In the past few months I was going over Nigel Short’s games from his book “Winning.” I always liked Nigel and rooted for him in the 80s and 90s as he was the “best from the West” and I was curious to see how far he could go.
I find the games in the book very interesting and revealing. One aspect that I found surprising was how sometimes these great players could have bad days and how easily they could be affected by psychological factors.
The following two games are good examples of both of these factors.
In the game Short-Timman from Reykjavik 1987, Black obtained a decent position in the French. However, instead of slower moves that improve his position (Short proposed …Kb8-a8) he lashed out with 14…f5??, which only gave him a hopeless position in exchange of a couple of tempi spent to bring the knight to e4, from where it was duly chased away.
Here’s the position after 7 moves, when Black is positionally lost. I found it really strange that a player of Timman’s strength, easily a top-5 player at the time, could commit such a bad positional mistake.
In the game Polugaevsky-Short from the same event, Short obtained a good position from the obscure opening 1.Nf3 d6. It resembles a Sicilian, where Black is very comfortable. Instead of simple play 17…a6 and b5, Short played 17…d5, which while not bad (though he criticises this decision in the book) shows a desire to force matters. In fact, Short admits to being rattled and feeling uncomfortable after the loss in the previous round. After 18.e5 Ne4 19.Bxe4 dxe4 20.Be3 he started to see ghosts and feared losing his e4-pawn.
So, instead of calmly doubling on the d-file, he lashed out with 20…f5? 21.exf6 Bxf6 22.Bf2 and what he feared he single-handedly made it happen – he lost the pawn on e4. He managed to draw the game, but it was not a good pair of decisions. In this case, the curious part is his confession of playing under the influence of his previous game.
This example shows that when GMs demonstrate clear misevaluations or play bad moves, there is always an underlying reason for that. It’s just that we rarely get to know it, like in Timman’s case, as honesty is rarely the best policy in the world of elite sport – revealing too much about oneself can easily help the opposition. Not everybody will be honest even after their career ends, which makes these glimpses even more valuable.