Columns | January 05, 2010 17:48

Aronian, Agassi and the Project Triangle of Chess

Every chess player, no matter how weak, has a high point in his career. Mine occurred in May 2007, during the last round of the Dutch Team Chess Championship. I was playing in the Master League, the highest level in Dutch chess, and I was surrounded by all the top players of The Netherlands. Moreover, I had prepared a spectacular line which was sure to make the headlines the next day. In reality, I was displaying typical amateur behaviour.

During the first moves, I was king of the world; never felt better. Everything went according to plan. From the outside, it looked as if we got a sharp position on the board, full of chances for both players. To be sure, everybody was looking at my game. What could go wrong? Yet it was then that it all went horribly wrong.

My opponent was the talented youngster Wouter Spoelman, now a respected GM who recently did live commentary for ChessVibes during the Tal Memorial. In a sharp Najdorf main line, I had 'prepared' an obscure variation which would guarantee me interesting play against the uncastled black king, and with my opponent unprepared, I hoped to achieve at least a draw and, most  importantly, gain the respect from my teammates, including several grandmasters. It wasn't to be.

Dutch League, 2007

In this position, instead of the usual 14.f6, I played the little-analysed

14.g6!? and immediately got up from my chair. I walked around for a while and saw that Ivan Sokolov was studying my position with some interest. I also saw that my opponent had never looked at this move before as he buried his head in his hands and started thinking for almost 45 minutes. In the mean time, I walked around, ordered several coffees, chatted with friends and enjoyed life. When I finally came back to the board, I saw that my opponent had played the expected

14...hxg6 I remembered that John Nunn, in his seminal The Complete Najdorf: 6.Bg5 now gave 15.fxg6 fxg6 16.b4 Na4 17.Nxa4 bxa4 18.e5! leading to extremely complex play, as in the game Markzon-DeFirmian, New York 1991, which I had thorougly looked at in my preparations. So I instantly played what is in retrospect the most stupid move of my entire chess career:

15.fxg6?? and went in total shock after Spoelman played

15...0-0!! ... brutally ending my preparation by playing a novelty Nunn failed to mention and, more importantly, which I had failed to analyse beforehand. I immediately felt I was now lost in a higher sense: black's king is safe, he has an extra center pawn, a lead in development and apart from an isolated e-pawn, my pieces just don't coordinate at all. I cursed myself for my sloppy homework and my horrible attitude of walking around and being proud of myself instead of thinking about the game. Most of all, I realized how utterly untalented I was in 'feeling chess', in recognizing crucial moments and sensing the 'momentum', especially in such an important game. I felt utterly amateurish in such a professional setting, and I was truly ashamed of myself. 

Of course, if I had actually thought for a few minutes at move 15, I would have played 15.fxe6! regardless of what Nunn had written, if only because Black can't castle after that in view of the threat Nd5. Now, however, after the subsequent 16.Qh5 fxg6 17.Qxg6 Bf6 Black was already better and won easily in 32 moves. It was to be my last game in the Master League, and I think I still haven't fully recovered since. I'm a 'mere' chess amateur now - always was destined to be one - and all I have of that period is a few good memories of playing at a level where I totally didn't belong.

Well, to be honest I had it coming. My 'preparation' consisted of checking Nunn's book and looking at a few possibilities in the DeFirmian game. I hadn't really studied the tactical nuances of the position at all, let alone its strategical characteristics. I simply lacked the time to do more than I did, but I was also lazy. In short, I lacked both time and interest. I guess I just wasn't that into chess anymore.

Secondly, I found the fact that I was playing together with these top players in one room more important than actually winning the game. I was playing chess for all the wrong reasons: not because I wanted to have success, but because I wanted to be successful. I wanted to enjoy chess instead of playing it well. And thirdly, of course, I just lacked the talent to turn the game around after seeing it go wrong. In fact, I didn't even believe in being able to turn it around.  I played a few weak moves right after the crucial stage and found myself lost before I knew it. 

