Victory is sweet. We all know that. There’s a thrill, a rush of accomplishment when you win, when you defeat your adversary. Whether it’s sports or games, soccer or scrabble, victory feels good. In fact, the greater the adversary the greater the thrill. Defeating an opponent against all odds is one of the greatest and most powerful feelings you can get.
I know this feeling well. As a former competitive martial artists, nothing feels better than victory … and nothing worse than defeat. Currently, my focus is on chess. Over the last year, I’ve played 59 games, winning 47 while drawing 9 … and I would trade them all away, every single one, to have this one defeat erased from my memory.
Let me set the table. I’m an amateur chess player, and over the last year I’ve made incredible progress. I’ve studied hard, I’ve focused, I put my time in and I was finally seeing results. My rating soared past 2000, nearing 2100 actually. This puts me close to master level. Well, sort of. I’m at least within shouting distance.
I was winning a lot … in fact, winning too much. As my chess coach, GM Igor Smirnov, says, you learn far more from your losses than from your wins. I was playing against opponents rated 1800 or so, and I was cleaning up. I had nothing more to learn at this level. To progress, I needed to face harder competition.
On chess.com, I searched for stronger opponents, and I found one ready to accept a challenge. His name was Murad Nuri, a Fide Master with an official rating of 2322. When I looked at his few completed games, he generally crushed people. With some butterflies in my stomach, I accepted his challenge. Here we go.
I went into the game fully expecting to lose. This guy should clean me up, and from there I can analyze the game, see where I made my mistakes and then come back stronger. That was the plan. I had absolutely no problem with losing … until the game started.
We reached this position, and already I’m quite happy. I had studied this variation before, and I remember thinking Black can easily get into trouble. I have easy development, Black has a less easy time. I’m not saying White is better, but I’m certainly happy.
Then this happened.
Black greedily tried to win a pawn, but at what cost? He is still undeveloped and the centre is open. I can castle easily, he will take time. If I can play Bc4, he is stuck and I can increase the pressure from there. He’ll have to defend very accurately. I don’t think he realizes this. I think he messed up. My heart starts beating faster.
We then reached this position. Black has only two developed pieces. I have my full army. Everything is aimed at his King. He is trying to get counterplay against me, but I know that, in a fight, the more active army will always win. Here, in this position, I played the brilliant 18.Qxe5! I let Black take a pawn with check, because it doesn’t matter because I’m going to mate him.
He was busted, completely busted. He chased my King around, but with so few pieces he was soon losing. Beyond losing. If you put the position in the computer, it says White is up +25. Every move I’ve played so far is perfect. Now comes the final blow.
I threaten checkmate in one. I can also win his Rook. I’m also up a piece. Once he runs out of checks, the game is over. He can resign anytime. Looking at this position, I planned on either Nb5 or Rb5. It looks suicidal, but he can’t take because, again, I threaten mate in one. Which move is better? Rb5 stops Qb6+ but allows Qa3+, whereas Nb5 stops Qa3 but allows Qb6+. Neither makes a big difference. Black has no follow-up.
I decided on Nb5 because, I wish I were making this up, it looked prettier. It kept my Rooks inline, and it brought my last piece into the attack. Looks like mate in four or so. Black is defenceless, and I was ecstatic.
I had just completely outplayed a chess master! Someone rated over 2300! Moreover, I have never beaten a titled player before, and here I was doing it in style. This was instantly the best game I had ever played, a breath-taking, smashing attack that blew my opponent off the board almost from move one. When I publish my greatest games anthology, this would be page 1 …
… and then he played Qb6+, moved his c-pawn with check and took my Queen. I lost. And I was devastated.
I can’t describe my emotions, not with any justice. It felt like my stomach completely fell out, that’s how empty I felt. My perfect game, my immortal game, spoiled by one move. I basically flipped a coin to decide between Rb5 and Nb5, and I picked the wrong one. That’s the whole game.
Instead of beating my first master, I’m left staring at the board in shock. I somehow summon the strength to write ‘GG’ in the chat. I don’t want to be a sore loser, and I’m sure he’s feeling the exact opposite of me right now. He found the only move I overlooked, because I was so sure I was winning. And in that one instant, I lost.
At the beginning, I said I wanted to lose. That’s true. I was fully expecting to get outplayed … but then I wasn’t. I was actually winning. Victory was within my grasp, and that’s precisely what makes it so terrible. If I never had a chance, I’d feel fine. It is what it is, but to be so close, to taste victory, to have all my excitement build and build with every move, inching closer and closer to personal history only for it all to turn to ash?
I wanted to give up chess. I won’t lie, that was my first thought, once my consciousness turned back on. Give it all up. GG, no re. There’s no coming back from a loss like that. I will never spoil a better position. Give it up, never experience such a let down again.
That was my first thought, and for about five minutes it was pretty persuasive. Nothing would be easier than to give up … but then I thought about it more, and then my eyes narrowed, my fists clenched and resolution took over.
When things get tough, nobody will blame you for giving up. That’s what most people do, but I’m not most people. No, I’m not normal, I’m not average. I refuse to be average. When a champion falls down, he gets back up and keeps going. He might have to brush himself off, maybe bandage a wound, maybe even cry, but he gets back up and keeps going. In the immediate aftermath, I wanted to stop, but as the smoke cleared I realized that was the last thing I could do.
If I gave up, that would haunt me forever. Every time I walk past my chess board or see a game or even glance upon it on television, I would feel regret. That would never go away. I would know that, when the going got tough, I gave up. As soon as adversity reared it head, I feld. It would be the easy path, but I would never live it down.
Or I could do the hard thing. I could pick myself up, I could bandage my wound, I could redouble my efforts to improve. I could play such brilliant chess that this game becomes a distant memory. If anything, this game becomes a turning point, the event that separates the old me from the new me, the quitter from the champion. That’s what I will do.
Even if, right now, I feel hollow and empty inside. I will never lose a worse game.