Winning While Losing


On July 13 at the packed Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Lionel Messi was handed the Golden Ball Trophy. It was an award going to the best soccer player of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But instead of celebrating the joyful moment, he was looking down, crestfallen - a blue man in a blue jersey, in blue mood. His team, Argentina, was defeated by Germany 1-0 in the Cup's final.

Johan Cruyff in 1974 - Wikipedia

Forty years ago, the amazing Dutch captain Johan Cruyff was in a similar situation. He won the Golden Ball, but the highly favored Netherlands lost the final match to Germany 1-2 at the Olympiastadion in Munich. The German team was awarded the FIFA World Cup Trophy that replaced the old Jules Rimet Trophy. It was the greatest chance for Cruyff and his teammates to win the Cup.

Shortly after the final was over on July 7, 1974, I took the train from Amsterdam to the German town of Solingen where I was scheduled to play an important international chess tournament. The train left Amsterdam in silence. The Dutch passengers were either whispering or didn't talk at all. But as soon as we crossed the border into Germany, the mood changed. People were shouting, singing, sounding horns. They laughed, cried of joy and drank. Germany was running out of beer that day.

Spassky out, Spassky In


The tournament in Solingen, celebrating the 600th anniversary of the town, almost didn't take place. The main attraction was Boris Spassky (photo above), but he was running out of favor in Moscow ever since he lost the world title to Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik in 1972. Almost at the last moment the Soviet Chess Federation decided to cancel Spassky's participation in Solingen. As a result, the main sponsor Egon Evertz sent telegrams to all players, the Soviet Federation and the Soviet Embassy. He explained that the tournament is being cancelled because the Soviets didn't keep their word. Within 24 hours Spassky got his traveling permit back and the event was on again.

A series of five wins in the second half of the tournament allowed me to take the lead. The Soviet grandmaster Lev Polugaevsky was the only player who could have catch me with a win in the last round. There were only a few inaccuracies in that game. I decided to play quietly, but in time pressure my temperament got the better of me and I dove into wild waters and drowned in the rapids. With the win, Polugaevsky caught me. Spassky later said I was not being practical in time trouble and it was a good lesson for me, a cheap one since I still tied for first.


The decisive moment

In his book Grandmaster Achievement, Polugaevsky described the must win situation this way: "You must conduct the game as though it is of precisely no importance, but at the same time instill into each move all of your internal energy, concentrate extremely hard, and attempt to foresee anything unexpected."

Our game advanced slowly, but the tension rose around move 26. I could have removed my king from the pin along the g-file to the square f7. 'A practical move,' Spassky said later. 'That's what I would do in time pressure.' Instead, I charged with my queen to the center, provoking Polugaevsky to go for broke. My intuition told me I could save myself with a knight sacrifice on d5, but I miscalculated the consequences.

Polugaevsky,Lev - Kavalek,Lubomir
Solingen 1974


Polugaevsky's last move 27.f4, attacking the black queen, looked like desperation. He decided to force the play because he didn't see how to break through. Unfortunately, I was short of time and my next move was a blunder. From two squares I chose the wrong one for my queen.


I should have gone deeper into white's territory with 27...Qe3!
After 28.Bxf5 black has two ways how to equalize:


A. 28...Ncxd5!! I showed Polugaevsky this move after the game. His reaction? "Beautiful, but unbelievable!" It leads to a draw, but I had rejected it because of



and I saw that 29...Nxd5 doesn't make it because of 30.Bxd7 Qc1+ 31.Nd1!! (a winning deflection) Qxd1+ 32. Kf2 and the white king hides easily from checks.

During the game I didn't see that the attack could be launched from the wing:
29....Nh5! 30.g4 (30.Ne2 Bb5-+) 30...Nxf4 31.Qd8 Qc1+ 32.Kf2 Qxb2+ 33.Kg3 Qxc3+ 34.Kxf4 Qc1+ and the white king can't escape from the checks.

Other moves after 28...Nxd5!! do not help either:

a) 29.Nxd5 29...Nxd5 30.Bxd7 Qc1+=

c) 29.Ne2 Ne7! and black is better.

d) 29.Bxd7 Qc1+ 30.Kf2 Qe3+=;

B. Polugaevsky gave a question mark to the other move 28...Qc1+?
He thought that it loses but it is perfectly playable.

29.Ke2 (After 29.Kf2 Qxb2+ 30.Kg1 Qxc3 black is better.) 29...Qxb2+ 30.Kd3.


Polugaevsky thought he was winning because his king could hide, but this was a wrong evaluation, because of 30...Ncxd5!! 31.Nxd5 (31.cxd5 b5! 32.Bxd7 [or 32.Bxg6 c4+ 33.Kd4 Qf2 mate.] c4+ 33.Ke3 Qxc3+ 34.Ke2 Qc2+ 35.Ke1 Qe4+ 36.Kf1 Nxd7 and black should win.) 31...Nxd5 32.Bxd7 Qd4+ 33.Kc2 Ne3+ black has at least a draw.

28.Bxf5 Qxc4+ 29.Kg1 Ncxd5

After 29...Be8 30.Be6 Nxe6 31.Nf5+ wins.

30.Bxd7 Qxf4

White triumphs after 30...Nxc3 31.Nf5+ Kg8 32.Qxf6 Ne2+ 33.Kf2.

31.Qxf4 Nxf4 32.Bb5! d5 33.Nf3 d4 34.Na4 Ne4 35.Ne5!+- Ne6 36.Bc4 Nc7

On 36...Kf6 37.Nd7+ wins

37.Bd3 b5 38.Bxe4 bxa4 39.Bd3 Ne6 40.Bc4 Nf4 41.Kf2 and I resigned.

Note that in the replay windows below you can click either on the arrows under the diagram or on the notation to follow the game.

Images by Clive Rose and Wikipedia