Why am I telling you all this? I think the three factors I've mentioned quite accurarely define amateur chess life in general. I thought about this during a project management course in which the teacher showed us the following picture:

This dilemma (here applied to restaurants) is also known as the Project Triangle, which states a project can't be done cheap, fast and good: it's always a combination of two, not three of these. Similar examples can be found in other fields, such as operation systems (fast, efficient, stable), engineering parts (strong, light, cheap), dateable men (handsome, high-Earner, faithful) and, inevitably, women (single, sane, sexy, smart – choose three). 

Can this principle also be applied to chess? Well, a club member of mine has long ago suggested that for chess players, it's impossible to be succesful in relationships, work and chess all at the same time. But what about more specific chess-related aspects? Looking at the above example, I came up with the following 'Chess Triangle':

Chess Triangle

Pick any two. It's funny how this triangle works for me: I can have fun and not spend time studying chess, but I will lose games as a result of this relaxed attitude and therefore not be successful. Or I can enjoy chess and aim to be successful, but it requires hard work and there's no way to take it easy. Finally, I can relax and be successful, but at the very least it forces me to play systematic, mechanical and - to me - dull chess; trustworthy openings I know like the back of my hand, instead of experimenting with interesting new ideas.

I think this pretty much works for most chess players, but some seem to defy the rule gloriously. Levon Aronian seems a case in point. The Armenian super-GM has a reputation of not being a hard worker at all. He seems the ultimate example of the relaxed chess player who's still successful and has fun playing. Asked about the single most important factor in his current success, he answered: "Pure luck". This seems to echo Artur Rubinstein, arguably the greatest pianist of the 20th century, who once proclaimed: "It is said of me that when I was young I divided my time impartially among wine, women and song. I deny this categorically. Ninety percent of my interests were women."

Aronian likes to sleep late and has claimed to be "lazy" in his opening preparation. Is he the Rubinsteinian exception that proves the rule? Perhaps, but I, for one, do not believe for a single second that he doesn't prepare his ass off, together with Gabriel Sargissian, when he faces the big guys. Apart from his reputation of being lazy, Aronian, just like Rubinstein, also has a reputation of being ironic in his answers - perhaps to disguise his true intentions, perhaps because he equates being serious with being boring.

Looking at some of Aronian's colleagues, however, it's easy to see hard work is a necessary part of being succesful in chess even for those who could theoretically compensate it with sheer talent. This is the same message Malcolm Gladwell brings home in his recent book Outliers: it's all about hard work, or: practice, practice, practice. (Gladwell mentions both chess and music as clear examples.) Sadly, that's exactly what chess amateurs like me lack: time to practice. Even ignoring the fact that most amateurs, including myself, lack any talent for the game, it's simply a matter of not having enough time to spend on chess, resulting in such awful things as my game against Spoelman.

Like so many others, I try to compensate it by telling myself it's all about "having fun" and "taking it easy", but somehow it feels bad when the results don't follow. No matter how hard I convince myself of the opposite, I still feel positively annoyed whenever I lose. Then again, I don't want to play 'solid' or 'safe' chess and at least avoid the worst kind of catastrophes. I want to have fun in chess, not only by scoring good results but also by playing itself.  But maybe this, too, is over-ambitious.

I've often wondered whether a chess 'pro' like Vladimir Epishin, who used to play in about every European tournament imaginable, routinely grinding amateurs down in the first three rounds only to start playing seriously against his colleagues in later rounds - whether he actually enjoys chess as a game. Sure, he often wins prizes and he works hard for it, but that's preciesely the point: it's work for him (and many others), but where's the fun in playing? Does he enjoy trying out a new idea in the Sicilian? Somehow, I have my doubts.

I am reminded of Andre Agassi, one of my teenage tennis-heroes, who recenlty stated (in his autobiography) that he hated tennis during his most succesful period. (And he wasn't alone: his wife, Steffi Graf, used to hate it, too.) Again, the triangle seems to work not only for amateurs but for most (chess) players I can think of. You can't have fun and relax and be successful at the same time - come to think of it, this is especially true for professionals.

Well then, may it be a consolation for us patzers! We'll remain amateurs for the rest of our lives - and boy, don't we hate it? - but at least we get to choose whether we want to have fun, to relax or to be succesful (at least to a certain extent). Against Spoelman, I chose to relax, and got kicked for it hard. Andre Agassi didn't have that option. Sometimes being an amateur isn't so bad after all.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Poek's picture

Arne writes: "Still, being a pro doesn’t automatically mean hating your job, does it? Someone like Manuel Bosboom seems to enjoy chess even against players rated 1700."

