Twice on Sunday, I got to see Americans lose chances at what passes for sports immortality.
On Sunday morning’s British Open, Phil Mickelson went 6 strokes under par over the first 10 holes to get to one shot behind the leader Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland with 8 holes left to play. But as soon as Mickelson got close to the leader, he started missing short putts and putting the ball in the rough to lose 4 stokes over the final 8 holes and finish in second place with fellow American Dustin Johnson 3 strokes behind Clarke. Johnson was only 2 strokes behind Clarke with 6 holes to play, but lost 3 strokes over the final 6 holes. Both golfers were able to come from behind, but wilted at the moment they could have put maximum pressure on the leader. Clarke’s 3 stroke margin of victory included losing 2 shots to par over the last 2 holes, when he was taking care not to have a disaster with a 4 stroke lead.
As soon as the Open finished, TV coverage on ESPN shifted to the Women’s Soccer World Cup final from Germany, where the United States was taking on Japan for the championship. The US had the best of the early action but weren’t able to score a goal and went to the half tied at zero. The US finally scored a goal with 20 minutes left to go ahead 1-0, but then stopped being aggressive and their passivity, combined with Japan’s newfound desperation quickly led to a 1-1 tie. The game went to overtime and I went to JC Penney with Kathy to replace my worn out shoes and belt. When I got back, Ben was watching the game and said the US scored in the 30 minute overtime period but the Japan team also scored to re-tie the game at 2-2. With the overtime period over, the tie was broken by a penalty kick shootout. The first 2 US players had their shots blocked by the Japanese goalie, while one of Japan's shot found the back of the goal for a 1-0 lead. Then the third US shooter kicked the ball over the goal and into the stands, which is rarely seen in a shootout situation. The next 2 Japanese players scored on their penalty kicks to win the shootout, the game, and the World Cup.
These losses had to sting Mickelson, Johnson, and the soccer team. Mickelson is over 40 and probably doesn’t have many chances to win another major championship and a lot of the soccer team will be replaced by the time the next World Cup rolls around in another 4 years. Johnson is still in his 20’s but has squandered chances to win major championships twice already this year and is at risk of being labeled a choke artist. One group of Americans that had a successful weekend in international play was the Yankees, who beat the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday and Sunday (but only after getting crushed by the Jays on Thursday and Friday).
At last week’s chess camp, I told the kids that losing hurts but as long as you can learn from the defeat and become a better player it’s OK to lose since they all have at least 50 years of chess playing ahead of them. But even in youth chess a loss can be traumatic if it costs a state or national title where youth championships are age or grade based.
I got to think about stinging defeats on Monday when I lost this game of 3 minute chess on the internet that I had no business losing: When I saw I was lost, I resigned and just stared at the computer screen in disbelief. I had plenty of time to see the pawn move and win the game in fine style. I know it’s just a game, but it gave me a flashback to the worst chess loss I ever suffered.
The game happened at a team tournament in 2003. Our 4 man team was myself, Shawn Pavlik from nearby Green Mountain-Garwin, and my sons Matt (10) and Ben (7). In a team tournament, each member of your team plays their counterpart on another team and whichever team wins the most games wins the match. We were heavily outrated by the Ames team in the first round and Ben and Shawn lost their games, but Matt managed to beat one of the top high school players in the state and my opponent Tim Crouse, gave away his queen for a rook and a bishop and I already had 2 extra pawns. But I wasn’t up to the task. Warning!! After move 19, this game is not suitable for young children: I’ve never felt lower than walking out of that room and having to tell my kids and Shawn that I screwed that game up and lost. We won our next 2 matches to tie for second in the team tournament, but I couldn’t bear to even look at that game for over 3 years. Eventually, I faced up to it, but that loss still stings. Tim deserves a lot of credit for hanging around and giving me lots of chances to self-destruct.
Another stinging loss was against Gerald Hawkins in the last round of a CyChess in 2009. I was pushed around throughout, managed to win a piece....and was busted 5 moves later: I could not believe I lost that game. I was on tilt so bad that afterwards I was angrily asking the tournament director why I had gotten the black pieces for the round when I was higher rated and due the white pieces (The answer was that Hawkins had 2 points while I had 1.5 so he got the white pieces he was due).
The reason these 2 losses stick with me is that I have a self-image of myself as a chess player who makes very few mistakes, is really hard to beat, and can grind out wins (and draws against higher-rated players) just by being a pest. But in these 2 losses, all my opponents had to do to win was give me a winning game and let me choke it away.
But just to show that this can happen to anyone, here is a game I won that I had no business winning. My opponent was Rodney Olson (since deceased) and was played at the 2007 Iowa Class Championships in Ankeny.
A couple of the other players who were watching the game while they were taking a break from their own game couldn’t believe I didn’t lose. When Rodney resigned, he said ruefully, “I can’t believe I lost this game.” I could only say, “Brother, I been there.”