To Notate Or Not To Notate

The easy availability of free online chess is great for chess addicts like me as you are never more than a click away from the next game. One of the downsides – it is very easy to get into bad habits, which will come back to bite you when you play a serious game over the board.As an example four years ago in one of the first competitions I played, a five minute Blitz tournament at City Chess Club, I lost several games by not noticing my King was in check.  On the computer when you are checked it’s not possible to make an illegal move. The programme won’t let you.  But if you rely on that fact across the board your opponent is within his or her rights to claim the win.

I learned another chastening lesson more recently, and this stemmed from my preference for playing Blitz chess online and a lack of formal chess playing experience. I learned to play competitive chess through chessboxing where short games are the norm and as a result I rarely play any practice game lasting longer than 10 minutes.

This is great in one respect as that it trains you to play the opening and middle game quite rapidly, but the disadvantage is I tend to miss deeper tactics and strategical nuances.  Nevertheless I can usually hold my own up to around the 1700 Elo level and occasionally spring a surprise on much stronger players.

But there is no substitute for experience as I found out this season in a London League Division 3 match between Drunken Knights and Dulwich Chess Club. We played a 75 plus 20 time control – the first 30 moves must be made in 75 minutes and after 30 moves have been played 20 minutes are added to both players’ clocks.

One of the differences about playing formal chess and Blitz or online chess is that each player records both sets of moves on a notepad using standard notation – this enables either player or the arbiter to reconstruct the game in its entirety. In this game against a very charming player Oliver Morley (who disarmingly had recognised me and introduced himself as a huge chessboxing fan) I managed to engineer a good position on the board with a huge time advantage on the clock.  As my opponent entered the final minutes of his available time he announced that, as he had less than five minutes on the clock, he would stop noting his moves. It was confirmed by the arbiter that this was allowable.

As someone who has not been brought up on formal chess tournaments the point seemed irrelevant to me. With a 6:1 time advantage and a better than decent position, all I have to do is play sensibly and my opponent will run out of time whether he notes his moves or not.  And, I reasoned, even if I messed it up somehow I would win the game on time alone.  And this is where I slipped up because in order to hasten the victory, I also stopped writing down my moves.

After three or four further moves had been played (admittedly not of the highest quality by me) I was still confident of my win. But at this point the arbiter leaned over and declared the match a draw on the grounds that I had stopped recording the game.  Even though my opponent had stopped recording his moves, I was supposed to carry on writing them down – up until the point I too had less than five minutes remaining.

As you can imagine it was an excessively frustrating experience and one that stemmed directly from my over-reliance on online Blitz as a training medium.  In any Blitz game time is a vital factor and it is perfectly legitimate to play for a win on time – the clock is another weapon in your arsenal. Classic tournament chess is set up to allow players to create the best possible game and while time is a factor, generally games are decided by good strategy and tactics.  By applying my online Blitz mentality in the wrong arena I had fumbled badly and incurred the wrath of my team captain, who could not believe I had let such a good position slip away.  The only crumb of comfort I can draw from the debacle was that at least it won’t happen again. Pain is Nature’s greatest aide memoire.