What might have been

by admin on January 18, 2009

This morning I was rooting around my old chess binders looking for one game, and ended up (for no good reason) playing over another one. This game was from the U.S. Class Championship in Philadelphia, 1985, a tournament that I have basically no recollection of! This game definitely deserved to be resurrected, because it could have ended with possibly the best mating combination of my life… but didn’t.

I was Black against Joe Felber, and we got to the following position after my 24th move:

Quiz: How does Black win if White plays 25. Kh1?

I won a pawn early in the game and then sacrificed it back, thinking that I was getting a winning attack on the kingside. And indeed, I won quickly after Felber played 25. Qc7? Rf7, after which there is no answer to the threat of 25. … Qh3. He resigned at this point.

But how does Black win if White plays 25. Kh1! instead of 25. Qc7? The point is that after 25. … Qh3 26. Rg1 Rf5 27. g4! the win is by no means obvious for Black. (Though the computer does still show Black with some advantage, it’s not winning.)

While you’re thinking about that, let me tell you something else. As I was thinking about this blog entry, I wondered: Who was Joe Felber? Is he still alive? Does he still play chess? I only knew one thing about him, which I wrote in my annotations to the game 23 years ago: “My opponent was #2 on the USCF’s Most Active List for 1985, with 323 games played.” Whoever Joe Felber was, he was definitely a chess junkie.

Thanks to the Internet, all my questions were ridiculously easy to answer. Yes, Joe Felber is still alive and active in chess, in the New York area. Some readers of this blog may even know him. In fact, I found an article about him from last year, which gives me more information than I could ever have dreamed of.

It turns out that we have a few things in common. He got divorced in 1983; I got divorced in 1983. He earned his National Master title in 1987; I just barely missed (the tournament where I earned the title was on January 2 and 3, 1988). He comments that his most active chess years were 1983-6 (inclusive), when he played 250 to 300 games per year. Likewise, 1985 was quite possibly my busiest chess year, with 60 rated games.

It’s awfully tempting to read between the lines and conjecture that Joe’s divorce had something to do with his playing so much chess. I definitely played more chess after I got divorced. I had more free time, no family commitments, and more money to spend. Of course, I didn’t quite take it to his extreme.

Joe is now 55 (or 56?), and hoping to retire at age 62 and play more. He has dreams of being the second person to play a rated chess tournament in all 50 states, but unfortunately he is missing Alaska, and there are no current plans for any chess tournaments in that state. Someone please help!

It’s funny that in five minutes at my computer keyboard, I found out more about Joe Felber than I did in two or three hours over the chess board. I don’t usually talk very much with my opponents, and even if I had talked with him I probably wouldn’t have asked all those details about his personal life. Too bad. I’m sure that many of my opponents would have interesting stories, if I only asked!

Answer to quiz: After 25. Kh1!, Black can win with 25. … Rf5. The idea is to play 26. … Qh3, forcing 27. Rg1, and then sac the queen with 27. … Qxh2+!! This would be exquisite, but we’re not done yet! The problem is that White can answer with 26. Qc7!, threatening checkmate on g7 if Black moves his queen to h3. So you only get credit for solving the quiz if you anticipated this response by White and saw what to do next. The answer is 26. … e3!, a sacrifice to deflect White’s bishop. If 27. Bxe3 now Black can continue 27. … Qh3 because there is no more mate threat on g7. If 27. fe, of course, Black plays 27. … f2 checkmate.

But there’s still more to come! What if White plays the amazing move 27. Bc3!, refusing to let his bishop be deflected from the long diagonal? Well, Black can play … e2, but that gives White at least some chances to blockade the position and hold on for a draw. I must confess that I had to ask the computer to find the best move for Black: 27. … Rg5! The idea is to keep the g-pawn defended by the rook, so Black is now once again threatening … Qh3. Meanwhile, the pawn push to e3 has made another important change to the position, which is that White cannot move his rook to g1 because of the response … ef. The importance of this becomes evident after White plays the most natural defense, 28. Qf4, and then Black checkmates with 28. … Qh3! 29. Rg1 ef! 30. Qxg5 Qg2+!! 31. Rxg2 fg checkmate!

How the game should have ended.

I think that if the game had actually ended this way, it would have been the most amazing mating combination of my life, a combined rook and queen sacrifice to checkmate with a pawn. Wow.

If I were Alekhine (who was known for fabricating nice conclusions to his games) I could pretend this was the way the game actually ended. But alas, this didn’t really happen. My opponent went wrong at the very first opportunity, with 25. Qc7?, and if he had not blundered, then I probably would have gone wrong at my very first opportunity, by playing 25. … Qh3? That’s how it goes for us chess mortals.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

thadeus frei January 19, 2009 at 10:43 am

Nice combination!


Andres D. Hortillosa January 19, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Pretty. Just because I am not posting here it does not mean I am not frequenting this blog. Are you playing in the Copper State International?


admin January 20, 2009 at 11:59 am

Hi Andy, good to see that you are still checking in now and then! Have you had any more good tournaments recently? How is your book coming along?

I think it’s very unlikely that I will play in the Copper State International, because my wife and I are going to Hawaii for our 20th anniversary just the weekend before. I don’t think she would like the idea of my taking off for another trip about three days after we get back home.

I think my tournament schedule will be really limited through the end of May, because I am working on another (non-chess) book that I’m supposed to finish by then. If I get my work done on time, then I can start thinking about playing tournaments in June.


Andres D. Hortillosa January 22, 2009 at 7:10 am

Hi Dana,
Congratulations on reaching your 20th anniversary. I know from experience the blessings of having a wonderful wife especially someone who does NOT begrudged the time we spend on chess.

I played in the Pan American but did not have a great tournament there. I agreed to a draw in a winning position against IM Lugo. The upside is meeting new friends like NM Jerald Times who was very generous with his chess knowledge.

Having worked halfway through with the book, I now have some informed appreciation of the hard work authors like yourself do. I am chugging along and its slowly shaping up closer to my intended form. I have a May deadline so I have three short months to work with. Wish me luck.


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