Written by Bwog Staff
On Sunday, Low Plaza saw a woman of great intellect and beauty stride on her steps to challenge the great chess minds of Fair Alma. Not one to avoid a fight, Bwog’s Chess Correspondent Chris Morris-Lent took up his pawn and rook in an epic battle on 64 wooden squares.
It’s been said that “chess is a sea in which a gnat can drink and an elephant can bathe” (Indian proverb), and “chess is mental masturbation” (Bobby Fischer). So how would you classify twenty-nine dorky men (and a few women), including yours truly, participating in a simultaneous exhibition against Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk, a prodigy and sex symbol who was both 1000 rating points higher and 1000 times hotter than the bulk of the participants?
At 12 noon on a mild, gray and gusty Sunday, the Columbia chess club, led by impresario Charles McMillan, CC ’08, converged under a tent set up on Low Plaza specifically for the occasion. I myself hadn’t played a game of serious chess since senior year when I was captain of my high school chess team so I justified my presence at the table to myself in the name of gonzo journalism. As in life, I was always much better at the commentary than the execution, anyway. Besides, morbid fascination with the game is made all the purer by the fact that I suck; I am no longer even the best blitz player in the Classics department.
Assuming a spot near the center of the yet-to-start action, I note that I’m flanked by a nerdy engineering type who reminds me of a John McEnroe/Steve Urkel hybrid and a corpulent man in a dapper suit who reminds me of Boris Yeltsin.
The battle-of-the-sexes subtext aside, Grandmaster (GM) Kosteniuk, sixth-best woman in the world, shows up about ten minutes later, clad in an elegant baggy white outfit. The old misogynistic dictum goes “women are never exceptional athletes” – as in basketball, baseball, or soccer, the top 100 chess players are overwhelmingly male – but that doesn’t mean that Sue Bird wouldn’t disembowel ninety-nine percent of all men in a one versus one. Kosteniuk is Bird, Brandi Chastain, Anna Kournikova, and Danica Patrick rolled into one: in single combat, a match for all but the very best – top 100 or so – in the world.
At 12:30, Kosteniuk commences to engage the participants, offering a short handshake and pushing her king’s pawn forward two on every board, a move which Fischer called “best by test.”
The first five moves of my game pass perfunctorily. I’m hoping for a tame game where I have good chances of drawing and dulling GM Kosteniuk’s vastly superior technique. (A grandmaster knows EVERYTHING about chess; my knowledge is a pathetic subset of hers – it’s as if an undergraduate were to challenge Michael Seidel to a debate about Joyce). Fortunately, GM Kosteniuk has 28 other people to contend with, and I have 28 times longer to think about my moves than she.
Nevertheless, by move 14, I am certainly losing; much more subtly than the guy next to me, who is lamenting cryptically, “I shouldn’t have played Fried Liver!,” but nevertheless, losing. Material is even – we both have the same amount of pieces – but mine aren’t doing anything and my pawn structure is a bit of a mess.
How is everyone else doing? Aside from the vocalized death throes of my neighbor, few seem to be completely doomed as of yet. “The guy near the fountain,” someone says, “he’s only rated 50 points lower than her and nobody’s paying attention to him!” I steal a glance at his board, which contains a sharp middle-game conflict, the kind of firefight I ignominiously avoided. GM Kosteniuk improves position with every move while I shuffle my pieces helplessly on the back rank as if Chuck Norris had Terri Schiavo in a hammerlock.
On move 21, a deus ex machina: GM Kosteniuk, confident in her position, attempts to chase my bishop away, missing that her move drops a pawn after a short tactical sequence. I exchange rooks; she makes her circuit and returns to the board, gasping in dismay. By move 24 I hold all the cards on my board – bishop vs. knight, an extra pawn – but I also hold tickets to Macbeth at 3, it’s 2:20, and grinding out a win in such a position would have been laborious, probably doomed to failure.
A blast of wind knocks the pieces over while GM Kosteniuk is on the other side of the tent; noting the portent, I reset the position, await her arrival, and offer a draw, the apotheosis of my plan from move one. She accepts, and with a handshake and a smile, I embark for the subway station, more than satisfied, with an optimal result, a rictus of joy, a story to tell the grandkids some day; my greatest athletic success since holding the kingship in four-square for like twenty rounds last week.
Later that evening I e-mailed McMillan for the full results:
Honestly, she wasn’t sure what the score was. There were 29 participants in total, and she had 2 losses, and who knows how many draws (could be 4 or 5). So her score was approximately 24.5 or 25.
Conrad Ho’s win was a total swindle. He was basically down a piece as of move 15 or so. Dan Park won in a nice Dragon game (1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6). Dan is seriously a grandmaster in that line, so she picked the wrong opening to play on this particular day.
For anyone else who likes chess, my game is annotated below.
1 e4 e5
Lacking the balls to play my typical Sicilian (1…c5), which is only really appropriate for playing other retards during my scholastic days, I conservatively push my king’s pawn forward two spaces (fig. 1), looking to achieve the most boring game possible.
2 Nf3 Nc6
3 Bb5 Nf6
4 O-O Nxe4
5 d4 Nd6
6 Bxc6 dxc6
7 dxe5 Nf5
8 Qxd8 Kxd8
Playing right into my hands; the consummation of my dastardly plan. The position after GM Kosteniuk’s ninth move (fig. 2) results from the most common sequence of moves following 3…Nf6 and is well-known to chess theory as a boring weapon GMs at the highest level like to use to draw (nobody likes to draw more than GMs). General chess heuristics indicate Black’s advantage lies in his two bishops and his disadvantage in being saddled by the doubled pawns.
10 h3 h6
11 Bf4 Be6
12 g4 Ne7
My position indicates my abject ignorance of the line; material is even but GM Kosteniuk’s pieces are working synergistically while mine are either chilling on the back rank or biting granite.
14 Nxe6 fxe6
15 Bd2 Rd8
16 Ne4 Be7
17 Rad1 Rf8
18 f4 Nb4
I figure that the more pieces I exchange (fig. 3), the less of a chance I have of losing. The strategic subtext is that, with fewer pieces to cramp my corner of the sandbox, my space disadvantage will become less suffocating. I’m surprised by her response to 18…Nb4 – 19. c3 (Nxa2 loses the piece; there is no escape after Ra1) or 19. a3 seem better.
19 Bxb4 Bxb4
The second validation and consummation of my cowardice; the move drops a pawn. Rxd8 should maintain the stranglehold GM Kosteniuk has on the position.
21 Rxd1 Rxf4
22 Nd2 Bc5+
It was at this point that a gust of wind knocked the pieces over.
Worse than the obvious Rf2+. Black is better – a pawn up, a bishop against a knight in an endgame with pawns on both sides of the board. He can probably win if he is not me, but I have a less ambitious plan in mind, the logical conclusion of every move I’ve played during the entire game…
25 Kg3 Rf7 (fig. 5) 1/2
…to request a draw. GM Kosteniuk assesses the position, utters a terse, kindly “OK,” initiates a handshake, and moves onto the next board.