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How to Score a Summer Upset Print E-mail
By Matan Prilleltensky   
August 13, 2009
Eric Rosen scored a huge summer upset in the last round of the U.S. Open, Photo Monroi.com
Funnily enough, nobody knows where the verb "to upset" came from. In 2002, a lexicographic researcher determined it had been used as a noun as early as 1877. Although this can't be confirmed, some say the term was coined when the prophetically named racehorse "Upset" became the only thoroughbred to defeat the legendary Man o' War. 

Armed with this tidbit (discovered on Wiki!), it's appropriate that upsets make us think about sports. Every American hockey fan knows about the Miracle on Ice, where Herb Brooks' collegians and amateurs shocked the "unbeatable" Red Army team en route to the Gold Medal. Hockey not your thing? Over a year ago, the world's most famous commercial lineup pitted the unbeaten New England Patriots against the unfancied New York Giants. Plaxico Burress caught a pass with 35 seconds left, and the rest is history. Plaxico himself was so thrilled that he accidentally shot himself in the leg before the year was out.

Even if you're not a soccer fan, consider this a bit of patriotic education: Entering the 1950 World Cup, the English considered themselves the Kings of football. The inventors of the modern game, they had previously stayed away from the World Cup, but now they were ready to claim their throne. Bookmakers made them 3-1 favorites to win it all.

 The Americans were, well. . . soccer just wasn't very big here back then. The team was composed of part-timers: electricians, postal workers, schoolteachers. But that day in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, those part-timers stood up to be counted. The kickoff brought the predictable assault on the American goal. By the twelfth minute, the English had thumped two posts and forced the American goalkeeper into a brilliant save. England's domination continued, but the ball refused to go in.

In the 37th minute, underdog resilience was rewarded with a most improbable goal. Joe Gaetjens, an American of Haitian birth, dove headfirst to divert a harmless looking cross into the net. (No word on whether he celebrated in style like Plaxico Burress). The scoreline held up, yielding what arguably stands as the greatest upset in World Cup history. American defender (and postal service worker) Harry Keough spared a thought for the vanquished. "Boy, I feel sorry for these bastards. How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?" The US program has made colossal strides since then, and sports a team of well renumerated professionals playing in top European leagues and Major League Soccer. But the Cinderella run at the recent Confederations Cup shows that the spirit of 1950 is alive and well.

 They may not go down in mass history, but our chosen competitive endeavor has no shortage of memorable upsets. Jose Capablanca, perhaps the greatest natural talent in history, was considered almost invincible before his 1927 World Championship match with Alexander Alekhine. But the better prepared, harder working Alekhine claimed the title in an epic 34 game struggle. Years later, Kasparov's future idol wrote,

 "I have to admit that I still cannot give an exact reply to this question, (how he won the match) since in 1927 I did not think that I was superior to my opponent. Possibly the main cause of his defeat was an exaggerated impression of his true strength, arising after his crushing victory in New York, and an underestimation of my strength."

Of course, Alekhine's hard work universalizing his style and complimenting his raw strength also played no small part. The final and decisive game shows he was able to win "in the style of his opponent". Interested readers are referred to notes in Volume I of Kasparov's "My Great Predecessors."


I would say that comment is superfluous, but then I would be commenting. With hindsight, it is difficult to call Alekhine's victory in the marathon match an upset: He demonstrated himself a deeply worthy World Champion and is still remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. But we have to remember the extent of Capablanca's dominance and the elegant ease with which he would defeat leading Grandmasters. 

Of course, an underdog one day can easily be a favorite the next. American chessplayers, used to playing 200 points up one game and 200 down the next in Swiss tournaments, nod knowingly! The once unfancied Alekhine was considered a prohibitive favorite in his 1935 title defense against Dutch Grandmaster Max Euwe. The champion raced out to an early lead, and it appeared his enormous practical strength would carry the day. Alas, just like Capablanca, Alekhine ultimately lost to a younger, better prepared opponent. The rueful ex-champion cited his drinking problems, acknowledging that "too much Alekehol" had played a role in his defeat to the studious Dutchman.

Closer to home, the 1956 Rosenwald Cup saw Bobby Fischer's arrival in top-level chess. Already a national master, the promising 13 year old was thrust into a round robin tournament with the country's top players. Among them was Donald Byrne, winner of the 1953 US Open. No slouch, Byrne went on to represent the USA in three Olympiads and was a clear favorite against his talented opponent. In hindsight, this is almost difficult to imagine. Fischer's brilliant queen sacrifice was dubbed chess' answer to the shot heard round the world, and he went on to win the so-called Game of the Century. Many years later, Fischer called this early effort the best of his career.


