Chess book review: Defending Under Pressure

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Dr. Steve Hrop, a psychologist, achieved a peak US Chess rating of 2192 in 1988. His book Defending Under Pressure: Managing Your Emotions at the Chessboard was published in 2021 by Mongoose Press. This article is a review of Hrop’s book.

Defending under pressure

Candidate Moves

According to Dr. Steve Hrop, when our opponent plays a scary-looking move, our fight-or-flight response is triggered. We might play the first move that comes to mind, which could be disastrous. The two main ways to manage our heightened emotions are deep breathing and to find at least three candidate moves.

Looking for candidate moves is valuable advice! However, Hrop’s chess examples are confusing. Three of his 101 training positions (“T” followed by a number) are given below, to show some of the problems I had with Hrop’s book.

T4. Brandon Jacobson (2350) versus Steve Hrop (2100)

Jacobson is now a grandmaster, but he was 2350 at the time of this game. Hrop writes “I was rated over 2100 at the time.” Hrop does not give the year when this game was played.

Brandon Jacobson (2350) versus Steve Hrop (2100)

Black to move.

Under the diagrammed position, Hrop gives four candidate moves for Black.

A…Rdxd4

B…Bc8

C…fxe4

D…Bb7

One of those choices, the move he played against Jacobson, is a bad move.

1…Rdxd4? Hrop writes, “After the exchange of a pair of rooks on d4, White played the simple Qa7+, winning my bishop.” From that sentence, I assume that Hrop took back on d4 with a rook. But recapturing with the rook makes what is a bad move (1…Rdxd4) even worse. 2.Rxd4 Rxd4? That is, why not take with the queen on d4? Then Black is still much worse but does not lose a bishop. Hrop never discusses this option. 2…Qxd4 3.Qxc6 (3.Qa7+?? is terrible now because it loses White’s queen. 3…Qxa7) 3…Rb6 4.Qc7+ Kf8. 3.Qa7+ and Black ended up losing, 1–0.

T10. Laurent Fressinet versus Robert Kempinski

Bundesliga, 2009

Black to move

Laurent Fressinet versus Robert Kempinski

Hrop writes, “Begin by identifying all candidate moves that prevent White from checkmating on the next move with Rc3–h3. There are three candidates. Did you find all three?” I found 1…Be3, or 1…Nf6 with the idea next move of 2…Nh5. A third candidate move, 1…Bxf2+, also delays checkmate. However, Hrop never tells what the three candidate moves are! So, I don’t know if my three candidates are the correct ones. He only discusses 1…Be3.

1…Be3! Hrop numbers 1…Be3 as move 1. Also, his book has figurine algebraic notation for text and annotations. So instead of a “B” as I have written, imagine the image of a bishop in figurine notation. 1…Nf6 2.Rh3+ Nh5 3.Rxh5#; 1…Bxf2+ 2.Rxf2 Qxf2+ 3.Kxf2 Nf6 4.Rh3+ Nh5 5.Rxh5# 2.Rxe3 Qxe3 3.fxe3 f6 The actual Fressinet-Kempinski game was drawn 10 moves later, on move 37. 27…f6 was the move numbering in the game, ½–½.

T25. Yevgeny Feldman (2300) versus Steve Hrop (2100)

Marshall Chess Club, 2013

Black to move.

Yevgeny Feldman (2300) versus Steve Hrop (2100)

Hrop writes, “Black has a solid defensive position and is fully developed. Nevertheless, that does not mean he should become overly cautious in an attempt to achieve a draw against a higher-rated player.” Hrop recommends the move that he played, 1…a5.

1…a5 the Stockfish 14.1 engine evaluates this position as more than a pawn advantage for Black. 1…g6 Stockfish 14.1 also evaluates the position after 1…g6 as more than a pawn advantage for Black. Hrop eventually drew against Feldman, ½–½.

Why go for a draw?

The T25 position, from Feldman versus Hrop, raises an important emotional struggle: Does one play for a win or for a draw against a higher-rated opponent? Hrop seems to indicate that he is playing for a draw against Feldman in T25, despite having an advantage. Is playing for a draw the best strategy for one’s emotions, to keep our hopes modest? Or does aiming for draws inhibit our improvement? Answers to these questions, about our goals and fears around playing higher-rated opponents, are not addressed. Likewise, emotions about facing lower-rated opponents are not discussed. Yet emotions can be triggered when we see our opponent’s rating differs from our own. A discussion of expectations and emotions would have been helpful.

While I can’t recommend Defending Under Pressure: Managing Your Emotions at the Chessboard, it did teach me to identify at least three candidate moves in each position. As Hrop writes, considering candidate moves turns each position into a multiple-choice question, which is easier to answer than an open-ended question.

WIM Alexey Root, PhD

Alexey Root is a Woman International Master and the 1989 U.S. Women's chess champion. Her peak US Chess rating was 2260. She has a PhD in education from UCLA. You can find her books on chess on Amazon.com.

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