Flimflam and the art of the swindle at the chessboard

For many American chess fans, the history of the chess swindle begins and ends with Frank Marshall. The longtime U.S. champ was famous for his uncanny ability to salvage lost games, bamboozling an overconfident opponent with tactical or psychological tricks.

Marshall gets a shout-out in David Smerdon’s wonderful new book, “The Complete Chess Swindler: How to Save Points From Lost Positions” (New in Chess, 361 pp., $24.95), but Smerdon, an Australian grandmaster and behavioral economist, shows there has been a wealth of flimflam and trickeration at the chessboard in the decades since Marshall left us.

With copious examples from master and amateur play, Smerdon’s survey offers a useful taxonomy of swindling motifs, from the Trojan Horse and the Berserk Attack to something he dubs “window-ledging,” as well as the core skills any self-respecting chess swindler must master: perpetual checks, stalemates traps, fortress-building and endgame drawing ideas.

One thing a confidence man must have is confidence, as can be seen in today’s game between two strong German masters taken from Smerdon’s book. We’ll pass over Black’s eccentric opening play (apparently a Steffens trademark) and jump right to the pickle he finds himself in after 28. exd4 exd3 29. 0-0! (much better than 29. Rxd3?! Rae8+ 30. Kf1 f4, with serious counterplay) a5 30. b5 f4 31. Rxd3 Rf6 32. c5 Raf8 33. Bd5 — White is a clear pawn to the good and just has to turn back Black’s pressure to cash in. It’s worth noting that for the next 15 moves, the computer’s evaluation of White’s game never falls below +3.0, and multiple times considers Black dead lost.

In full swindle mode, Steffens never let his opponent have an easy move. After White misses chances to simplify — 37. Rxf2 Rxf2+ 38. Kxf2 Rxd5 39. Rg5 leads to a won rook ending, and even the scary 41. c6! Ng4+ 42. Kh3!! (and not 42. Kg1?? Rxg2+ 43. Kxg2 Ne3+; or 42. Kg3? Rc3+ 43. Kxg4 Rxf1 44. b6?? h5+ 45. Kg5 Kg7! and White is mated) Rc3+ 43. Rg3 Rxg3+ 44. Kxg3 Rxf1 45. Kxg4 is winning — the full, glorious swindle comes into focus on 42. Rxf2 Rxf2+ 43. Kg3.

“I imagine that many players would resign here, while the rest would seriously consider it,” Smerdon writes. “In fact, the truth is that there is no way for Black to avoid losing his rook or allowing White to get a new queen in the next few moves.”

But as the man said, “Nobody ever won by resigning,” and Black finds some amazing resources in the bleak landscape: 43…Ra2! 44. c6 Rxa3+ 45. Kf2 Rc3 46. b6 a4! (the Black pawn is just enough of an irritant to keep White on edge) 47. c7 a3 48. Bd5! (one trap skirted: 48. c8=Q+? Rxc8 49. Bxc8 a2 50. b7 a1=Q 1. b8=Q Qd4+ is a draw) Kg7! 49. b7 a2!! — perhaps the cleverest psychological ploy of the entire game.

White now sees that the natural 50. Bxa2 Rxc7 51 b8=Q (winning, no?) Rc2+ 52. Kg3 Rxa2, will lead to a dreaded rook-and-pawn fortress that White’s queen will have to break through. It turns out there’s a way in, but it’s a long, arduous slog — not exactly how White saw things going just 10 moves ago.

So: 50. c8=Q?? (the swindle works and the win disappears) Rxc8 51. bxc8=Q a1=Q 52. Qg8+ Kh6 53. Qf8+ Qg7! (Kh5?? 54. Bf3+ Kxh4 55. Qh6 would be mate, but now a queen trade leaves White with the wrong color to push his h-pawn to the queening square) 54. Qf4+ g5!, and after a few more unproductive checks, White conceded the draw.

GM Attila Groszpeter did his fellow Hungarian proud with a Houdini-like escape from an equally hopeless game against Scottish GM Colin McNab from a 1992 game. From today’s diagram, Black’s position is eminently resignable — down a piece and a pawn with the White queen covering any attacking tricks on the kingside.

But Black used White’s own overconfidence against him with one last, amazing swindling idea: 49…Qd1! 50. Qg7+?! Kh5 51. Bf6 (apparently decisive, as 51…Nh3+ 52. Kh2 Qxf1 53. Qh7+ Kg4 54. Qh4 is mate, but Groszpeter has seen farther) Nf3+!! 52. Kg2 (apparently sidestepping the stalemate trap of 52. gxf3 Qxf1+!, while also not falling for 53. Kf2 Qe1+ 54. Kxf3?? Qxf1 mate!) Qxe2+!! 53. Bxe2 and with the Black knight pinned, it’s a stalemate after all.

Piepho-Steffens, German Bundesliga, 2008-2009

1. c4 Na6 2. Nc3 Nh6 3. d4 g6 4. Nf3 d6 5. Bg5 f6 6. Bd2 e5 7. e3 Bg7 8. Bd3 f5 9. Bc2 e4 10. Ng1 Qg5 11. g3 Nb4 12. Bb1 O-O 13. Nh3 Qe7 14. Nf4 c6 15. h4 Ng4 16. a3 Na6 17. Ba2 Be6 18. Nxe6 Qxe6 19. Ne2 c5 20. Bc3 Kh8 21. Nf4 Qe8 22. Qd2 cxd4 23. Bxd4 Bxd4 24. Qxd4+ Qe5 25. Rd1 Nc5 26. b4 Nd3+ 27. Nxd3 Qxd4 28. exd4 exd3 29. O-O a5 30. b5 f4 31. Rxd3 Rf6 32. c5 Raf8 33. Bd5 fxg3 34. Rxg3 Nxf2 35. Kg2 dxc5 36. dxc5 Rd8 37. Bxb7 Rd2 38. Kg1 Rc2 39. Rg2 Nh3+ 40. Kh2 Nf2 41. Rfxf2 Rfxf2 42. Rxf2 Rxf2+ 43. Kg3 Ra2 44. c6 Rxa3+ 45. Kf2 Rc3 46. b6 a4 47. c7 a3 48. Bd5 Kg7 49. b7 a2 50. c8=Q Rxc8 51. bxc8=Q a1=Q 52. Qg8+ Kh6 53. Qf8+ Qg7 54. Qf4+ g5 55. Qd6+ Kh5 56. hxg5 Kxg5 57. Qg3+ Kh6 58. Qh4+ Kg6 59. Be4+ Kf7 60. Qh5+ Ke7 Draw agreed

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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