The Curse of Move 41

If one move is traditionally thought to be cursed in chess, it is move 40. Generally, it is the last move before the time control. In the midst of the time scramble, people are supposed to blunder. It has happened many, many times at all levels… The solution? Have more time on your clock? I’m not going to talk about finding a magic cure to the time trouble disease here. That’s near impossible. I am going to talk about a different phenomenon.

A more dangerous psychological trap, however, lies right after the time control. The time control has been reached, and the time scramble is over. You made it. You survived. You can breathe and relax. Now you have a lot of extra time, and it’s time to crunch the position out, right?

Not really. Right after the time control, you may not be so focused, and you can easily miss things.  Perhaps it’s because now you have time, and the worst is supposedly over with. Or maybe you’re mad at yourself because of what happened in the time scramble that your mind is stuck at a different position. You could also be thinking mainly about the variations and ideas you found before the time control and don’t consider anything new. There’s no easy explanation, but it just happens.

It’s better to take a little break. Go to the bathroom, walk around, look at the other games… You’ll come back to the board refreshed, and you’ll see things anew and more clearly.

My first big experience with this phenomenon was actually on move 42, because move 41 was essentially forced.

Brodsky, David (2249) – Katz, Alex (2380) Bradley Open 2014

Katz

White to play

White has a solid edge with his pawn mass and more active king, but where’s the win? I thought I had messed things up, and now I had nothing! Wrong.

Mentally, I was stuck somewhere before the time control where I thought I had lost my advantage. Where was my mistake?

I played 42.Kb4? Bxd4 43.Nxd4 Nb2 and for some reason accepted Alex’s draw offer. White still has a big advantage over there, but I was busy making excuses to myself to take the draw. “I am tired”, “This is objectively a draw…”, “I don’t want to lose this one…”

Instead, had I looked with a fresh head, I probably would have found the winning move 42.Bg1! after which black loses a piece. The black bishop and knight are quite inconveniently positioned. If 42… Bxa3, after 43.Kb3 Bc5 44.Kxa4, the white knight defends the bishop. That’s why the bishop must go to g1.

More recent examples have been more painful… by a cruel coincidence, this one was at the same location in the same round (round 3) over two years later.

Samadashvili, Martha (2147) – Brodsky, David (2387) Hartford Open 2016

Martha

Black to play

We survived the time scramble. Some mistakes were made, but no pieces were blundered! Phew. Now, I for some reason felt optimistic about my winning chances here, which are near nonexistent.

White’s plan is to play Rh1 followed by Rxh5 and mate me. Solution: play 41… h4?? with the idea that after 42.Rh1 black has 42… h3, and if 42.gxh4 Rf2 43.Ke5 g3, black has some noise going with his passed pawn. Where’s the problem?

I discovered it after Martha played 42.Re5! threatening Rh5#. There was nothing I could do about it. After 42… Kh7 43.Kf7 I had to resign.

I was transfixed by the ideas I had discovered in the time scramble, namely the idea that white will go Rh1 and mate me. I was relieved I made it through the time scramble without any blunders that my sense of danger went down, and my optimism went a little too high…

What is more dangerous in this situation: pessimism or optimism? I gave one example of each.

I’d say that optimism is more dangerous. When you are pessimistic, you are most likely mad enough at yourself to look hard for something good. However, when you are optimistic, you are happy enough about your position to not notice some of your opponent’s resources…

Seeing those games, don’t expect me to blunder like that after move 40! I, like everyone, will make some mistakes, but a quick five minute break will help me make better decisions after the time control.

Moral of the story is to take a break after the time control and take a fresh look at the position. Spend a little bit of your extra time to refresh yourself; it’s better than staring at the position with your mind still stuck somewhere around move 30. You won’t always make the perfect decision after the time control; that would simply be impossible. Refreshing your mind, however, will help you make better decisions.

P.S. Before taking a break, make sure you actually reached the time control. There are better ways to join the club of Nakamura (orange juice against Vallejo), Carlsen (thinking there was a second time control after move 60), Ivanchuk (forgetting a move on his scoresheet), and many other top players.

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