"It is not enough to be a good player, you must also play well" - Savielly Tartakower
"It is enough to play badly, provided your opponent plays worse" - Justin Horton
One of my favourite chess books is the late Ludek Pachman's Decisive Games in Chess History, which might be a classic collection but is certainly not a collection of classics. It takes the reader through a number of games played at the end of top grandmaster tournaments: blunders and misjudgements abound as the pressure overcomes even the greatest and most experienced professionals in the field.
The pleasure of the book is not in seeing that the best players can play badly. It's in seeing games that, by and large, we have not seen before, and in seeing real chess - chess that is more typical of normal tournament play than the classics with which we were entertained when we first started reading chess books. I most certainly formed the impression, when I was young, that Botvinnik and Capablanca played a flawless masterpiece just about every time they sat down at the board. It wasn't like that, of course - human players possess human weaknesses. Among those weaknesses is the tendency to lose one's composure, self-confidence and to some degree one's capabilities, when the pressure is on.
I'm a poor player under pressure: it doesn't help being of a sufficiently nervous disposition that I normally withdraw from tournaments before the end. In the rare event that I'm both still in the running and still there, it's rarer still that the crucial game sees me coming out on top. Sometimes I just cave in: sometimes I come close to overcoming both my opponent and myself before I miss an easy win and subside to defeat. (In due course I imagine I shall publish a couple of sample games for the entertainment of our readers. "See what you could have won", as Jim Bowen would have it.)
Last Saturday was a pressure match. The last of the nine rounds that comprise the Team Championship of Aragón. There are thirty-two teams in the top division, the Autonómico: at the end of the season, if I properly understand the rules, the bottom three are relegated to the provincial divisions while the teams that come between 24th and 29th are obliged to face play-off matches against the best-performing teams from those divisions. Confusingly, to the inexperienced English ear, surviving such a match is known as promoción. Finishing above them consitutes la permanencía.
My team, Casino Jaque, had occupied one of those relegation spots with two rounds to go, following a disastrous defeat to the bottom team in round seven. We won in round eight but were still no higher than 26th. However, with a touch of the luck we had enjoyed in the previous round, when an opponent's mobile went off, we were drawn for the final round against a team rated, and performing, slightly below us. To win the match should mean la permanencía: to draw it, a probable play-off, while a loss might well mean relegation.
In such circumstances I have rarely played well, though my worst performances take place when I have already played several rounds in a weekend and my capacity to deal with my nerves exhausted. In crucial team matches I have often played rather better, or at least held my nerve more successfully.
So it was last Saturday. I did not play well. I do not yet know how badly I played, since my PC crashed last week and Rykba is, as yet, not reinstalled. But I know I played badly. Not so badly at the start, though probably not so well as I thought at the time (since the advantage I thought I had acquired was certainly smaller than the advantage I actually had). But extremely badly for about ten moves, during which period I insisted on improving the position of all of his pieces while disabling both my pieces and my pawn structure.
I suspect that he was winning, after this. But I also suspect he did not realise this and had become used to the idea that he was trying to block my rooks rather than noticing that my king had opened up for him. Blocking the c-file wasn't an effective plan when I could open up the a-file instead: and once I had, the game was over swiftly, though not until I had missed 42. Qa1. (Black saw it, I think: knowing this may save you wondering, as I did, why he then attempted to avoid a possible repetition in a position where he is otherwise losing.)
So I won. And we won. And - though the league took several tortured days to tell us so - we finished 22nd, achieving la permanencía by virtue of the Sum of Progressive Scores, which is not normally a friendly system when you've had to win the last two rounds. We finished two places above the zona de promoción - and four above our Huesca rivals. Not so bad for a team that was seeded 28th.
I'll say this for myself - although I played badly, I did not lose my nerve. Gerald Abrahams wrote that games are won not by good positions, but by good moves. But it's my belief that at club level, far more games are lost by bad moves than won by good ones. And although I played a lot of bad moves, I understood, just in time, that that was happening and concentrated on trying not to lose. What is chess? Like I said, it's a struggle. And in a struggle, games are won not by good moves so much as by good nerves.