The science-fiction writer Douglas Adams ridiculed our primitive species for considering digital watches to be ‘a pretty neat idea’. Digital chess clocks really are pretty neat, because they enable modern competitive games to be played with an ‘increment’. For each move played, you earn extra seconds to make the next one, a simple innovation which allows all games to reach a natural conclusion. (By contrast, analogue clocks allot a tranche of thinking time for a series of moves). A lack of increment on the clock occasionally makes for excrement on the board; bashing out 20 moves in five remaining seconds may be physically impossible, but that never stops people trying. Pieces topple like bowling pins and the clock gets thumped like a broken television.
Still, online speed demons get a rush from playing without increment. Two-dimensional pieces don’t fall over, it is true, but getting ‘flagged’ as the last seconds tick away can still induce molten rage in the best of us, especially when the position is completely drawn. That’s what happened to Gata Kamsky during a ‘banter blitz’ match on the Chess24 website last month, against Chilean grandmaster Cristobal Henriquez. In ‘banter blitz’ the players speak and stream their thoughts as they play. Kamsky, deeply affronted, muttered some unfiltered thoughts and ‘rage quit’ the match. The icing on the cake, for a mirthful online audience, was when Kamsky called himself a ‘famous fucking legend’. Chess24 didn’t miss a trick, and clued-in fans can now buy a mug and T-shirt bearing that meme-tastic pronouncement.
Without doubt, Henriquez won fair and square, but Kamsky’s immodest outburst did have a ring of truth. A five-time US champion, he was a serious contender for the World Championship in the 1990s, before retiring from the game for several years. These days, ranked just outside the world top fifty, he is still a match for anyone. Sportingly, Henriquez allowed him a rematch last week. Kamsky was replete with contrition and compliments for his young opponent, whom he then demolished with a 5.5-0.5 score.
It tickled me to be paired against Kamsky just a few days later in the German Bundesliga, a team competition. This was a slow game, played over the board, but by dint of our combined ineptness, scarcely more edifying than an internet blitz game. My play was feeble, and Kamsky built up a winning position with no apparent effort. At move 27, with my king exposed on c3, I was hopelessly lost and waiting for the axe to fall. To our mutual incredulity, it never did.
Luke McShane–Gata Kamsky
Bundesliga, February 2020
1 e4 c6 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3 g6 4 d4 Bg7 5 h3 Nf6 6 Bd3 dxe4 7 Nxe4 Nxe4 8 Bxe4 Nd7 9 c3 O-O 10 Bg5 Qc7 11 Qd2 e5 12 O-O-O exd4 13 Nxd4 Nc5 14 Bc2 Ne6 15 Nxe6 Bxe6 16 Bb3? Awful. 16…Bxb3 17 axb3 a5! Taking a crowbar to the queenside. 18 Qf4 Qb6 19 Kc2 Qb5 20 c4 Qc5 21 Bf6 Bxf6 22 Qxf6 a4 23 Qd4 Qf5+ 24 Kc3 axb3 25 Kxb3 b5 26 Rhe1 bxc4+ 27 Kc3 (see diagram) Rfb8 27…Qa5+ 28 Kc2 Qa4+ 29 Kc1 Qb3 was simpler. 28 Qxc4 Ra5 29 b4 Ra3+ 30 Kb2 Ra4 31 Kb3 Raxb4+ 32 Qxb4 Rxb4+ 33 Kxb4 Qxf2 34 g4 Qb2+ 35 Kc4 Qc2+ 36 Kd4 c5+ 37 Kd5 c4 38 Rh1 Kg7 39 Kd4 Kh6 40 Kc5 c3 41 Kc4 Kg5 42 Rc1 Qd2 43 Rxc3 Fifteen forgettable moves later, a draw was agreed.
The 138th Varsity Chess Match between Oxford and Cambridge takes place on 7 March at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, London. Play begins at 12.30 p.m. and spectators are welcome. In a nod to tradition, the match is played without increment. I’m sure the proceedings will be dignified nonetheless.