Relax yes, fun yes, success no. But if he would work on chess instead of relax, he could become a GM of course.

Bert de Bruut's picture

I succesfully read this funny (or rather entertaining) column @ my work. Did I score all three now for a change? :~)

Meppie's picture

And an amateur (like me) can keep dreaming that he (still) can become very good at chess if he has more time to study!

daniel's picture

Great article! I think many of us found ourselves in this story. Thank you, was fun to read it.

GuidedByVoices's picture

Now I'm fully convinced you badly need some psychiatric help. Epishin is a GM, a professional chess player, who needs to bring bread to the table on regular bases... Why on Earth would he bother to create a master piece playing against some amateur like yourself, who on 99% of the time would sit in front on him already having pressed the self-destruction button at home? Give one reason why should Epishin extricate himself to win such an unbalanced game?

Define a new idea in the Sicilian. After Zvianginsev’s 1.e4 c5 2.Na3 is all done. No more new ideas around for this over-exhausted opening. At any rate, players like you over estimate the relevance of openings. Portish once said “openings are meant to render a playable middle-game. Period”. I’m with Epishin, endgames are far deeper and also more beautiful. Computers play openings very well, but they stink at endgames, so it seems to me that endgame play is the most “human trait” left in chess... Epishin knows...

In the very first place, you must recognise that you are not a serious opponent for Wouter or some one of the kind. No talent. No hard work. Welcome to my world, the “perennial candidate master”, which is no one’s land; too strong for a club player (you crush them all) but at the same time too weak for master opposition (never quite winning against them)... But at least, I try to play the objective position in front of me: sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, but always driven by a strong determination to win. Taking no prisoners, playing out dry position up to the bare kings... You, instead, play “by the myth”, you are an innovator, “developing” new ideas in the Sicilian, playing to please the crowd, sacrificial player, the “attacker”... Come on, not all the positions arising in the board, particularly against stronger players, may be played in that “auto-pilot”... Please read GM Rowson’s “Chess for zebras” to fully identify the character you play when you sit at the board. You might be surprised to figure it out who you SHOULD/MIGHT/COULD be at the chess board once you manage to take off the mask of the “sacrificial genius”...

Anyway, I liked to come across with the good-cheap-fast triangle... I hadn’t seen that one before and it’s really clever!

Happy New Year Arne, see you at some tournament to have a few pints (after the round, of course) before I leave Europe for good!

Arne Moll's picture

@GuidedbyVoices, it's funny how you always manage to interpret my points completely the other way. I'll answer your questions briefly because they are mostly based on misunderstanding.

- Yes, Epishin is a pro whose job it is to grind down players like me (and you?). Still, being a pro doesn't automatically mean hating your job, does it? Someone like Manuel Bosboom seems to enjoy chess even against players rated 1700. He seems to have a totally different attitude, at least that's how it appears to me. I hope you see there is a difference.

- The concept 'new' has different meanings to different players. New to me clearly doesn't have to mean new to the world elite. For instance, I've never played the Queen's Indian in my life, therefore playing it would mean a totally 'new' experience to me. I'd love to try it one day, but I''m pretty sure I would get my ass kicked without studying it first.

- In fact Chess for Zebras is one of my favourite books of the last decade. I don't know where you got the idea that I 'play by the myth' and that I consider myself a 'sacrificial genius' - in fact it's the other way around but it simply bores me to play solid lines and never take any risks. Unrealistic? You bet, but that was the point of the article in the first place. This separates dreamers from realists, or amateurs from (most) professionals. I think in this respect my article is really just a confirmation of Rowson's theories :-)

Kazzak's picture

We've actually spent some time laughing at Guidedbyvoices' suggestion that you should pursue therapy, Mr. Moll.

Don't worry, be happy. We loved your article.

GuidedByVoices's picture

The article is great, it's just I enjoy so much raising some discussion "against" Arne that I can hardly refrain, it's like a hobby, you know... In the end, we all like nice moves, either in the opening or the endgame... But I still fully understand Epishin: you need to save energy for more troublesome games, do not you?

