SANDS: Catching a chess champion when he’s distracted

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Champions may be most vulnerable right before they defend their titles.

Deep into the preparation for his 12-game match against challenger GM Boris Gelfand of Israel starting May 11 in Moscow, titleholder Viswanathan Anand of India took a little timeout this month to hold down first board for the Baden-Baden team in final rounds of the powerful German chess Bundesliga.

Perhaps because his mind was elsewhere, or perhaps for fear of showing Gelfand too many of his ideas, Anand ran into a buzz saw in his game against veteran Dutch GM Sergei Tiviakov.

Anand’s play on the Black side of this Rossolimo Sicilian is uncharacteristically passive, and by 11. a4 b6?! (a too-modest move Tiviakov later criticized) 12. b3 Ra7 13. Rd1 Bc8 14. Ba3, Tiviakov appears to have achieved all the positional advantage from the White setup in the Sicilian with none of the drawbacks. With his d-pawn hopelessly backward on the half-open file, Black is in for a long evening of suffering.

Handed a golden opportunity against a great champion, Tiviakov makes the most of it: 24. g3 g5 25. f4! (with all of Black’s pieces tied down, this temporary pawn sacrifice is easy to find and hard to counter) gxf4 26. gxf4 Kf7 27. Kf2 exf4 28. Kf3 Ke6 29. Bc1! Rc8 30. Bxf4 Bf8 (Rh8 31. Be3 Rb7 32. Rg1 Kf7 33. h4 Bf8 34. Rf5 Bg7 35. h5 and Black is paralyzed), and now Black must worry about the weak h-pawn as well.

Svidler-Morozevich after 18...Kxc6.

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Svidler-Morozevich after 18…Kxc6. more >

With his huge spatial edge, White can shift play to either flank with a speed Black simply cannot match: 41. Rxh6 Rg7+? (the other rook check may have been Black’s last best hope — 41. … Rg8+ 42. Kf3 [Rg6 Rxg6+ 43. hxg6 Rf8 44. Kf4 (Kh5 Rh8+ goes nowhere) Rg8 45. a5 bxa5 46. Rxa5 Rxg6 47. Rxa6 still requires some work to win] Rg1 43. Kf2 Rb1 44. Rf3 Ke5, with greater activity than in the game) 42. Kf4 Rf8 43. a5!, and White creates a decisive passed pawn on the other wing.

At the end, after 47. Rxe5+ Kd6 (Kd7 48. Rh7+ Kc6 49. Re6+ Kc5 50. Rc7+ Kd4 51. Re4+ Kc3 52. Re3+ Kb2 53. Rxb3+ Kxb3 54. Rc8 and wins) 48. Rf5 Ke6 (Rxb7 49. Rfxf6+ Rxf6+ 50. Rxf6+ Kc5 51. Rxa6 Kxc4 52. Kf5 is an elementary endgame win) 49. Rh7 Rd8 50. Re5!, Anand resigned in light of lines such as 50. … Rxd5 51. cxd5+ Kxd5 52. h6 a6 53. Rg7 Rb4+ 54. Kf5 a4 55. h7, and one of the pawns must queen. An understandably subpar outing for the champ, but a very nicely judged positional effort from White.

Oddly enough, Anand’s match with Gelfand won’t be the highest-rated contest this spring, as world No. 2 Levon Aronian of Armenia and world No. 3 Vladimir Kramnik are in the middle of their own six-game non-title match in Zurich. With a win in the first game with the black pieces, Aronian holds an early 1½-½ lead. We’ll have results and some action from the event next week.

It may present some marketing challenges, but somebody really ought to compile a collection of the best draws in history. Not all split points are created equal, and many draws feature more tactics, thrills and imagination than “brilliancies” consisting of a flashy two-move queen sacrifice.

Take, for instance, the scintillating game between Russian GM superstars Peter Svidler and Alex Morozevich from the just-concluded Russian team championships in Sochi. In a quiet QGD line, Black’s wild 11. e4 dxe4?! at first looks like a typo but in fact initiates a tactical slugfest in which both players must find remarkable moves just to stay in the game.

White accepts the challenge with 12. Qxe4 Re8 13. Bd3! (Qxa8? Bf6+ 14. Be2 Rxe2+! 15. Kxe2 Ba6+ 16. Ke1 [Ke3?? Qd3 mate] Qe8+, and if 17. Be3, Black has 17. … Qb5! 18. Ng1 [Kd1 Qe2+ 19. Kc1 Qxb2+ 20. Kd1 Be2+ 21. Ke1 Bd3] Bxb2 19. Qd5 h6 20. Rd1? Bc3+ 21. Bd2 Qf1 mate), threatening mate in two. In the following play, Black escapes a knight fork of his king and queen with a timely discovered check, while Svidler finds an amazing saving resource with his queen and two bishops all under attack.

Thus: 16. Qh8+ Ke7 17. Nxc6+ Kd7+ (a king-and-queen knight fork countered by a discovered check - not something you see every day) 18. Be5 Kxc6 (see diagram; 18. … Rxh8?! 19. Nxd8 Bxe5 20. Nxf7 Bxb2 21. Rb1 Bc3+ 22. Kd1 is better for White) 19. 0-0-0!!, a move that lifts the game into the extraordinary. Note that 19. Be4+ fails to 19. … Kb6 20. Rd1 Rxh8 21. Rxd8 Rxd8 22. Bxf6 Re8!.

Play continued 19. … Bxe5 (White also survives on 19. … Rxh8 20. Be4+ Kb6 21. Rxd8 Bxe5 22. Rxh8 Bf4+ 23. Kc2 [Kd1 Bg4+ 24. f3 Bxf3+ 25. Bxf3 Rxh8] Bb7 24. Bxb7) 20. Be4+ Kc7 21. Rxd8 Rxh8 (both of Black’s rooks are hanging, but as Tal famously observed, you can take only one piece at a time) 22. Rxh8 Bf4+ 23. Kc2 Bb7 24. Bxb7 Rxh8 25. Bd5, and White finally has emerged a long pawn to the good, but the opposite-colored bishops make the win difficult.

Morozevich gets the pawn back on 26. Rd1 Bxh2! 27. Bxf7 (g3 Bg1! 28. Rxg1 Rxd5) Rf8, and by 30. Kxd2 Be5 31. b3 Bf6, a draw is the only practical outcome. The tactical wizardry on display here was so amazing there already have been hints that the two players were both using some home cooking. Whatever the case, it was a truly breathtaking display.

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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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