Texas GM Alejandro Ramirez and surprising Maryland IM Tegshsuren Enkhbat shared the lead entering the final turn in the Continental Class Championships, held over Columbus Day weekend in Arlington. The nine-round event, one of the strongest on the area’s chess calendar, concluded too late Monday night for the results to be included in this column.
Enkhbat defeated three grandmasters - Larry Kaufman, Sergey Kudrin and Josh Friedel - on his way to an undefeated 5 1/2-1 1/2 score with two rounds to play. He already drew with Ramirez in their Round 2 game.
Kudrin and Friedel were part of a knot of five players at 5-2, just a half-point back of the leaders. Also in the chasing pack: Pittsburgh GM and former U.S. champion GM Alexander Shabalov, a frequent competitor in Washington-area events. His exciting loss to Ramirez in Round 4 enabled the Texas grandmaster to seize control of the event in the middle rounds, while Shabalov’s equally scintillating win over New York IM Justin Sarkar two rounds later put him right back in the mix.
Ramirez-Shabalov, a Najdorf Sicilian, morphed from a positional fight over the e5-square into a deadly battle over the fate of Black’s king in the space of just a few moves. A master attacker, Shabalov this time finds himself on the wrong end of a sacrificial king-side assault.
The early middle game focuses on the fate of Black’s e-pawn, but Black may have overlooked a tactical riposte to White’s pressure after 20. Bf2 Ng4 21. Bg3 (Bxg4 Qxg4 22. fxe5 Bc7 [dxe5?! 23. Nc5] 23. Re4 Qg6 is double-edged) Bf6 22. Be4, when the computer recommends the unexpected 22. …exf4 23. Bxf4 Bxd5!! 24. Bxh7+ Kh8 25. Rxe8+ Rxe8 26. Qxd5 Qa7+ (the point of Black’s 23rd move - White must scramble to block the smothered mate) 27. Nc5 dxc5 28. Qf3 c4+ 29. Kf1 Bh4!, and White is hard-pressed to find a defense.
Instead, it is White who strikes first after 22…g6?! 23. f5! Bg5 24. Rcd1 Bf4 25. fxg6 hxg6 26. Bxf4 exf4 27. Bxg6!; Ramirez has at least a perpetual check after 27…fxg6 28. Qxg6+ Kh8 29. Qh5+, and can play for more if he wants.
Shabalov tries to defend instead with 27…Ne3!? 28. Bh7+ Kg7 29. Nd4 Nxd1 30. Rxd1, but White ends up with a pawn for the sacrificed exchange as well as a very dangerous attack.
The conclusion comes with surprising suddenness: 30…Rc5?! (defending the queen with 30…Rc7 was tougher, but White appears to win anyway in lines such as 31. Nf5+! Kxh7 32. Qh3+ Kg6 33. g4! fxg3 34. Qxg3+ Kf6 35. Nxd6 Re2 36. Rf1+ Ke7 37. Rxf7+ Kd8 38. Qh4+! Qe7 [Re7 39. Rf8+ Qe8 40. Rxe8+ Kd7 41. Qxe7 mate] 39. Rxe7 Rexe7 40. Nxb7+ Rxb7 41. d6 and wins) 31. Nf5+! Kf8 (Kf6 [Kxh7 32. Qh3+ Kg6 33. Nh4+ Kh5 34. Qxd7] 32. Qd4+ Re5 33. Qxf4 Rxf5 34. Bxf5 Qe7 [Qc7 35. Qh6+ Kxf5 36. Rd4 Bxd5 37. Rf4+ Ke5 38. Qf6 mate] 35. Qh4+) 32. Qh3 Re5 33. Bg6!, clearing the way for the queen check along the h-file.
Black resigned, as 33…Rxf6 (fxg6 34. Qh8+ Kf7 35. Qg7+ Ke8 36. Qg8 mate) 34. Bxf5 Qc7 35. Qh8+ Ke7 36. Re1 is mate.
Shabalov bounced back impressively against Sarkar two rounds later. It would be fascinating to know how far ahead Black saw when he casually “blundered” away a piece just 11 moves into this Dutch Defense and how much of the mating attack the grandmaster had mapped out in advance.
White’s pawn center appears ready to run his opponent off the board when Shabalov uncorks 11. fxe4 e5!!? (a startling idea - White’s threat of 12. e5 could have been met a bit more conventionally by 11. …Ng6 12. e5?! [Bg5 is probably a sounder alternative] Nxe5 13. dxe5 Bc5+ 14. Kh1 Ng4 15. Bf4 g5!) 12. c5!? (boldly accepting the challenge) bxc5 13. Qb3+ Kh8 14. Qxb7, “winning” a piece.
But White’s combination has left his kingside unattended, with momentous consequences: 14. …Rb8 15. Qxa7?! (a fateful decision; with 15. Qa6!?, leaving the pawn alone, Black’s planned knight hop to c6 would not win a tempo) exd4 16. Nb5 Nc6 17. Qa4 (see diagram) Bxh2+! 18. Kxh2 Ng4+ 19. Kg1 (the reckless 19. Kg3?! Rxf1 20. Kxg4 meets its reckoning after 20. …Ne5+ 21. Kg3 Ng6! 22. Bg5 Qxg5+ 23. Kh3 Qh4 mate) Rxf1+ 20. Kxf1 Qh4, and the queen’s mating threats coupled with the open f-file prove lethal.
After 23. Bf4 Ne3+ 24. Ke2 Qg2+ 25. Ke1 Qxg1+ 26. Kd2 Qxa1, Black emerges an exchange and two pawns to the good. One last little combination seals the win: 28. Kc3 e2! 29. Bxe2 Qe1+, and Sarkar resigned as trying to hold on to the bishop leads to 30. Kd3 Ne5+ 31. Ke3 Rf3 mate.