Gorilla tactics

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

There is a video in which a small group of students amble about passing a basketball back and forth. The instruction at the start is to count how many times the players pass the basketball. Then comes the punchline – did you see the gorilla?

Halfway through, a figure in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the scene, beats its chest and walks off. It was designed as a psychological experiment, with the startling outcome that about half the viewers missed the gorilla altogether. One explanation is obvious – they were focused on the basketball. But how can you miss a gorilla?

Blunders at the chessboard can be just as perplexing. True, some are easily ascribed to nervousness or carelessness. Those are often the ones where you kick yourself right after making the move. But equally, one may feel an intense concentration, right before some blindingly obvious response which comes as a terrible shock. You wonder, how did I miss that?

Magnus Carlsen–Jorden van Foreest

Oslo Esports Cup, April 2022

Not even Magnus Carlsen is exempt. At the recent Oslo Esports Cup, the world champion committed two such howlers. Black has just captured a pawn on d2, leaving Carlsen with a complex decision. 20 Qxf5+ looks plausible, though in fact 20 Bxa6 is the strongest move, since after 20…bxa6 21 Qxf5+ Kb8 22 Nxa6 White’s attack should win the game. But Carlsen played the awful 20 Ra2?? and met the obvious response Bxa2 The game ended a few desperate moves later: 21 Qxf5+ Kb8 22 Bxa6 Nd4 23 Qxg4 bxa6 24 Nxa6+ Ka7 25 Nxc7 Qe2 White resigns

Two days later, lightning struck again.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov–Magnus Carlsen

Oslo Esports Cup, April 2022

Carlsen is down rook for bishop, but could put up resistance with, say, 40…Bd4. White’s kingside is draughty and the Rc4 is short of squares. But 40…d5?? was atrocious! After 41 Rxc5 Carlsen was hopelessly lost. d4 42 Qd3 Qxa2 43 Rc8+ Kh7 44 Qf3 Black resigns

Anecdotally, long moves (such as 20…Bxa2, in the first example) can be hard to see, rather like backwards knight moves, another classic mental gremlin. In the second example, the refutation (41 Rxc5) only becomes possible once Black’s d-pawn has advanced; the changes wrought by one’s own move are a common blindspot. Besides those things Carlsen was conspicuously unwell during the event. But he is the world champion, for whom such oversights would be extremely rare, even playing blindfolded.

After the first example, he lurched forward in shock but quickly broke into a smile. Those cogs turn in inscrutable ways, but everyone can laugh when they spot the gorilla.

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