1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.d4 0-0 5.Bf4 d5 6.Qb3 dxc4 7.Qxc4 c6 8.e4 Nbd7 9.Rd1 Nb6 10.Qc5 Bg4 11.Bg5?

Byrne misses the sensational shot that follows, a delightful glimpse of the calculating ability Fischer would show throughout his career.
11...Na4!! 12.Qa3 Nxc3 13.bxc3 Nxe4 14.Bxe7 Qb6 15.Bc4 Nxc3 16.Bc5 Rfe8+ 17.Kf1 Be6 18.Bxb6 Bxc4+ 19.Kg1 Ne2+ 20.Kf1 Nxd4+ 21.Kg1 Ne2+ 22.Kf1 Nc3+ 23.Kg1 axb6 24.Qb4 Ra4 25.Qxb6 Nxd1 26.h3 Rxa2 27.Kh2 Nxf2 28.Re1 Rxe1 29.Qd8+ Bf8 30.Nxe1 Bd5 31.Nf3 Ne4 32.Qb8 b5 33.h4 h5 34.Ne5 Kg7 35.Kg1 Bc5+ 36.Kf1 Ng3+ 37.Ke1 Bb4+ 38.Kd1 Bb3+ 39.Kc1 Ne2+ 40.Kb1 Nc3+ 41.Kc1 Rc2# 0-1

Inspiring stuff. This game convinced me (and countless other chessplayers!) to take up the Grunfeld. More from that opening later. 

Jumping forwards to this writer's lifetime, the Swiss system provides an endless stream of potential upsets: Pairings pitting a hungry underdog against an established master or grandmaster. Grandmaster Julio Becerra once told me that American tournaments are so difficult because the lower rated players are so dangerous. His fellow Miami Grandmaster would agree after being on the wrong end of a brilliancy. Comments are by the winner unless otherwise noted.


1.e4 Nc6 2.d4 e5 3.dxe5 Nxe5 4.Nf3 Qf6

4...Nxf3 followed by Bb4+ is how Miles played the position, but I chose to play as Keres to keep more pieces on the board.
 5.Nxe5 Qxe5 6.Bd3 Bc5 7.0-0 Nf6 8.Kh1 d6 9.f4 Qe7 10.Nc3 Ng4 11.Qe1 a6 12.h3 h5

Now I envision a interesting sacrifice in the spirit of Leonid Stein.
13.Nd5 Qd8 14.e5 dxe5 15.Ne3
This is his plan, to obstruct the a7-g1 diagonal and threaten to capture the knight... but... 15...Kf8!! Things are not so simple. Black gets incredible activity for his pieces. Matan: At this moment, white's 400 point rating advantage ceases to matter. Black is playing above himself, meeting the International Master in tactical combat, and simply outplays him. Gonzalez, a superb technical player, was never given the chance to demonstrate his superiority.
16.hxg4 hxg4+ 17.Kg1 exf4 18.Rxf4 Qd6!

An essential link in the chain, protecting the bishop and eyeing both h6 and h2.
19.Qf2 Be6 20.Bd2 Re8 21.Re1 g5 22.Rf6 Qh2+ 23.Kf1 g3 24.Qf3 Rh4!
Black is well coordinated.
White's difficult position collapses in time trouble.
25...Rxe6 26.Ke2 Rf4 27.Qxb7 Qh5+ 28.Qf3 Rxf3 29.gxf3 Qh2+ 30.Kd1 Bxe3 31.Bxe3 Rxe3 32.Rxe3 g2 0-1

A beautiful victory by a massive underdog. Galofre, now an FM, told me he approached the game with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Heading into the last round, he knew only a win would propel him into a tie for first place. This helped him focus and aim for a tense game in which his opponent, a very strong positional player, might feel uncomfortable. Fighting chess! The rest is history. 

 Ok, no doubt that one was an upset. But in a game as statistically documented as ours, even precisely defining the term is no simple matter. Does it require a certain rating difference? Perhaps a certain rating swing? The editor herself provided a simple example: If a 1950 draws a 2200 is that an upset? Kind of, but it's approaching "break-even"  in the rating department. Some may wish to seek a quantitative definition. Instead, most of us consider upsets games where the underdog's victory provided a certain shock value, creating something memorable for both the victor and spectators. Until ESPN starts ranking chess upsets, I doubt this will change.

Originally, I intended this article to be prescriptive. By pointing out some key characteristics of how upsets happen, I would make the humble CLO reader more likely to achieve one next tournament! But the truth is that chess stubbornly resists generalization; that's why it's so darn hard. If there was a formula for beating the favorite, he wouldn't be the favorite.

