Travail Pursuit #64: The Rise and Fall of the Lucky Sweatshirt

In case readers think this is all complete fiction... here is a rare photograph of me actually wearing the lucky sweatshirt against GM Gormally

In case readers think this is all complete fiction… here is a rare photograph of me actually wearing the lucky sweatshirt against GM Gormally

In my last post I recounted the saga of my lucky black sweatshirt which, I felt, was giving me an unseen helping hand at the chess board in the period up to Christmas. I promised a second part to the tale and so, here it is!

Let’s begin this chapter of our story in the Syhiba curry house in Sowerby Bridge. It is Saturday the 6th of February and I am sharing my naan bread with none other than Grand Master Danny Gormally who is due to play a fundraising simul I’m organising in Hebden Bridge the following day. Danny and I have never met before tonight and we are getting to know each other. Of course chess players do this in a different way to any other person on the planet. Ice-breaking questions between two non-players might include things like: ‘where did you grow up?’ or ‘do you have any children?’ or ‘what did you study at university?’ Not chess players. No, the first questions we ask to get to know each other are usually things like: ‘what’s your rating?’ or ‘what openings do you play?’ or ‘what’s your best ever win?’

Danny and I are having this type of conversation (we did get on to normal human topics later on in the evening!) and of course there is a subtext because we’ll be facing each other across the board tomorrow. So information shared now might well be used later. Or it might not.

Once I’ve finished answering some of Danny’s questions about the standard of opposition he’ll be facing the next day we do indeed begin to discuss chess openings and I find myself confessing that I’ve been experimenting with the Albin Counter Gambit against 1.d4 2.c4. Needless to say Danny is not impressed. I won’t share his exact words as this is a family website, but suffice it to say he doesn’t think much of the Albin. Suitably chastised I back track and tell him that I’m only ‘having fun with it’ against weaker players. This is an outrageous porky and naturally I’ve already resolved to chance my arm with the Albin the next day if I’m given the chance.

Fast-forward to 2pm the following day and as GM Gormally returns to my board for the second time that afternoon I respond to his 1.d4 d5 2.c4 with e5 and we have the Albin. Danny chuckles and says,

‘In thought you said you didn’t play this against strong players’

‘Maybe I don’t think you are that strong’, I snap back merrily.

We both laugh now but I fully expect to be on the receiving end of a chess lesson in how to punish your opponent’s ridiculously over ambitious opening play!

But wait, I’m forgetting to impart a very important fact. I’m wearing the lucky sweatshirt. ‘This will be the ultimate test of its powers’ I had reasoned as I pulled it on that morning. Naturally I didn’t expect it to alter the inevitable outcome but perhaps it might at least help me to give Danny a decent game.

In fact, the sweatshirt assisted my efforts in a most unexpected fashion. It had nothing to do with what was happening at my board, where Danny wisely avoided the mainlines of the Albin and plumped for something offbeat where he rapidly built up a strong positional advantage, but it did have a great deal to do with what was happening on another board across the room.

Andrew Clarkson had travelled over from Burnley for his chance to play Grand Master Gormally and he had played a line of the Pirc that he considered to be risky but interesting. Then, just as Danny seemed to be gaining the upper hand, he overlooked a tactical trick that cost him his queen and shortly afterwards the game. I would say that Danny is from the Garry Kasparov school of poker faces (i.e. he doesn’t really have one and wears his feelings on his face pretty openly) and he was visibly quite shaken by this mistake. For quite a few rounds of moves afterwards you could see that he was distracted and upset with himself.

It was this period of the afternoon’s play that became critical for quite a few other players in the room as Danny’s temporary loss of moral equilibrium led to him making uncharacteristic errors on other boards too. It was during this passage of play that I was able to exploit a tactic on my board too and suddenly, although my position was objectively still difficult, I’d given myself a chance.

I won’t recount the story of the rest of the game here, you can read the commentary in the game notes (below) for that…

So, in the end I was able to win my game to claim what is surely the most auspicious result of all for my lucky sweatshirt!

Now that this tale of daring-do is told I have to confess that, during the rest of 2016, the lucky sweatshirt has not been quite so lucky. Even before this outstanding result, there were some signs that it’s powers were flickering somewhat. I had remained true to my pre-Christmas resolution that I would wear the garment for every game I played in the New Year, but that did not prevent me from going down after a timorous performance at the end of January against my old nemesis, Karim Khan. Definitely a black mark against my black sweatshirt! Aside from that though I’d picked up three reasonably straightforward wins (admittedly against relatively weak opponents) prior to my simul victory against Danny and so it was that, the following week, I sat down to play Mick Connor in a Calderdale League match feeling full of confidence. If lucky sweatshirt could help me beat my first Grand Master surely Todmorden ‘B’s second board stood no chance! Did he?

To begin with, the game seemed to be going well. I’d prepared for Mick’s pet opening, Alekhine’s Defence. I got the variation on the board that I was hoping for. I achieved a strong position despite missing a few better options at certain points and arrived at the juncture (see game viewer below) feeling very confident about my chances, although of course I recognised that there was still a huge amount of play to be had and no guarantee of success.

The blunder in this game really did lead me to wonder if the lucky sweatshirt’s mojo had finally run dry. Clearly losing this game had nothing to do with my own inadequacies and everything to do with my magical garment letting me down badly!

However, any doubts I may have had were soon expunged when, in my next two games, I first had the better of a draw with White against a stronger opponent and then got very lucky early in the game below.

My season now appeared to be right back on track. But then… disaster struck! Two devastating losses in two weeks in the Calderdale League brought me down to earth with a big bump.

First of all I fumbled my single opportunity to bring down some ‘big game’ in the position below.

And then, even worse, in my next game I completely lost the plot to misplay a winning position and stumble to another ignominious defeat.

As you can imagine, after these two painful setbacks, confidence in my lucky charm had vanished completely. Obviously I’d used up all my juju on the simul win. Time to dump my superstition completely and start wearing other clothes for chess matches? After no little amount of reflection I decided that I had to see the experiment through. I’d promised myself that I’d wear the sweatshirt for every game post-Christmas. I didn’t feel right to stop now. So I continued.

Perhaps Caissa decided to reward my obstinacy for I did round off the season with a 4/5 performance including another good result in the same line of the Two Knights we saw earlier which I’ve been experimenting with recently. In both games (the one against Paul Day above and this) my opponents blundered early on to gift me easy victories. Lucky sweatshirt was back!

‘What next for the lucky sweatshirt?’ I hear you cry desperate for the end of this interminable post. Well, I think if the season had ended as badly as it appeared to be destined to be in March then I’d have said that this ‘experiment’ was over. Categorically, the lucky sweatshirt is hokum and I should stop concerning myself with it and concentrate on improving my own skills rather than relying on supersitition. But that clearly didn’t happen. Perhaps the sweatshirt’s powers were temporarily drained by its extraordinary show of force at the simul. During the last five games of the season it definitely seemed to have regained its potency. Ultimately I don’t think I’ve yet gathered enough ‘data’ to prove or disprove my fantastic theory. I guess I’ll just have to carry on wearing it next season and see what happens…

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One Response to “Travail Pursuit #64: The Rise and Fall of the Lucky Sweatshirt”

  1. Martin Carpenter

    Jul 27. 2016

    I’m sure there was a placebo effect, whether it still applies at all is another matter :)

    Or actually whether extra confidence is universally useful in chess. That’s very hard to say with any confidence.

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