There is a reason I daily visit this website. It's a great place to find challenging thoughts about chess.

Maybe we have more in common than the acid discussions might suggest. Rowson is great. I met him at the 4NCL on October and it's a pity that he said me he is not planning further books as "life goes on and writting on chess is so demanding"... Fortunately we still have got John Watson working hard for the sake of chess...

Saludos cordiales!

GuidedByVoices's picture

@ Arne, it feels a bit unfair to hide under a nickname. I played black in the following fighting game against a GM rated 2550:

So I am not that positionally sound after all! I achieved top score in the last 4NCL season, together GM Conquest. I scored +7=4-0 there, with a 2350 performance... So I am probably about your playing strenght...

Olaf's picture

Very nice article. The project triangle makes a complex issue really easy to understand.

Bartleby's picture

I think the only amateurish behaviour in your case is: Instead of learning from your mistakes, you decide to keep them and "you don't belong there". Your opponent could also have reacted "Oh God, I'm outprepared! How silly of me not to prepare for this move. Now everyone can see how I go into sharp Najdorf lines without having my homework done." But he didn't. Or maybe he did at first, and needed some of his 45 minutes to come back to "professional mode". He thought about what to do on the board, while you seem to have spent most of your time with thinking about the impression you make.
Do you want to play at a level where you can afford to enjoy life and chat with friends during your game and still win?

shane's picture

Arne, another beautifully frank and interesting piece of writing. Thanks

Arne Moll's picture

Good point, Poek: everything is relative. I do consider Bosboom a succesful player (after all, he beat Kasparov! :-) ) but that's only relative to my own level, of course. You're right he could achieve much more if he worked harder. I guess the triangle works for him, too ;-)

Marten's picture

About your triangle. My chess rating is about 1850 and I surely know that I will not become much better. Even if I would work on it a lot, I just know my chess-intellect barrier. However, I have always enjoyed playing chess very much, feel relax about it and I play what I consider to be adventures chess. Don't know much about theory, don't know much about the openings and therefore I start making strange moves as soon as I can so that both my opponent and I have to play chess right from the start. I feel confortable being a pawn down, by playing a gambiet, I know it sounds strange.
Once in a while however I think I have played games that I for myself would call a big success. Beautifull attacks, on both sides of the board, keeping good care of my own king, blocking his peaces etcetera. Therefore, at times, one can be succesfull and still be relaxed and have fun when playing chess.

Thomas's picture

Arne, thanks for this entertaining, instructive and recognizable article! My two cents:

1) Maybe "I don't belong here" also means "I don't even really want to belong here"? Maybe you realized that you weren't able or willing to put the required hard work into chess, and/or that your talent isn't quite enough - nothing to be ashamed of. If you are now happy as a chess amateur, journalist and whatever you do in "real life" (something related to project management), fine!

And the "few good memories" remain, maybe it is still enjoyable to play, once in a while, at a level where one doesn't belong. I recently qualified for the B final of a blitz tournament - an achievement by itself as half of the field was 200-500 points higher-rated, so 3.5/15 was an OK result. But I have a bit mixed feelings because I "should" have scored 1.5/3 rather than 0/3 against three FMs (declining a move repetition, missing a forced and not-too-difficult mate, losing only one game fair and straight)

2) Aronian is Aronian, Epishin is Epishin, Bosboom is Bosboom, Moll is Moll, Richter (AKA GuidedByVoices) is Richter ... . Everyone has his own approach to chess.
As you write yourself, Aronian just likes to _create_ an image of laziness which may not quite to correspond to reality. If he sleeps late, this maybe means that he goes to bed late?
Bosboom - I know him personally and like him both as a person and as a player - may well be happy earning "some sort of living" from chess, even if it's not enough for a big car or expensive clothes :) . Whether he could become a GM, who knows ... maybe at his "intermediate" level he also has to spend too much time playing chess, rather than studying it? Would he need a sponsor to change this situation?

Frans's picture

Hi Arne, good thing you wrote " It’s funny how this triangle works for me".

