The Taimanov Syndrome in St. Louis

The legendary champion sits behind the board once a year to the delight of all chess fans. Last year and this one the discipline he chose was Fischer Random.

(Strangely enough the Americans prefer not to use the name of their great champion for the game he invented – this time it was Chess 9LX, the last two digits are Roman numbers, in case you were confused).

These outings haven’t been too delightful for Kasparov. Last year he lost to Topalov, this year before the match against Caruana he said it will be “fun.” I wonder where he got the idea.

For anyone who has played chess a bit more seriously the only fun is the winning. Sometimes even that isn’t fun. For Kasparov to say that playing would be fun, simply cannot be true. Yet he said it.

You should probably be able to recognise this position:

It is the position that haunted Mark Taimanov for the rest of his life. It is the position from the 3rd game of his match with Fischer. In that moment Fischer was leading 1-0, the second game was adjourned in a drawn position and here in the third Taimanov had great position. He spent a lot of time and instead of trusting his intuition and play 20 Qh3 he went backwards 20 Nf3 and the rest is history.

In his book and all interviews afterwards Taimanov lamented how things would have been different had he played 20 Qh3 (he believed he was winning, though analysis shows he wasn’t), how the match would have been completely different, how everything would have been different. He couldn’t get this position out of his head.

Kasparov suffered a similar fate to Taimanov’s at Caruana’s hands in Saint Louis. In Game 2 he was winning (clearly, unlike Taimanov) but he blundered and lost. What happened next was a complete repetition of the Taimanov syndrome.

Kasparov mostly kept losing but it was all the 2nd game’s fault, if only he won, if only he didn’t blunder, the match would have been different. To make it worse, he kept getting winning positions but he also kept blundering, blaming it on that ill-fated Game 2. He said he couldn’t forget that game. A surprising thing to say by a player who often came back with a vengeance after a loss. Where did the psychological toughness go?

I am not sure how much Kasparov was saying what the public wanted to hear, or he was really fooling himself. He didn’t stand a chance in that match, irrelevant of that Game 2. Just like Taimanov would have lost that match to Fischer, Kasparov would have lost to Caruana. The fact that he was outplaying Caruana often means that Caruana wasn’t playing at his best, but even that sufficed to bludgeon the legend.

Time-troubles, age, lack of practice, these were the reasons given for the losses. Kasparov knew these would be present, so the real question is, why did he sit down to play and risk humiliation?

In 2016, when he decided to play blitz against America’s best players in the Ultimate Blitz Challenge, I asked him via Twitter why he was doing the same thing he criticised Fischer for in 1992 – coming back from retirement and risking a destruction of the legendary image he rightfully had. He never replied, of course, but I thought that perhaps the reason was the same as Fischer’s – money. But unlike Fischer, that money wouldn’t be from the prize fund.

I am sad that this happened to Kasparov. Perhaps even angry at him, for destroying his own image. He was my idol for as long as he played and I even briefly met him in Tromso in 2014. After the match Kasparov said that perhaps the suffering in the match was a sign from above to stop attempting to reverse time. I think he is right. Once retired legends should stay retired.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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