If more than one competitor in a tournament plays the same sequence of moves in the same round, it might be coincidence, but sometimes it is intentional, as Worldchess’s columnist explains.

Copying plays a big role in chess. People learn how to play openings by studying what the best players do and emulating their moves. Chess has too many possibilities and is too complicated  for anyoneto work out all the plans on his own.

When we look at games played in the 1800s, it is sometimes with a degree of horror because all the brilliant tactics are interwoven with moves that violate some of the principles that we take for granted. But that’s only to be expected. It took the labor of many great players over many generations to discover what we now know.

Using the ideas of players from other eras is more common than copying the moves of contemporaries, but there are exceptions. A classic and humorous example occurred during the 1955 Interzonal in Gothenburg, Sweden. Three Argentine players prepared a new line of the Najdorf Sicilian and played it simultaneously in Round 14 against three Soviet players. The result?  USSR 3, Argentina 0.

Something similar happened in Round 9 of the current Tata Steel Chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. In tandem, the games between Wei Yi and David Navara, and Fabiano Caruana and Sergey Karjakin were in sync through White’s 10th move. White’s 9th move had only been played once before, and White’s 10th move was a novelty.  (There’s more about the games in Sam Shankland’s report on Round 9.) Was it coincidence that the same new move was played on the same day in the place? There were immediately rumors suggesting that Wei Yi and Caruana must be working together.

That is not impossible – in 2015 it came out that Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, had played training sessions with two of his biggest  rivals, Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik – but it does seem unlikely.  There are numerous examples of simultaneous discoveries in the history of math, science, and technology (e.g. the simultaneous discovery of calculus by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz),  so something considerably less momentous, like a new move sequence in chess being employed at the same time by two players, is well within the realm of possibility.

There’s a more mischievous sort of synchronous copying that can be used in team matches – or even in a simultaneous exhibition against grandmasters as was done by Derren Brown in England in the following demonstration.

The trick – for simplicity, let’s say it’s a two-board match – is to have the weaker team emulate the moves of the stronger team. If the stronger team comprises two grandmasters, one playing White and the other Black, and the weaker team has two international masters then the international masters merely have to match the moves of the grandmaster on the other board playing the same color. In effect, the grandmasters end up playing each other. Unless they deliberately create a mutual time trouble situation in which the international masters no longer have the time to match the moves of the grandmasters, the weaker team is guaranteed a 1-1 tie if they carry out the strategy from start to finish.

In “Chess to Enjoy,” by Andy Soltis, he claims – without specific identifying details – that such a tactic was tried in a Yugoslavian club match, and after failed protests by the stronger side they resorted to the mutual time trouble strategy. Soltis tells another story, possibly apocryphal, of two amateurs “independently” challenging then-world champion Alexander Alekhine to correspondence games at money odds. When Alekhine realized that they were engaged in the copycat strategy, he made an apparent blunder in one game to get the overeager amateurs to diverge in the hopes of winning both games. He succeeded, and they lost both games.

There once was a team match, in the German Bundesliga in 2003, in which two of the boards were identical through move 14 with each team having white in one of the games. It wasn’t part of the weaker team’s pre-game strategy to engage in synchronous copying, but at a crucial moment one of the players decided to wait to see what the stronger player on the other team chose. As it turned out, the strongest player involved chose to break the symmetry, albeit at some risk to himself, and it paid off. Here are those games.

Hracek, Zbynek vs. Shirov, Alexei
Bundesliga 0304 | Germany | Round 5.2 | 13 Dec 2003 | ECO: B33 | 0-1
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 e5 6. Ndb5 d6 7. Bg5 a6 8. Na3 b5 9. Bxf6 gxf6 10. Nd5 f5 11. Bd3 Be6 12. c3 Bg7 13. Qh5 O-O 14. O-O f4 From Shirov's book *Fire on Board, Part II: 1997-2004*, pp. 158-9: "Something extremely funny happened at this point. While I was thinking, I noticed that the same position had appeared in the game Anand-McShane played on the top board! It was also visibly clear that Luke McShane was not in hurry with his move, as he possibly trusted my preparation more than his own. (At least it seemed that way to me during the game, because at some point our eyes crossed and Luke started laughing.) That gave me very mixed feelings. I had decided to employ this particular line because I'd analysed the game Anand-Kramnik, Cap D'Agde 2003, played a month earlier, and had a possible improvement in mind. But my plan was to try it against Hracek that day and not yet against Vishy himself! Besides, if the games continued along the same path, Vishy and I would only score one point in total and I was afraid that the team managers would expect more from the top two boards. Nevertheless I had no choice but to play the planned move...[and once he executed 14...f4] almost immediately Luke did the same against Anand." And here is McShane's comment, from ChessBase Magazine 99: "I couldn't help smirking when I glanced over at the second board of the match, where Zbynek Hracek was playing White for my team against Alexei Shirov and reached the same position! Zbynek chose 15.Rfd1, but Vishy decided to surprise me."
15. Rfd1
15. Nc2 was not considered especially strong, but Anand played it to make Shirov's task easier - both at the board and psychologically. Here's Anand (from New in Chess Magazine 2004/4, p. 54): "From all the giggling on the second board, I realized that all four of us (Shirov and Hracek as well) knew we had reached same position! Now I was faced with the prospect of playing against my team mate (Alexey). Of course, Zbynek or Luke could deviate, but who knew when? Luckily, I had briefly glanced at an alternative to 15.Rfd1. After some agonizing, I decided to play it." Anand's generosity helped McShane get a good position from the opening, but the stronger player eventually proved his superiority. Before seeing how, here's Shirov again: "However, after some reflection he played 15.Nc2!? [maybe ?! is more like it, and that's how Anand himself punctuated it] which seems rather risky, but at least the games were no longer going in the same direction! I should say that I was truly impressed how Anand went for the team's interests, as he would possibly play 15.Rfd1 in different circumstances" (Fire on Board II, p. 159).
15... f5! 16. Ncb4 Nxb4 17. Nxb4 a5! 18. exf5 Bf7 19. Qh3 Qf6 Black is already at least equal, and in the database he enjoys a huge plus score from here.
20. Nc2 Rab8?! 21. g3 Bh6?! 22. a4! White is better.
22... b4 23. cxb4 d5? 24. Bb5 Rfc8 25. Ne1 e4?! 26. bxa5! f3 27. a6 Bg7 28. Rb1 h5 29. b4 Rc7 30. Kh1! Qg5 31. Bd3!! A terrific move. If Black takes it, his dreams of kingside counterplay come to an immediate end. Meanwhile, White clears the way for the b-pawn, which in tandem with the a-pawns will cost Black serious material very soon.
31... exd3 32. b5 d2 33. Nxf3 Qh6 34. Qh4? A serious error that went unpunished.
...  Qb6? 35. Nxd2 White is winning again, but in mutual time trouble further errors are on the way.
...  Rc2 36. Rbd1? Re8 37. f6 Bxf6 38. a5! This great move keeps the advantage.
38... Bxh4? 39. axb6 Bd8 40. b7 Bb6 41. Rc1 Bg6 42. Rce1 1-0 (42) Anand,V (2766)-McShane,L (2619) Germany 2003
...   )
15... Rb8 16. Nc2 Qd7 17. h3 f5 This was Shirov's improvement over the aforementioned Anand-Kramnik game. Initially the computer thinks Kramnik got it right, but eventually changes its mind.
17... a5?! 18. Na3 b4 19. Nb5 bxc3 20. bxc3 Ne7 21. Ndc7 Rbc8 22. Nxe6 fxe6 23. a4 Kh8 24. Bc2 Rc6 25. Rd2 Nc8 26. Rad1 Qe7 27. Bb3 Rf6 28. c4 Rh6 29. Qf3 Bf8 30. c5 Rxc5 31. Nxd6 Nxd6 32. Rxd6 Qxd6 33. Rxd6 Bxd6 34. Qd3 Rc6 35. Qb5 Rc1+ 36. Kh2 Rf6 37. Qe8+ Bf8 38. Bxe6 f3 39. g4 Rf1 40. Kg3 Rg1+ 41. Kh4 Kg7 42. g5 Rf4+ 43. Kh5 Rg2 44. Bf5 Rxf5 45. exf5 Rxf2 46. Qxe5+ 1-0 (46) Anand,V (2766)-Kramnik,V (2777) Cap d'Agde 2003  )
18. Ndb4 Nxb4 19. Nxb4 a5 20. exf5 Bxf5 21. Nc6 Rbe8 22. Bxb5 Qc7 Kudos to Shirov: the engines finally agree with him. The position is complicated and the chances are equal.
23. Nxa5 Rb8! All this was part of Shirov's prep, and now he has the advantage. White has two extra pawns, but his pieces do not coordinate while Black's are a picture of harmony.
24. Bc4+ Kh8 25. b4 Bg6 26. Qg4 e4 The immediate
26... f3! is even stronger.  )
27. Rac1
27. Bd5!  )
27... f3 28. Bd5 Bh6 29. Nc4?
29. g3 Bxc1 30. Rxc1 Rxb4 31. Nc6 Rb6 32. Nd4 favors Black, but is far from hopeless for White.  )
29... fxg2! Preferring the initiative and the attack to cashing in with 29...Bxc1. Black is winning.
30. Qh4 Qa7 31. Kxg2 Bxc1
31... Qg7!  )
32. Rxc1 Rf3 33. Ne3 Rbf8 34. Rc2 Qg7 35. Qg5 h6 36. Qg4 R8f4 37. Qc8+ Kh7 38. Qb7 Bf7+ 39. Ng4 Bxd5 40. Qxd5 Rxh3! Impressive preparation, and Shirov's play continued to be excellent eve after his preparation came to an end.


Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.