 Telling a mild-mannered, nervous player to "be aggressive" may help the next time he is overmatched. Giving the same advice to someone who likes to attack with abandon probably just encourages a foolish sacrifice. "Don't be afraid to lose" is similarly tricky. If higher rated opponents drive you to indecision and paralysis, some perspective would do you good. But if you are resigning yourself to defeat's inevitability and failing to compete properly, a little fear and nerves might be just the trick. In the 2005 Denker, I lost to strong FM (now IM) Mackenzie Molner. In an unclear Najdorf middlegame, I got my wires crossed and made a completely ridiculous piece sacrifice. I'm still convinced it wouldn't have happened against someone closer to my strength! Against less exalted opponents, the basic fear of losing pushes me to work harder at the board and try to find reasonable moves; something I failed to do against Molner. Defeat should never be considered an acceptable outcome in advance, regardless of the opponent.

In his cult classic, "Chess for Tigers", the late Simon Webb offers some interesting suggestions for would-be giantkillers. They should head for unclear, complicated positions whenever possible, since the "heffalump" (Webb's endearingly bizarre name for the stronger player) will be more likely to go wrong in a tactical shootout. The English IM certainly would have enjoyed Gonzalez-Galofre. Webb also suggests that underdogs head for theoretical main lines, where they stand on the shoulders of giants and decrease their likelihood of going wrong. The favorite may also become uneasy about preparation and make an inferior move to deviate. If the sample of games here is any judge, the English IM offers sound advice.

Now, the obligatory moment where I subject you to a game of my own. Although there were literally thousands of more exalted games to choose, I know more about this one than any other! 



 I was rather surprised to be on the top boards of this colossal tournament. I was rated around 1950 back then, while my opponent appeared on the wallchart as an intimidating 2501. Apparently his real rating was in the 2300s. In any case, the mismatch and stage inspired me to raise my level.
1...Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nxc3 6.bxc3 Bg7 7.Bc4 c5 8.Ne2 Nc6 9.Be3 0-0 10.Rc1 cxd4 11.cxd4 Qa5+ 12.Kf1 Qa3 13.Qb3 Qd6 14.e5 Qd8 15.Bd3 Be6 16.Qb1 f6 17.Nf4 Bc8 18.exf6 Bxf6 19.Bc4+ Kg7 20.Be6?
Here, I was probably more focused than I have ever been in my chess career. The desire to match wits with a superior opponent can be a powerful stimulus!
21.Bxc8 Bxf4 22.Bxf4 Rxf4! 23.Bxb7 Rxf2+! 24.Ke1?

Drastically simplifying my task; it appears he simply missed ...Rb2. [24.Kxf2 Qxd4+ Leads to a king hunt and eventual checkmate, according to the silicon beast. Not that I saw it all at the board! I was able to use the escape routes, knowing I had at least a perpetual and maybe more.]
24...Qxd4 25.Qa1
Every single black piece is hanging! It doesn't matter.
My opponent battled on down a queen for a few moves before abandoning a lost cause. I had quite an inflated view of this game after playing it. It's certainly not the brilliancy I thought it was (my opponent obviously had an off day) but it was lots of fun to play. 0-1 

These games give the impression that the only way to beat a stronger opponent is to land a tactical haymaker. As a corrective, I offer a very smooth win by NM Eric Rodriguez over a strong, young, IM. The talented Miami Master equalizes with black, gets a tiny plus, capitalizes on a blunder, and brings home the point. With apologies to our newest GM-elect: 


1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.0-0 Be7 7.e5 Ne4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Nc5 10.Nc3 0-0 11.Be3 d6 12.Rad1 Be6 13.f4 Qc8 14.f5 Bxf5 15.Nd5 Bd8 16.exd6 cxd6 17.Bb3 Nxb3 18.cxb3 Be6 19.Rf3 Bxd5 20.Rg3 f6 21.Qxd5+ Kh8 22.Qxd6?

A somewhat strange mistake for such a strong player. White was only slightly worse.
22...Bc7 23.Qe7 Bxg3 24.Rd7 Rg8 25.hxg3 Qe8 26.Rxb7 Qxe7 27.Rxe7 Rge8 28.Rxe8+ Rxe8

Not much to say here; White is busted.
29.Bd4 Re2 30.b4 Kg8 31.a4 Re4 32.Bc5 g5 33.Bf2 g4
I can't do it, but Cuban-American masters make 1...e5 a very good move indeed. 0-1 

This just in: In the last round of the US Open, new NM Eric Rosen capped an excellent tournament by miniaturing GM John Fedorowicz as Black. Nobody likes to see such a funny guy and strong player have this type of accident, but the game just had to be included. Remember, even your GM opponents are only human!

