In ancient Rome when a conquering General returned to the capital after a successful campaign he was often voted the honour of a “triumph” by the senate. This was essentially a ceremonial victory parade through the streets of the city with his army following in his wake. The General would drive in his chariot, the roads lined with jubilant citizens, to the senate house where he would be received by his peers and become the subject of various obsequies.
However, to ensure all this adoration didn’t give him too inflated an opinion of himself, behind him, in the chariot, would be one of his slaves who would murmur again and again in his ear the words “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man!” It is this phrase that the classic epitaph “Memento mori” (Remember you must die) originates from. I also like to believe that it is the origin of the famous pantomime catch phrase “Look behind you!” but I admit that might be stretching reality a little bit too far!
Over the last few months I’ve been reminded of this lesson from antiquity on several occasions as I’ve seen and experienced life at the chess board deliver some reality checks (no pun intended!) When you are on a good run of form, whether this be at chess, or in any competitive situation, it is easy to get overconfident and start to feel like a Roman General enjoying his moment in the spotlight. Victories are easy to come by, your luck is in and you feel unstoppable. It is at this moment that the game tends to hand you a timely reminder that all good things must come to an end.
As I sat enjoying my Christmas turkey in the mid-season break I reflected on an excellent first half of the chess calendar. I had a score of +6 and I was riding high in the Calderdale league with my team, Hebden Bridge ‘A’, being unbeaten. Immediately after the festive holidays I had a little bit of a stutter but maintained my score at +6 through January. Then in February… disaster struck and I lost five in a row including some pretty painful defeats. Admittedly three of these five loses were against strong opponents who I’d normally expect to struggle against. The other two hurt like hell.
Take this first position which lost me my unbeaten record in the Calderdale league.
I had just played 17.0-0-0 and my opponent now sunk into a long think. He said after he game that he had expected 17.0-0 and instinctively felt that he had good chances after I had castled long. From my point of view we had just reached the end of a crisis period in the game in which I had managed to exchange my e-pawn for black’s f-pawn in the belief that the resulting pawn structures would be to my advantage in the end game. I also felt optimistic that I could take advantage of the open e-file as well as developing a king’s side attack with moves such as Rhf1, g4 and f5. Sure, there were some weaknesses in my position and some organisation would be needed before I could push on but I was optimistic.
Then, black played 17….Bh6! and after reflecting on this for only a few minutes I realised that in fact I had some serious challenges on my hands. The move played both pins the f-pawn and prepares to attack it ferociously with either Nd5 or Nh5 next move. Having been happy that my dark squared bishop was on the long diagonal I now realised that the h6-c1 diagonal was the more important one. In the end I decided to give up the f-pawn and re-organise my pieces for an attack on the black king but it didn’t emerge and I was well beaten. It’s not always easy to find a move like 17….Bh6! as it means re-positioning a piece that already looks like it is on its optimum square. My opponent deserves great credit for finding the right idea and following it through with some strong play.
This loss dropped me out of the running and put the third seed in the competition in a fine position as he was the only other player aside from my opponent in the game above who reached 3/3 and, as he seemed in excellent form, I fully anticipated he would win and go 4/4 on his own before the final round.
Naturally, it didn’t turn out that way. In round four, playing with the black pieces again, the underdog battled grittily to keep the game tight. They reached a pawn ending and the favourite blundered when he calculated that, although he would queen second he would queen with check and be able to win his opponents new queen via a skewer. In fact the opposite was the case as he didn’t queen with check. Simple mistake to make when you are a little fatigued at the end of a long fight but nevertheless, it was something of a shock outcome.