alexpgp: (Chess)
[personal profile] alexpgp
In 1990, in the 10th round of a chess tournament held in the Netherlands, a Soviet grandmaster responded to his opponent's opening move by nervously poking a pawn two squares forward instead of the intended one square. His response did not, nor could it by itself lead to, a lost game, and in fact it led to a perfectly sound opening, but the unintended move changed the tenor of the game, and the Soviet player eventually lost. It's surprising how little things can have such an effect.

The German language has a marvelous word for this kind of seemingly unintended move: Fingerfehler. The word literally translates as "finger-mistake," which sounds like a gallant attempt to excuse a brain lapse, but I digress, even before I've really started...

I had been playing serious chess for about a dozen years when I found myself with a 3-0 score going into the fourth round of a weekend tournament on Long Island. All things considered, I had a reasonable shot at finishing well in the standings, perhaps even winning a small cash prize about equal to the tournament entry fee.

In that fourth game, after cracking my opponent's position open by sacrificing a Bishop for a pawn in front of his castled King, I settled down to check and double-check the sequence of moves - what chess players call a "combination" - that I would have to play to put my opponent out of his misery and rack up another point. Then I did it again, and then once more, though to be frank, by this time I was savoring the feeling of imminent victory.

As you may imagine, the order of moves in a combination matters, as does the order of steps you perform to, say, eat an apple. You can't chew the apple before you've taken a bite; you can't take a bite until you've brought the apple to your mouth, and so on. For the chess combination I had in mind, the order of moves was critical.

I spent so much time reviewing the combination that my opponent got up to get a glass of water and then wander around the tournament hall, looking at the positions on other boards.

Satisfied that victory was only three moves away, I deliberately, confidently, and authoritatively picked up... the wrong piece!

And instantly replaced it on its original square.

I was too stunned to wonder how something like that had happened. I felt my face flush. I looked around. My opponent was over on the other side of the hall, observing a game. Nobody was looking at me or even in my direction. As far as I could tell, nobody had seen what I had done.

You see, according to the "touch-move" rule of tournament play, which requires a touched piece to be moved, I was obliged to move the piece I had picked up, even though I had done so inadvertently. In my case, it just so happened that moving the touched piece not only blew away my intended combination, but combined with the earlier loss of my Bishop, it pretty much guaranteed I'd lose the game.

"Forget about it, it never happened," said a voice in my head. "Nobody saw your little slip, which you didn't mean anyway, so play the winning move! Smash him!"

"No! Don't!" shouted an almost identical voice from very nearly the same place in my head. "You know the rules. It doesn't matter what you meant. You've got to move the piece you touched!"

"Are you nuts?" said the first voice. "What you committed was a textbook 'Fingerfehler'. You know what the right piece to move is, and you know you intended to move it, so what's the problem? Play the winning move!"

My hand hovered over the correct piece as my opponent returned to the board and resumed his seat.

"What kind of victory is that going to be?" asked the second voice. "Pretty hollow, that's what kind. Are you going to feel good about..."

"Oh, come on!" interrupted the first voice. "This is no time to turn Boy Scout! It's not as if you're committing perjury against an innocent defendant in a murder trial or stealing money or something. It's a game, for crying out loud!"

My hand hesitated.

"Yeah, exactly!" came the response. "That's the point, it is just a game, so why cheat? If you can't do the right thing now, when it doesn't really matter, then how are you going to react if you're in a position where the stakes actually mean something?"

"What a load of baloney! Come on, win the game!" said the first voice, "and I'll guarantee any regret you may feel will be minimal and forgotten almost immediately."

My fingers flexed.

"Move the touched piece, even if it means you lose the game," said the second voice, "and I'll guarantee you won't feel any regret about this decision ever."

While I was weighing the respective arguments, my opponent had used the position of my hand to divine the move I was undoubtedly on the verge of making and had connected the few remaining dots to his own checkmate.

"Oh, man!" he said. "A mate in three." He sighed heavily. "You win," he said, "I resign." He extended his hand across the board for the customary post-game handshake, and in that moment, I made my decision without any further thought.

"Well," I said, taking his hand, "to tell you the truth, I actually touched another piece first, by accident, while you were away from the board, and was struggling to figure out what I should do. As it turns out, moving the other piece would've lost the game for me, so actually,... I guess I'm the one who should resign. It's the right thing to do. You win."

Our hands remained clasped for some time as he gave me a long appraising look. Eventually, we broke the handshake and I started to gather my things. My opponent just sat there and just looked at me.

"You know, I don't know if I'd have had the guts to admit something like that if the same thing had happened to me," he said, after a few moments. "So, considering how both of us should have lost this game, how about we call it a draw?"

I readily agreed to split the point, though mentally I disagreed with what he said about needing guts to do what I did. In the end, what I did was the easiest thing in the world.

It's surprising how little things can have such an effect.

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Date: 2009-12-10 05:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] furzicle.livejournal.com
Exquisitely written, as usual. I was interested from the beginning, but then it only got more interesting, then more interesting still. Kudo!

Date: 2009-12-10 02:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
High praise, indeed! Thanks!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-10 05:25 am (UTC)
finding_helena: Girl staring off into the distance. Text from "River of Dreams" by Billy Joel (Default)
From: [personal profile] finding_helena
Wow, this is fascinating.

Date: 2009-12-10 02:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I'm glad you liked it.

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-10 07:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] http://users.livejournal.com/_mysticalelf/
I am still trying to learn the rules of the game...lol

Date: 2009-12-10 02:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Well, just remember: touch-move!

Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-10 01:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] agirlnamedluna.livejournal.com
German has words like that, Fingerfehler which I hadn't heard before, and Schadenfreude, which I adore, that you just can't translate.

That takes a lot of guts to do actually - because the easy way is never to show any weakness - people like the winner.

Date: 2009-12-10 02:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I have a special weakness for Schadenfreude, too, but rarely get a chance to use it.

People may like a winner, but to my way of thinking, if you let what people think or want or like dictate your actions, it puts you at their mercy, which is not my idea of strength. (And in any event, according to Murphy's Laws of Combat, "the easy way" is always booby-trapped!)

Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] agirlnamedluna.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-12-10 03:07 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2009-12-10 03:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rattsu.livejournal.com
Wow. This entry was the best I've read from you so far, and I'm not even very interesting in chess. You just managed to capture the dilemma perfectly.

I am not sure I would have had been able to do that if I was in your boots...

Date: 2009-12-10 09:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
And that internal conversation - writing it - is what the piece is all about! Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-10 09:32 pm (UTC)
shadowwolf13: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shadowwolf13
I admire your honesty, not all would be so up front.

Date: 2009-12-10 09:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks. At times, I have been criticized for "not knowing when to keep my mouth shut." This was one of those times, according to some.

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-10 11:49 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] supremegoddess1.livejournal.com
That's awesome.

Date: 2009-12-10 11:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-11 12:13 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alycewilson.livejournal.com
Nicely done!

Date: 2009-12-11 03:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thank you!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-11 03:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] onda-bianca.livejournal.com
Wow, now that is honesty and quite admirable!

Date: 2009-12-11 03:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for the compliment!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-11 09:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] baxaphobia.livejournal.com
Great story. I like your stories about chess a lot! Smile. I don't play the game but reading about the thought process is fascinating.

Date: 2009-12-11 03:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-11 10:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mstrobel.livejournal.com
Absolutely loved it! I was kind of on the edge of my seat too, wondering which path you'd take. I have to admit I would never have been so noble, I'd have straight away made the intended move and ignored the touch rule ... but then I am not a chess player XD

Date: 2009-12-11 04:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
That "edge of the seat" part was the point of the essay. And I think I was not so much reaching for nobility, as I was trying to avoid guilt. Perhaps in another time, another place, the outcome would have been different. Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-12 01:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] imafarmgirl.livejournal.com
What a great entry. I love your chess entries.

Date: 2009-12-12 04:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thank you!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-12 07:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cacophonesque.livejournal.com
I really enjoyed reading this and waiting to discover which path you would take. And, while I was waiting, I realized that either path would make a good ending--there was somethin to be learned no matter what.

Date: 2009-12-13 01:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I'm glad you liked the entry, though I hadn't given much thought to how the other path would work. Thanks for pointing me in that direction!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-12 08:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rejeneration.livejournal.com
Isn't it funny, how independent actions from our body can get us into so much hot water? Finger mistakes, mouth mistakes, etc. You'd think our bodies would more in tune with our minds. Maybe it's just that we're faulty to begin with. =D

Date: 2009-12-13 01:30 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Well, ultimately, it's not the body that's acting, but the brain that commands the body. One thing that's always amazed me is how sometimes you imagine something bad happening (e.g., spilling a drink on your clothes) and in trying to prevent it (by moving the drink away from the edge of the table), you make the bad thing happen (spill the drink on your clothes).

I don't think it's because we're faulty; I think it's more because we really don't understand ourselves.

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-12 09:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sherriola.livejournal.com
Fantastic! Congratulations on the right choice too. And you taught me something about chess, a game I've always wanted to learn. Great piece.

Date: 2009-12-13 01:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for the kind words.

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-13 03:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theafaye.livejournal.com
I've have done what you did - I couldn't be comfortable winning by cheating.

Really enjoyed this one.

Date: 2009-12-13 12:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-13 06:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cheshire23.livejournal.com
*tip of the virtual hat*

Impressive. Not only the writing, but also your actions.

Date: 2009-12-13 12:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thank you!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-13 11:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] joeymichaels.livejournal.com
Well done on both your part and your opponent's part. He deserved the win because of your error, but you definitely deserved the draw for confessing in the way that you did. Both of you showed a lot of class.

Also, an excellent retelling of this episode!

Date: 2009-12-13 12:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for the kind words!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-13 02:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sra33.livejournal.com
Oh, I could feel the inner turmoil. I probably would have done the same thing. :)

Date: 2009-12-14 01:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
That's what I was hoping to achieve. Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-13 11:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] karmasoup.livejournal.com
It's no surprise to me at all that you were the consummate gentleman here.

Date: 2009-12-14 01:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thank you, kindly!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-13 11:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] walkertxkitty.livejournal.com
I always welcome your posts about chess. While I don't understand the game and apparently cannot be taught, I can admire the work and artistry which goes into it. Good work!

Date: 2009-12-14 01:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for the kind words!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-14 12:07 pm (UTC)
ext_5285: (Default)
From: [identity profile] kiwiria.livejournal.com
Well done! Both the writing and the decision. This is one of your best pieces.

Date: 2009-12-14 04:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
High praise, indeed! Thank you!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-14 04:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-14 08:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] blythe025.livejournal.com
That was a fabulous take on the post, one of the best that I've read so far. It was well written all around, but I especially liked the angel/devil dialog. I have totally been there, caught in a moral dilema of something so small, but something that I knew I would feel bad about later.

Date: 2009-12-15 01:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] poppetawoppet.livejournal.com
honesty pays off!

:D
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