best moves to finding the most confusing moves, the moves that will cause your opponent to doubt himself and eventually to blunder. An inspiring, tournament-saving game by Marshall!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Goeller February 24, 2020 at 9:15 am

Yes, a great swindle indeed. As a long time fan of that super-swindler Frank Marshall, I just ordered GM David Smerdon’s The Complete Chess Swindler: How to Save Points from Lost Positions from New in Chess, which I am looking forward to reading. I think the best swindles involve getting inside your opponent’s head and predicting what he is likely to do in a given situation. You’re right: Black swindled himself by looking to simplify the task with the unnecessary Exchange sac, hoping to kill his opponent’s “attack” — a rather predictable thing for anyone as Black to think about in that position.


Marshall Polaris February 24, 2020 at 12:47 pm

For posterity’s sake, here’s the whole game:

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. cxd5 exd5 5. Bg5 Be7 6. e3 c6
7. Bd3 h6 8. Bh4 Bg4 9. Qc2 Nbd7 10. f3 Be6 11. Nge2 Qc7 12. O-O O-O 13. e4
dxe4 14. fxe4 Ng4 15. Bg3 Qa5 16. Rf3 Bg5 17. Nf4 Qb6 18. Bf2 Nxf2 19. Qxf2 Bg4
20. Re3 Qxd4 21. h3 Ne5 22. Bc2 Bxf4 23. Qxf4 Nc4 24. Rae1 Nxe3 25. Rxe3 Be6
26. Kh2 Qd2 27. Bb1 Rad8 28. e5 Rd4 29. Qf3 Qxb2 30. Bf5 Qd2 31. Ne4 Qxa2 32.
Qg4 Bxf5 33. Nf6+ Kh8 34. Qxf5 g6 35. Qf3 Rd2 36. Re4 Rf2 37. Rh4 Kg7 38. Qg3
Rxf6 39. exf6+ Kxf6 40. Qc3+ Ke6 41. Re4+ Kd7 42. Qb4 Qd5 43. Qxb7+ Kd8 44.
Qe7+ Kc8 45. Qxf8+ Kc7 46. Re7+ Kb6 47. Qb8+ Kc5 48. Re5 1-0


Gerd Entrup February 27, 2020 at 1:31 pm

Dana, you had once given a similar example of your own play. It was a game from your student days, when you played abroad in Russia. You won by a (pseudo-)sacrifice of a queen. But I can’t find the post anymore.


admin February 27, 2020 at 1:45 pm

Gerd, Thanks for your amazing memory! Yes, I did write about this a long time ago, back in 2010, and the post is here: The queen sacrifice was real, but it only forced a draw by perpetual check. However, my opponent was so shocked that he resigned! The setup was also quite similar, with White’s queen, rook, and knight attacking on the kingside while the queenside is nearly destroyed.


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