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SANDS: SPICE in Texas gets U.S. out of chess backwater
We can claim the Super Bowl, the World Series and three of golf’s four “majors,” and we have played host to eight Olympics. But when it comes to staging big-time chess events, the U.S. is something of a backwater.
The 1995 Kasparov-Anand match at New York's World Trade Center was the first world championship played on American soil in 88 years. The most storied U.S. tournaments - Cambridge Springs 1904, New York 1924, New York 1927, Santa Monica 1966 - occurred decades ago. On the topographical chess atlas of the world, obscure burgs such as Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands; Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia; and Linares, Spain, tower over New York and Los Angeles.
So for patriotic reasons if nothing else, it’s nice to report on the fifth annual SPICE Cup, staged last month in Lubbock, Texas, by Texas Tech University and the Susan Polgar Foundation. The strongest of the three round-robin invitationals there had an average rating of 2656 and docked in as a Category 17 event.
(Organizers dubbed it the “highest-rated international invitational round-robin in U.S. history,” though I would take that New York 1924 field, with Emanuel Lasker, Jose Capablanca, Frank Marshall and Alexander Alekhine, among others, and even be willing to spot the SPICE Cup field some points.)
In the hard-fought Group A event, rising Vietnamese star GM Le Quang Liem justified his 2710 top rating by eking out a victory over Cuban GM Leinier Dominguez Perez and German GM Georg Meier. Israeli GM Anatoly Bykhovsky and Italian IMRoberto Mogranzini shared top honors in Group B, and popular U.S. GM Ben Finegold finished alone in first in Group C.
Liem needed a last-round victory over Dominguez Perez, who beat him in the first half of the tournament, to secure first place. He pulled it off - just barely.
In a heavily analyzed Slav QGD line, the position sharpens considerably when the players finally venture into uncharted waters: 14. 0-0 b6 (IMs Merijn van Delft and Robert Ris, analyzing the game on Chessvibes.com, noted that Black went wrong in a game earlier this year with 14. … Nc6? 15. Nxb4 Qxb4 16. Nd5! Qxb2 17. Rfb1 Qe5 18. Bc3 and White won in 31 moves) 15. Nxb4 Qxb4 16. Rfd1 Bb7 (Qxb2 17. Be1! wins material) 17. Be1 Nxe4?!, when White misses a shot with 18. Nd5! Qxa4 (Qc5 19. Qxe4) 19. Ne7+ Kh8 20. Bd5! Qxd1 21. Rxd1 exd5 22. f3 Re8 23. fxe4 Rxe7 24. exd5, with an edge for the first player.
After the game’s 18. Nb5?! Rxd1 19. Rxd1 Qxa4 20. b3 Qa6 21. Bb1, Black has won two pawns, but his queen is badly out of play. The Cuban navigates some very tricky tactical shoals but runs aground just before reaching safe harbor.
Thus: 22. f3 Bc6! 23. fxe4 Bxb5 24. Qb2 Nd3 25. Bxd3 Bxd3 26. exf5, and Black could have won the tournament with the prudent 26. … Re8! 27. fxe6 Rxe6 28. Qd4 Bg6 29. Bc3 Qb7, and the opposite-colored bishop point clearly to a draw. Instead, White gets a lethal battery along the long diagonal after 26. … Bxf5? 27. Rd7! e5 28. Qxe5! Bxd7 29. Bc3! (much better than 29. Qd5+? Kh8 30. Qxa8+ Bc8), and there is no answer to the White queen-bishop combo.
The Cuban grandmaster scored a full point earlier in the event with a cute, quick victory over 17-year-old Florida GM Ray Robson in another heavily analyzed opening. The Poisoned Pawn Sicilian lines, where Black snaps up a pawn on b2 and hopes to survive, is the opening gift that keeps on giving and has been the focus of heavy theoretical exploration since the days when Bobby Fischer used to play it.
Robson, playing White, obtains an overwhelming lead in development for his gambited pawn but falls for a sly trap set by his more experienced opponent. After 17. c3 Qc5 18. Bxe6, it’s clear that 18. … Bxe6 19. Nxe6 Qe5+ 20. Kf2 Qxe6? 21. Rbe1 pins and wins the queen.
But the equation changes radically when Black throws in the check first, with a subtlety White spots only too late: 18. … Qe5+ (see diagram) 19. Kf2?? (as will soon become clear, 19. Qe2! had to be played, when it’s still very much a game after 19. … Kd8 20. Bxc8 Kxc8 21. Qxe5 dxe5 22. Ne6 b5 23. Nxg5) Bxe6 20. Rbe1 (Nxe6 Qxe6 21. Rbe1 0-0 is check, breaking the pin on the queen) 0-0+ 21. Kg1 (Kg2 Bd5+; 21. Nf3 Qc5+) Bh3!! - the move White overlooked.
If 22. Rxe5?, Black’s newly castled rook delivers checkmate on f1. White winds up a piece down with no compensation, and Robson resigned.
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About the Author
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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