Eric Rosen chooses the solid QGD as black against his illustrious opponent, looking for a normal position out of the opening. 


1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.cxd5 exd5 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 Bf5
Black signals his readiness to defend the endgame after (7.Qf3 Bg6 8.Bxf6 Qxf6 9.Qxf6 gxf6), a la Nigel Short.
 Botvinnik popularized the early g2-g4 in the QGD, but I'm pretty sure it was in a different position!
 7...Be6 8.h3 Nbd7 9.f4 Nb6 10.Bd3 Be7 11.Nf3 Qd6 12.f5
Provoking an immediate crisis. With hindsight, this might not be the most practical approach!
12...Qg3+ 13.Kd2 Ne4+! 14.Nxe4 dxe4 15.Bxe4 Qf2+ 16.Kc3??
16.Kc1 Bxg5 17.Nxg5 Nc4 18.Qb3 Bd5 19.Bxd5 cxd5 20.Qb5+ Kf8 21.Qxb7 Qd2+ 22.Kb1 Qd3+ 23.Kc1 Qd2+ is a forced draw the Fed may have been trying to avoid. Out of the frying pan. . .
 Into the fire. This is an instant knockout. Yes, Grandmasters can lose games like this! Kudos to Eric Rosen for taking his opportunity. 0-1 

I hope some of these games serve as inspiration the next time you find yourself "overmatched."  All that remains is a word on decorum: If you pull off the big upset, shouting "DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES?" may be considered in poor taste. And remember not to celebrate like Plaxico.

November - Chess Life Online 2009

In Dallas, A Rocky Start, a “Rocky” FinishNewsflash: Results in for Thanksgiving TourneysFront Page News: University of Texas at Dallas Chess Team Travels to Cuba Three Lead American Open at Halfway Point Nakamura Tops Carlsen in BNbank Blitz in Norway Thanksgiving Tourneys Begin in Philly and LAAmericans in the World Cup: Kamsky OutAmericans in the World Cup: Akobian and Shabalov Out GM Josh Friedel on the World Cup: All the Way to Siberia for This? Sharks and Knights in US Chess League Championships! Morales and Samuelson Win Duncan Oxley New National Event: US Girls Junior OpenKamsky Advances; Akobian and Shabalov Head to TiebreaksIce Cream, Two Minute and Norm Hopefuls at the University of Texas at DallasWorld Cup Round 2, Game 1: Kamsky Wins, Onischuk FaltersShabalov and Akobian Advance in World Cup! Action and Upsets in IllinoisSilver for Tanuj and Samritha! Americans in the World Cup: Two Advance, Three Go To TiebreakNorm Hunting in Texas BeginsNational Youth Action in Full SwingUSA Scores 4.5/10 in World Cup Game 1 Two Rounds to Go in the World Youth! GM Josh Friedel on the World Cup: A Long Road to Siberia Tanuj, Jarod and Samritha Roll on Countdown to the World CupA Parent's Perspective on King's IslandBig US Scorers Increase Pressure at World Youth Video From the King's Island Open Tanuj, Sarah, Samritha and Jarod on 5/6 in Turkey Five Tie in Turkey BowlKnockouts, Knights, Sharks and Mechanics Advance in USCL Playoffs Alena and Tanuj Still Perfect at World YouthUps and Downs in Round Two of the World YouthUS World Youth Squad Scores 22/25 in Round 1 Big Opens Kick Off in Ohio and FloridaAbby Marshall Previews the World YouthOn the Way to TurkeyGM in Residence at the CCSCSL: Ben Finegold GM Ronen Har-Zvi Hosts Kick off Schenectady Simul 15 spots up for grabs at 2010 U.S. Chess ChampionshipUS Chess League Heads to PlayoffsGM Larry Kaufman's Final Word on the World Senior Texas and Belgrade Colleges Battle Kaufman on the World Senior's Final Stretch GM Robert Hess on Channel One 25 Player World Youth Squad SetLenderman Fifth in World Junior!All-American Battle Set for Round Eight of the World Senior GM Joel on Quality vs. Quantity in Your RepertoireThe November Check is in the Mail World Cup Round 1 PairingsBryan Smith Scores 14-3 in Allentown Halloween Simul Week 9 US Chess League RecapUS Chess Scoop #9- A Lesson with Lenderman