Why do chess masters win in simultaneous exhibitions?

I have been browsing on YouTube a lot lately and came across an interesting video, a video where a chess master takes on several people at once in an exhibition. This is called a simultaneous exhibition, it is where a titled player competes against multiple people and is paid by doing so.

And since I know the needs of the readers of this site, I thought that it would be interesting for me to share my thoughts on this question, why do chess masters win in simultaneous exhibitions?

Chess masters win in simultaneous exhibitions since their skill level is usually far from the participants, only one player can move at a time avoiding confusion, no time pressure exists, professionals are used to mental exhaustion, and they can win some games pretty quickly.

I will break down everything taking from my years of experience to hopefully paint a good understanding of such an event, if you are curious then this is for you.

Do chess masters win in exhibitions purely because of skill?

The chess master initiating the simul usually far surpasses any participant within the exhibition in terms of skill, this allows them to play some moves automatically without much thought to accompany the sheer number of games.

Chess masters are way different breeds of players than people who most commonly participate in simuls, the difference in skill is usually very high with a lot of margin for errors. This individual (titled player) is likely to have participated in a lot of competition and has endured far more than someone who plays chess casually.

They are constantly being pitted against someone of equal and higher strength and occasionally even winning, taking one out several weak players is not that hard in comparison. Someone who is in shape is less likely to make mistakes that can easily be converted to a win, that is not the case with most people in a simul.

Most people who participated in this wouldn’t even last to make a significant impact on the chess master’s endurance (they lose pretty quickly). A chess master is usually someone who has memorized tons of theory that they do not need to think against silly moves, therefore, preserving their stamina.

Just look at this video where Anatoly Karpov takes on multiple people all at once:

The player in question is a world champion yes, but is a shell of their former self that should not survive a serious competition (Anatoly had a favorable result on this one). There is a reason why he has retired from professional chess, if he were fighting against someone of a modern strength it would be much more difficult unlike here.

Anatoly Karpov got the result that he wanted pretty easily, this is just a testament to the difference in level even if the age factor is on the side of the participants. If you want full details of why chess players that are old are less likely to perform at a top-level this article (will open in a new tab) should help you with that.

Most skilled players can perform simultaneous games themselves

For the most part, it is not very hard for someone of a higher skill level to play against really low-rated opponents even if there are multiples of them. I for example can be capable of such as long as there are no time pressures and my opponents can only move one at a time (which are the conditions in a simul).

The difference would of course be of the level, I am not as skillful as a titled player and therefore wouldn’t be able to do it in the scale they are executing. But it is definitely humanly possible if one has done enough study, so it is pretty achievable (though still amazing).

Participants in simultaneous exhibitions are bad at openings

The player initiating the simul usually has a very good opening repertoire, the chess master doesn’t really need to think about the moves for half of the game (for the most part). Chess masters study the theory more than any other phase of the game, it is something that is ingrained in the memory, the participants on the other hand are likely to never even see an opening book.

Remember when I said that not a lot of games last in a simultaneous exhibition? Most wins against weaker players just end in the opening where the master doesn’t even need to think that much. This allows the chess master to preserve their energy while reducing the number of opponents while only really playing spontaneously against serious competitors.

Is mental endurance the reason why chess masters win in simuls?

Chess masters are significantly more capable of extended periods of calculation than an average person due to the nature of tournaments, this allows them to perform simultaneous exhibitions with resistance to mental fatigue.

Chess masters are usually used to mental stresses from constantly engaging in chess competitions that they are likely to endure hurtful fatigue in the duration of the exhibition. The duration of a standard tournament is about six to eight hours of straight play with minimal break and one has to do this in about two to three days straight.

Of course competitors will be able to develop mental endurance to survive this kind of environment, so a simultaneous exhibition is not really far out of reality. A titled player is a professional, they would have more tolerance to extended periods of exhaustion and therefore would need a higher standard when considering their mental toll.

Here is a video of Magnus Carlsen performing simultaneous exhibitions for you to get an idea of how many participate in these exhibitions:

This seems really troublesome with just the sheer number of players engaging but we are talking about a professional, they are used to this kind of extensive play.

Only a small minority of simul participants are a threat

Most opponents that play in a chess simul are not titled players, meaning the master can easily pick them off to focus on stronger opponents. However a serious opponent emerges here and there that will bring a challenge for the master, these are the kinds of people the host is wary of.

This is why the master usually gauges the skill level of the opponent before or during the game in order to appropriately assess how to play against them. The master definitely doesn’t want to lose a game, so some even went so far as to cause a ruckus when somebody lied about their rating (since they are the players that secretly are capable of beating the master).

Here’s a video of Garry Kasparov erupting when somebody lied about their rating in a simultaneous exhibition:

The video says that a coach assisted the players but is a misinterpretation, if you read the subtitles the simul participant actually hide/lied about their rating.

When somebody is competent the master is more likely to take them seriously in the game and play it safe, lying will make it likely for the challenger to win since the masters will underestimate them.

Are there any conditions in a simul that works in the master’s favor?

In simultaneous exhibitions only one player can play a move at a time, chess clocks do not exist, and even a draw is favorable for the chess master, this mechanism makes it easier for the master to win in exhibitions.

Playing in a simultaneous exhibition is not as confusing as you think, people are not moving all at once as to provide turmoil. In simuls the one that the host is currently on is the only one allowed to play a move, this is to deter any factor of confusion during play. 

This means that instead of the master playing against several people all at once, they are really just playing a single opponent one by one on each of their turns. This alleviates the burden of potential disorientation from not recognizing a position that they are initially playing, it is a factor that makes things easier.

There are no time pressures in simultaneous exhibitions

Traditional chess exhibitions do not allow the existence of clocks, meaning there is no time pressure for the host to make their moves throughout their games. Some modern variation will have a clock but is rare, it will after all put more pressure on the master to rush their moves on each of the boards.

The time pressure is difficult to handle when considering critical moves in multiple positions, even if the format is pretty long the exhaustion may take hold. Psychologically it will be significantly harder to focus on individual games if there is a concept of a time deadline, so it was just removed. This works in the chess master’s favor since it will make the game much easier for them as someone who is used in time control.

A draw in simultaneous exhibitions are acceptable

There is a difference between participating in the tournament and a simultaneous exhibition, and that is you don’t even need a win to be honorable.  A draw for the player initiating the simul is basically still considered a victory for the player, therefore most chess masters are allowed to target a draw and play it safe.

Have you ever heard of the saying that a true master can draw at will? This is true to a degree since a professional chess player can easily play it safe and go for a draw. This makes the chess master in the simultaneous exhibition not pressured to take more risk, making each game very simple to calculate.

What tricks do chess masters implement to dominate an exhibition?

Chess masters in simultaneous exhibitions usually try to win against weaker players first to easily eliminate the number of opponents, they also want to play it safe on most of the boards to reserve their energy for serious opponents.

Chess masters usually try to win the game as fast as possible in order to prevent the fatigue from building up (not through complication), this allows them to focus on stronger opponents. This is actually the most important secret, if a chess master puts their attention into everyone it will be much more difficult to face the best competitors since they will be tired at that point.

Energy is the asset in these kinds of events, the one that is playing against multiple people should do their best to not get tired since they will win with skill naturally. They don’t really need to go all out against every participant, they can just sweep through the easy victories and think seriously about the harder games.

This means that taking out the weaker players is a priority, preferably in an opening trap (that doesn’t need much thought) which most beginners can fall into.

Endgames in chess are complicated

Some people might not know this, but the endgame is a complicated phase of the game that requires a little bit of calculation (even when there are not a lot of pieces). It is even worse than in a middlegame for example since the accountability is really high (a mistake in the endgame means the end of the game).

The one who is hosting the simul doesn’t want to engage in any endgame activity too early, this ensures that when an endgame occurs, only a limited amount of people remain that the master has to think about. A master who is in an endgame position, after all, will take a little more time to analyze things than the one who is not, and so chess masters usually avoid these until later in simultaneous exhibitions.

Do you now know why chess masters win in simultaneous exhibitions?

When I first witnessed these kinds of events I was really impressed, it is just so intriguing to say that someone is capable of something like this. After learning a bunch of things I am still feeling this way although not as strong, it takes a lot of investment in the game to reach this level.

I am definitely hoping to participate in something like this in the future (though I still have not yet) and would prepare the weeks prior. Maybe I can even do it myself once I have acquired enough knowledge and practice, but is still not in any of my plans currently.

I enjoyed making this article and I hope that you have learned something, sleep well and play chess.

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