I for myself am convinced that a relaxed and fun attitude helps me getting good results. I used to be pretty arrongant and testosteron-like while playing chess. But now, getting older, im playing chess for the game itself and for my own goal of playing good/nice moves. This attitude helped me beating fairly strong players surprisingly. Could be i'm fooling myself, but I would very much like to talk to you in person about the subject. It's one of my favourite "stokpaardjes":)) Are you coming to Wijk aan Zee? I'll be playing the 10-kampen there.

Arne Moll's picture

@Marten, Frans. Perhaps the terms 'successful' and 'relaxed' should be defined more clearly.
By 'being relaxed' I not only mean relaxing behind the board but also not seriously studying chess at home.
And I guess my defintion of success is constant improvement or at the very least no deterioration of my current level.
So yes, it's possible to be succesful in a single game while still having fun and not working too hard or being stressed during the game, but in the long run such an attitude is likely to backfire, at least in my experience.

Frans's picture

Yes, I'm of the opinion that every game needs home-preparation. But that's not neccisarily variations or openings. Most of the time "knowing" your oppo is enough. Rest comes out of experience. And indeed, to build up this experience takes a lot of effort. That effort I did years ago, but now I'm still picking the fruits. Being up-to-date in opening lines is not so important at our level. It's more that you have to know what you are doing, where to put your pieces. That's why you preparation against Spoelman was probably not so efficient.

Ritch's picture

If instead of regular chess we talk about Chess 960, maybe more GM would afford to have fun, success *and* relax because they have not to hard study opening theory? They still have to master endgame theory but if they outplay their opponents in the opening-middle game (because his "pure-chess" talent) the endgame (and his study) would be less a factor.

Another virtue of the Chess 960 =)

(Sorry for my bad english)

Castro's picture


It all goes arround what success is. It can be enormously relative (for instance, at his dimension, Aronian could be unhappy if he thought like you, because he could already be WC, and he isn't, and maybe even gave up on it (or maybe not)).
I think you take this too seriously, with thoughts like "gain the respect from my teammates". What's this?? In fact you could only be unsucessful, with such unconcentrated and anti-chess-fun thoughts! You had it coming! :-)
BTW, what a funny notion of "respect"!
Apart from criticizing that "over-serious" and, at the same time "non-serious" way of putting things, you managed another very interesting article.

Timon's picture

Hey Arne don't give up, dude, do you remember Dodgeball, the movie? Old trainer Patches O'Houlihan tells to mature-nerdy guy:

Patches: "Where's your killer instinct, son? You've got to get angry! You've got to get mean!! Thet's the only way you can play."
Gordon: "I guess I'm not really an angry person."
Patches: "(He hits him in the balls) Are you angry now?"

I say you got also to beat at least one freakin' important GM, don't know who, don't know how, don't know when, but got to do it. Lose all the rest of games, got mated in a silly fashion, lose your pieces like a drunk, lose your marriage, but in that one game, whenever happens, you got to beat the GM, and you can die then.

Michael's picture

Thank you for this interesting, thought-provoking column. As far as the Spoelman game is concerned, Arne, you shouldn't be too critical of yourself: after all, neither did John Nunn realize that 15...0-0 was a critical move (although it had already been played by German IM Maeder who is better known as a world-class correspondence player) nor did de Firmian (at least he didn't play it). Both are strong GMs with plenty of experience in these sharp Najdorf lines. Moreover, the "stupid" 15.fxg6 was also played by Hecht and his opponent Donner didn't find 15...0-0 either. You probably didn't mean to do it, but you're indirectly accusing these players of being "utterly untalented" as well. My perspective from the outside is rather that you "only" lost to a highly talented youngster who found a very strong and non-obvious move (black seems to be sort of "castling into it") over the board. Of course, this doesn't take anything away from the general points you made about preparation and attitude during the game.

Arne Moll's picture

Hi Michael, your comments are sympathetic but I beg to disagree: the fact that these other players, no matter how strong, didn't consider 15...0-0 or played 15.fxg6 instead of 15.fxe6 merely showed they, too, hadn't studied the characteristics of the position (which, by the way, is not surprising given the rarity of 14.g6).
Probably playing 14.g6 was a spur of the moment for them, but the difference with me is that I actually HAD studied 14.g6 and STILL I didn't see why fxe6 was better. I maintain that that is indeed utterly untalented ;-)

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