Bulgarian Grandmaster Kiril Georgiev has set a new simultaneous chess exhibition record of 360 games. Georgiev played for more than 14 hours and has applied for recognition by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Simultaneous chess exhibitions have a long history, but today’s version is wimpy by historical standards. Grandmasters used to play blindfolded: Alexander Alekhine played more than 30 games simultaneously, blindfolded, against tough opposition, and in more recent times other players have extended the record. At some point, the Russians banned simultaneous blindfolded exhibitions by their grandmasters because they believed such events led to mental deterioration–a plausible concern. Playing 360 games at once strikes me as pretty easy, compared to playing 30 or 40 blindfolded.
As a college student, I occasionally played against a Master who was a couple of years younger than me. (He crushed me.) He grew up in New York City and, with his friends, would skip school and spend the day riding the subways. As they rode, they would play chess. They never used boards, but just called out moves to one another. Still, they only played one game at a time.
Some years ago, Viktor Korchnoi made an appearance at the Renaissance Festival here in Minnesota. This was when Korchnoi was the second-rated player in the world and was scheduled to play Anatoly Karpov for the world championship. Korchnoi played a simultaneous exhibition of something like 50 boards. The first 50 people to send in postcards after the event was announced got to play. So it was a motley crew–a master or two, some very good players, some woodpushers, a few kids.
I didn’t get a board, but I went to the Renaissance Festival to watch the event. A square of hay bales had been set up, and boards were perched on the bales around the perimeter. The contestants were all in place, awaiting Korchnoi’s arrival. At the appointed hour he showed up and took his place in the middle of the square, wearing a Robin Hood hat with a feather, suitable to the occasion.
Korchnoi was a defensive genius who was known for a stodgy, conservative, but effective style of play. So what happened next was a revelation. Korchnoi walked swiftly from bale to bale, pushing a pawn forward on each board. As the games went on, he didn’t stop, but slowed down briefly at each board to make a move. What was remarkable was how aggressive his moves were. Korchnoi, a defensive specialist, would look at each board for perhaps half a second, then grasp one of his pieces and shove it down the board in the most aggressive manner possible. I’ve never seen such vicious play; his opponents were brutally overrun.
Only after most of the 50 opponents had resigned or been checkmated did Korchnoi actually pause before a board. The last three or four opponents were excellent players and demanded some thought; one or two actually won their game against the grandmaster.
Early on in the process, one of the younger players, who had been utterly overrun, turned over his king in resignation and, when Korchnoi came around again, held out his scorecard and asked Korchnoi to sign it. As Korchnoi did so, the young man said, “Sir? It’s been an honor to play you.” Korchnoi looked at him for a long moment, assessed the proposition, and nodded in agreement.
Korchnoi’s aggressive style was mirrored, in miniature, by the master I used to play against in college. Mediocre chess players play cautiously. They don’t know what exactly will happen if they send their pieces careening down the board, but experience says the consequences are likely to be bad. Really good players–Korchnoi was an extreme example–understand exactly why it is that sheer aggression is usually punished. If their opponent is not skillful enough to position his pieces precisely correctly, all-out, headlong attack is the strategy of choice. Weaknesses invisible to the average player are ruthlessly exploited.
I’ve always thought that a broader lesson could be drawn from these observations. Ambitious world leaders are like top chess players. If they see that their opponent has positioned his forces flawlessly, so that aggression will be repelled, caution is the order of the day. But God help an amateur. A hint of weakness may unleash a relentless assault; an assault that will come as a surprise to anyone who does not understand thoroughly the forces that are in play.
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