Life Masters, Pretty Pieces

by admin on January 2, 2017

Welcome back! I’m officially ending my blog hiatus today, but I have to warn you that posts will continue to be very sporadic for the next month or two. My book still isn’t finished yet, and that has to be the #1 priority. Still, I will post here when I can, especially when I have topics that don’t require heavy analysis.

Yesterday Mike Splane celebrated the new year with a chess party at his house, which was pretty well attended (ten people or more) even though early indications were that it might not have so many. Most of the players there were familiar to me, but there was one I hadn’t met before. It turns out that he is an old-timer named Paul Cornelius, who modestly told us that he “used to play a little chess.” Mike had to explain to us that he actually used to have a 2400-plus rating, but then he got more active in bridge.

In fact, Paul is a Life Master in both bridge and chess, which I think must be a relatively rare accomplishment. I asked him if he knew of any others, and he mentioned two: David Strauss and Irina Levitina. Can any of my readers think of others?

Also, I’m curious about the difference in the significance of Life Master titles between chess and bridge. In bridge, Life Master points accumulate — so you never have to deal with ratings that go down. I went to the American Contract Bridge League website this morning, and I see that there are in fact ten levels of Life Mastery, from Life Master to Bronze Life Master and on up to Silver, Ruby, Gold, Sapphire, Diamond, Emerald, Platinum, and Grand.

Of course, in chess it’s much more simple. The only USCF titles higher than Life Master are Senior Master and Life Senior Master — neither of which conveys all that much more prestige. In fact, I don’t think I have ever heard someone say, “I’m a Life Senior Master.” It’s really the international titles that people pay the most attention to, and they come in only three levels: FIDE Master (FM), International Master (IM), and Grandmaster (GM).

In chess, there is a quantum leap in skill between FM and IM, and between IM and GM. This makes me wonder: in bridge, are there quantum leaps between all these levels of Life Master? Is a Sapphire Life Master that much different from a Gold Life Master? Is an ordinary vanilla Life Master so far down the totem pole that he’s more like a class A or class B player in chess?

Getting back to the chess party, we looked at two games. One was a recent game of Mike’s that I had already seen. It was a nice example of how to win against an isolated queen pawn. His opponent, Jim Bennett, had an unusual and rather unfortunate setup with his knight on g6 instead of f6. The knight was dominated by White pawns at d4 and g3, and it also couldn’t perform its usual function of protecting the isolated d5 pawn, so it was really a worthless piece. However, what I really noticed about the game was that Jim never finished developing. He made the mistake of playing an early … f5, and this kept his queen bishop from coming out. It couldn’t go to e6 because it wouldn’t be protected (because of the f-pawn’s impulsive move). It couldn’t go to d7 because the d-pawn would have hung. Jim played … f4, which was smart, and should have followed it up with … Bg4 to finish developing, even at the cost of a pawn. Instead he kept playing with his already-developed pieces, but Mike had more pieces in play than Jim, so Mike won.

Then Craig Mar showed a game he played against an expert in 1986 with some remarkably similar themes. His opponent also never finished developing his queenside, only it was his queen knight that never came out. Eventually Craig was able to play a nice knight sacrifice and blast open the kingside. Although Black nominally had an extra knight, really he was down a rook, because the knight was still at b8 and the rook was imprisoned behind it on a8.

Why do even experts make mistakes like this? Even though you know you’re supposed to finish developing, a savvy opponent (like Craig) will keep giving you other things to think or worry about. So you say, “Yes, I should finish developing… but first I need to defend this pawn.” Or “Yes, I should finish developing… but first I can take this absolutely free pawn that my opponent is giving me!” (Ha, ha, ha.)

In a ChessLecture a long time ago, Jesse Kraai talked about playing with your “ugly pieces” versus playing with your “pretty pieces.” Weak players like to play with their pretty pieces, moving them over and over again. Strong players learn the importance of playing with their ugly pieces and gradually turning them into pretty pieces. Both of the losers of the games we looked at yesterday could have profited a great deal by watching Jesse’s lecture and thinking about it.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

paul B. January 2, 2017 at 2:49 pm

When I started chess decades ago, it was a popular truism that chess players make terrible bridge players. I believe that Alekhine fit that description. I don’t know if it’s true but there might be a sound scientific basis for it: chess and bridge use different parts of the brain. Chess is computational while bridge is social as well.


Roman Parparov January 3, 2017 at 11:17 am

I’ve heard a somewhat different point of view, that chess players make good but never great bridge players, not because of social aspect, but because of the uncertainty that is not present in chess but creeps in in card games.


Andrew Rea January 21, 2017 at 2:32 pm

The late IM Mike Valvo was also highly rated at Bridge, I am reasonably sure he had gained the Life master title


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: