SANDS: Hess, 19, thriving on world stage

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American chess players seem to have a penchant for spectacular entrances on the international stage.

The unknown Paul Morphy, a provincial from New Orleans, defeated Europe’s best during his triumphal tour of London and Paris in 1858. Nearly 40 years later, it was young Harry Nelson Pillsbury astonishing the chess world by winning the fabled Hastings 1895 tournament over a world-class field in his international debut.

A century after Morphy’s exploits, it was Bobby Fischer qualifying for the world championship cycle at the tender age of 15 with a fifth-place finish at the 1958 Portoroz interzonal.

New York GM Robert Hess, at 19 one of the country’s rising stars, got his first real exposure to top-flight international competition with the just-completed Aeroflot Open in Moscow, a Swiss event that annually attracts a deep field of local and international talent. It wasn’t quite a Morphyesque debut, but the Yale-bound Hess performed quite credibly with a 50 percent result at 4 1/2-4 1/2. Two midtournament losses, including one to French star GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, dented the American’s hopes.

The New Yorker’s best win came early, with a nice performance with Black against Norwegian GM Jon Ludvig Hammer.

Kotronias-Xiu after 14. Bxf7+.

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Kotronias-Xiu after 14. Bxf7+. more >

With the confidence of the young, Hess is not afraid to enter into early complications against his higher-rated opponent in this Nimzo-Indian, unbalancing the position quickly with 8. Bxc4 Nxd5!? 9. Bxd5 (exd5? is bad because of 9…Qh4+ 10. Nf2 Qxc4 and Black is much better) exd5 10. Qxd5 Ba6, when the White queen would be trapped after 11. Qxa8?! Qh4+ 12. Kd1 Nc6.

Things grow even more double-edged on 14. Be3 Ne5!? 15. a3 Bc4 16. Na4!? (Qd2 Bxc3 17. bxc3 Qc6 18. Nf4 f5! and Black has the initiative) Qb8 17. Qd1 Bb3 18. Qf1 Bxa4 19. axb4 Bc2, when 20. Rc1 Bxe4! 21. fxe4? Ng4+ 22. Ke2 (Kf3 Nxh2+) Rxe4 23. Rc3 cxb4 24. Rd3 Rfe8 wins for Black.

Black wins the exchange, but he must withstand some uncomfortable pressure from Hammer on his king position before securing the point. The young American shows some veteran poise, however, finding a nice combination to simplify down to a winning ending and, when White makes one last oversight, even is able to deliver mate.

Thus: 28. Ng5 h6 29. Ne4 Rxe4! (not only removing White’s most annoying piece, but eyeing a combination exploiting the unguarded rook on a1) 30. fxe4 Rxd6! 31. cxd6 Qe5+, forking king and rook. An understandably deflated White decides he’d rather not stick around too long, allowing a tidy ending with 33. Qf7 Qf6 34. Qxd7 (even here, 34. Qb3 Qg5 sets up the devastating threat of 35. Nf4+) Qf3 mate.

Vietnamese GM Le Quang Liem, proving his surprise win in Moscow last year was no fluke, again topped the Aeroflot field on tie-breaks over Russian GM Nikita Vitiugov. One of the most entertaining games of the event was played much further down the leaderboard, where Greek GM Vasilios Kotronias appears to be channeling Morphy’s Romantic flair in defeating Chinese IM Xiu Deshun.

The Sicilian Poisoned Pawn line and its variants have provided some of the most entertaining attacking games of the past half-century. Even the great Fischer fell ignominiously to Boris Spassky in this line in one of his two over-the-board losses during their epic 1972 world title match.

Here Kotronias as White gives up not just the “poisoned” b-pawn but his c-pawn as well. The attack might not have withstood the scrutiny of today’s superstrong computers, but against a fallible human opponent it proves more than adequate to do the job.

After 9…Qxb2 10. Rb1 Qxc2 11. Bc4 Nxe4, White goes all in with 12. 0-0!!? Qxc3!? (also possible was 12…Nxc3, as Black appears to survive on 13. Nxg7+!? Bxg7 14. Bxf7+ Kxf7 15. fxe5+ Nf6 16. Bxf6 Nxb1 17. Bxg7+ Bf5 18. Qxb7+ Ke6) 13. Qxe4 Nc5 (see diagram) 14. Bxf7+!? Kxf7 15. Qd5+, when White already has invested a piece and two pawns in his quest to mate the Black king.

Critical now seems to be the line 15…Kg6! 16. Nh4+ Kh5 17. Qf7+ g6, and Black’s king is way out on a limb, but there is no obvious way for White to bring him down.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.

At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...

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