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.