SANDS: Dogged Gelfand wins shot at title in 2012

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He’s is generally considered to be just outside the circle of the game’s very elite, but Israeli GM Boris Gelfand has always been what they call in baseball a “tough out.”

Now, should he best Indian GM Viswanathan Anand in a match next year, the 43-year-old Russian-born Gelfand will be called something else: “world champ.”

With a win in the sixth and final game of his candidates final with Russian GM Alexander Grischuk in Kazan, Russia, last week, Gelfand won the right to take on Anand in a 12-game title match in early 2012. Among those who fell by the wayside in the Kazan knockout tournament were former champs Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, pre-tournament favorite Levon Aronian of Armenia and reigning U.S. champion Gata Kamsky, who lost to Gelfand in the semifinals.

The first Israeli to play for the crown, Gelfand will no doubt be an underdog against Anand (the Indian has a 16-6 edge, with 49 draws, in head-to-head play, though many of the more recent wins came in rapid, blitz and blindfold tournaments) but no one should count him out.

Needing just a draw to force a rapid-chess playoff in Kazan, Grischuk as Black in Game 6 instead came out fighting. Gelfand is not the world’s most aggressive player, but he knows how to attack when the opportunity arises. Grischuk said later that in a rare Grunfeld Defense sideline, White’s novelty 12. h3 Be6 13. b3! put a cramp in his game and forced him into the adventurous rook sally along his fourth rank just to free his game.

Gelfand-Grischuk after 22...Rhxd5.

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Gelfand-Grischuk after 22…Rhxd5. more >

But the rook soon becomes a target, and after a tactical dust-up, White finds an inspired way to construct an overwhelming center: 18. Nh4!? Bf6 19. f4!! (Black admitted he never even considered this move, which gives up a pawn and ruins the White pawn structure, but Gelfand’s move has some real compensating virtues) Rd8 (Bxh4 20. gxh4 Rxh4 21. Kg3!, with the strong threat of 22. d5!) 20. Qf2 Bxh4 21. gxh4 Nd5 22. Nxd5 Rhxd5 (see diagram) 23. Bb2!, ignoring the offered exchange sacrifice to reinforce the center.

Both sides felt Black had to try 23…f5 here to alter the dynamic, as after the game’s 23…Rb5? 24. Qe2 Rh5 (Rxb3?25. d5) 25. e4 Bxb3 26. Rdc1, the White pawn center is ready to roll. The awkward, exposed Black pieces on the queen side eventually cost Black already in severe time pressure a piece after 32. Qb5 Qc5 (the last change was the tricky 32…Ba2!?, but White remains in charge after 33. Rb2 Qc7 33. e5! [Rxa2?? Qxf4+] Be6 35. Qb6 Qxb6 36. Rxb6 Rc8 37. exf6 exf6 38. Bxf6, according to ChessBase.com analyst GM Sergey Shipov) 33. Rxb3 Nxc6 (Nxb3 34. Qxb3+ Kf8 35. e5 is also winning) 34. e5 Nd4 35. Qc4+, and Black, a piece down with no real compensation, resigned.

As we have whined about here before, the candidates matches this year featured a distressingly high percentage of draws in the classical time-control games. One reason for that may have been the absence of Spanish GM Alexei Shirov, who was showing his fighting spirit elsewhere while winning the recent Lublin Union Memorial round-robin tournament in Poland.

Against Russian GM Evgeny Alekseev, Shirov even dusted off the King’s Gambit, skated on the edge of disaster for much of the game and ended up mating his opponent. That the game was played in the penultimate round, with first place very much on the line, only adds to the drama.

Not only does Shirov adopt one of the sharpest openings in the modern repertoire, but he plays a move 8. Rg1!? that has never been tried in over-the-board play in grandmaster play. Every time Black tries to consolidate, White throws another sacrificial log on the fire, even offering up a second King’s Gambit f-pawn to open lines with 18. e5 dxe5 19. f5!?.

Black gives as well as he gets, and Alekseev even generates some powerful mating threats of his own. Had he found 26…Bd4!, he might even have consolidated and won. But after 26….f5? 27. Qc8 Kg7? (the last mistake; necessary was 27…e4+ 28. Nxe4 fxe4+ 29. Kxe4+ Bf2!, with a likely draw by perpetual check) 28. Qxc7+ Kf8 29. Qxe5 Bh5+ 30. g4 Bxg4+ 31. Kg3 Qd4 32. Qb8+, and the Black king has no refuge. After 34. Qf7+ Kg5 35. Qe7+, there’s no escape and Black resigned.

Gelfand-Grischuk, Kazan, Russia, May 2011

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nf3 Bg7 4. g3 d5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. Bg2 Nb6 7. Nc3 Nc6 8. e3
O-O 9. O-O Re8 10. Re1 a5 11. Qe2 Bg4 12. h3 Be6 13. b3 a4 14. Rb1 axb3 15. axb3
Qc8 16. Kh2 Ra5 17. Rd1 Rh5 18. Nh4 Bf6 19. f4 Rd8 20. Qf2 Bxh4 21. gxh4 Nd5 22.
Nxd5 Rhxd5 23. Bb2 Rb5 24. Qe2 Rh5 25. e4 Bxb3 26. Rdc1 Na5 27. d5 b6 28. Be5 c5
29. dxc6 f6 30. Ba1 Rc5 31. Rxc5 bxc5 32. Qb5 Qc7 33. Rxb3 Nxc6 34. e5 Nd4 35.
Qc4+ 1-0.

Shirov-Alekseev, Lublin, Poland, May 2011

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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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