MacArthur Park Musings

MacArthur Park (Los Angeles, California) in the 1960’s and 70’s was like a chess university. The Park boasted of about half a dozen or more rated experts and almost as many masters, plus dozens of players with lower ratings–or “alphabet soup” as they were sometimes called.

I took my studies at the Park very seriously, so much that I seldom thought of much but chess. I even took a security guard job with a friend, Ken Smith, so that we could play chess most of our shifts.

I learned a lot in the park, and some of it was helpful to my game. Most of what I learned at the Park that made the biggest impression on my chess development wasn’t specific technical information, such as an opening trap. Rather, it was more general concepts, such as open files and pawn structures–and perhaps even more important, I learned of certain attitudes and character traits from the masters and experts. I learned not to become easily discouraged by one’s present position. I learned from my friend Earl Pruner what I now call Addison’s Axiom.

Earl was talking to me about the proper attitude to adopt when your position is winning, and mentioned an I.M. from San Fransisco named William Addison. Addison didn’t worry much if he had a bad or lost position because he didn’t have much equity in the game to worry about it, so he would just do the best defensive job he could. The proper time to buckle down, Addison said, is when your position is very good (or even winning), because that is when you have the most to lose. Furthermore, it’s human nature to relax when you’re opponent has his or her back to the wall. Like a cornered animal, your opponent might concentrate and fight back with unexpected fury.

Grandmaster Kotov discusses this concept in his book, Think Like A Grandmaster, under the interesting title “Dizziness Due to Success.”

I recall a game I played about 20 years ago againt a master named Jose Mundragon. After a violent opening, we reached a tricky endgame position where the winning chances all belonged to Jose. Of course, I offered a draw. Refused. All other games in the tournament were complete, but we played on, and I defended stubbornly until it was about 2:00 AM. I finally “succeeded” and managed to force a drawn position.

Showing this game to my friend Earl Pruner, I was perhaps expecting a little bit of praise for my defensive skill. Instead, Earl demonstrated how I could have offered a minor piece for two pawns–thereby forcing Jose to fight for a draw! During the game, I was thinking “defend” and therefore the idea of turning the position into a win never occured to me. Earl told me this:

Play an aggressive defense and strike back–don’t let your opponent use you like a punching bag.

Truly words to live by. I pass this idea on to my students as the “Missouri Defense.” In other words, Show Me!

The graduates of the MacArthur Park Chess University that still live in the L.A. area are now found at Plummer Park in Hollywood. Say hello to Ken Smith if you see him there.

Cooked Books and Books that Cook

I would like to now change the subject and talk about “cooked books” and books that “cook.” It would be more fair to say that it is not so much a case of “cooked books” as of an isolated book line or statement being “cooked”–or shown to be in error. This occurs in both the best and the worst of chess literature.

Tigran Petrosian once criticized a chess annotator’s use of an exclamation point, and further remarked that the unquestioned belief in such symbols was bad for a chess player’s development as a critical independent thinker.

Study of chess material, whether in book, magazine or on computer monitors is great–as long as the student remembers to view the material presented with a critical eye and not to allow themself to be overly impressed because the author is GM so-and-so.

Jerry Hanken recently told the bad but true tale of a booked-up fish from Los Angeles who played frequently in MacArther Park. In a tournament game he gave away his Queen following a “book line.” The problem was this: the recommended Queen sac was a typographical error! Our wanna-be hero ended up a zero.

Petrosian was concerned with annotation marks (!, ?, +-, etc.) being absorbed by students without independent thinking, but the damage can also be done by merely assuming that the line provided in the book is the best line available in the position.

David McKayy Company published in 1940 a book titled Practical Endgame Play written by Fred Reinfeld. In 1966, a chess student at MacArthur Park presented me with an original edition. I thanked him, and started to read. In the very first concrete example, we find the Flohr vs. Noteboom, from the Hastings Christmas tournament in 1930.

Czech Grandmaster Salo Flohr (1908-1983) was born in Poland and became the leading contenter for the World Championship in the mid 1930’s. He drew a match with Botvinnik (+2 =8 -2) in 1933. Flohr was especially strong in the endgame, but even the strongest don’t always find the best line of play, as this example will show.

Flohr, unlike Rheinfeld, was not writing a book on endgame play. He was merely trying to win the game, and therefore any line which is clearly winning is good enough. However, Rheinfeld had all the time in the world to find improvements on Flohr’s play, which would have been more than appropriate to mention in a book on endgame technique.

Indeed, I found a huge improvement over the actual play. In the game, Flohr played 33. Qxc4 and Noteboom resigned 13 moves later. However, 33. Qe7! Qg8 (forced) 34. Rd8!! wins outright. Play might continue 34. …Rxd8 35. Qxf6+ Qg7 36. Qxd8+ Qg8 37. Qxg8+ Kxg8 38. g4, with an easily won pawn ending.

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