SANDS: At the chessboard, expect sparks if lovers mate

Some wag once observed that no one ever joined the chess team in high school to meet girls, but for this, our Valentine’s Day column, we’d like at least to try to make the case that chess and romance can prove a potent pair.

There’s an undeniable erotic charge when lovers square off across the chessboard, something even the medieval troubadours recognized. Think Miranda and Ferdinand in “The Tempest,” Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair,” even Bella and Edward in the latest “Twilight” movie. It’s not called “mate” for nothing.

Bobby Fischer’s romantic career — much like the rest of his life — was a mess, but there have been some strong matches brokered over a chessboard. Russian WGM Natalia Pogonina and her husband Peter Zhdanov compiled what they call the “5000+ Club” — married couples whose combined ratings topped the 5K mark. Heading the list: Ukrainian GM Vassily Ivanchuk and WGM Alisa Galliamova and Spanish GM Alexei Shirov and IM Viktorija Cmilyte, although neither union lasted. The reigning champs sharing a bedroom apparently are Russian GM Alexander Grischuk (2761) and Ukrainian GM Natalia Zhukova (2426), with a combined rating of 5185.

The Sockos — Bartosz and Monika — were the Polish men’s and women’s champions in 2008, while the Thipsays — Praveen and Bhagyashree — turned the same trick in India in 1994.

The 2010 French national champions, GM Laurent Fressinet and WGM Almira Skripchenko, had the ultimate “meet cute” moment when Skripchenko destroyed her future husband in a brilliant attacking game from the 2002 French championships. (At the time, the Moldovan-born Skripchenko was married to another top French GM, Joel Lautier, but that’s a story for another column.)

Skripchenko-Fressinet after 33...Bd5.

Enlarge Photo

Skripchenko-Fressinet after 33…Bd5. more >

Skripchenko as White shows her aggressive intentions early in this Modern Defense with 11. Bh2 Ne7 12. h4, but Black handles the pressure well with the timely 15. … f5 16. exf5 Nf6 17. f3 Nxf5 18. Ne4 0-0. Fressinet’s only real problem is his weakness along the b1-h7 diagonal, a vulnerability that will come back to haunt him.

Black appears to be getting good counterpressure along the f-file, when a single defensive misstep opens the door to a stunning attack: 27. Qd3 Rf8 28. Ne3 Qe8?! (Rxf3? is bad because of 29. Rxf3 Qxf3 30. Rf1 Qh3 31. Rxf8+ Bxf8 32. Bc2, but 28. … Qg8! - covering the h7-square - 29. Kg2 Rc8 is perfectly playable for Black) 29. Bc2 Kg8 30. Bxe5!, a line-opening stunner that makes Black’s intended king flight as dangerous as staying put.

After 30. … dxe5 31. Qh7+ Kf7 32. d6!, the open light-squared diagonals make Skripchenko’s bishop lethal in the final attack. In a finale that Freud would have enjoyed unpacking, White gives up her queen to mate the king of her future spouse: 32. … Rh8 (the threat was 33. Bb3+ Bd5 34. Nxd5 Nxd5 35. Bxd5+ Re6 36. Qg6+ Kg8 37. Bxe6+) 33. Bb3+ Bd5 (see diagram; 33. … Kf7 34. dxe7+ Qxe7 35. Qd3 Rxf3 36. Rxf3+ Bxf3 37. Qf5+ Qf6 38. Rd8+ Ke7 39. Qd7 mate) 34. Nxd5!! (a beautiful finish, leaving Black helpless) Rxh7 (Nxd5 35. Qe4! Kf8 36. Qxd5 Qf7 37. Rc1 Qxd5 38. Rc8+ Kf7 39. Bxd5+ Re6 40. d7 wins) 35. Nxf6+ Kxf6 36. d7 Qd8 (Qb8, to meet the threatened mate, loses to the simple 37. d8=Q) 37. Rd6 mate.

Five years later, White and Black got married.

The strongest American nuptial pairing is likely that of Latvian-born GM Daniel Fridman and Ukrainian-born WGM Anna Zatonskih, a multiple U.S. women’s national champion since emigrating to the United States nearly a decade ago.

It was the husband who won the argument in their game from the 2010 Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival. There aren’t nearly the fireworks here that were on display in Skripchenko-Fressinet, but Fridman does find a nice way to tie his beloved in knots in the final winning combination. Black’s unusual decision to trade off White’s blocked-in dark-squared bishop with 19. … Bh4?! backfires as White establishes an unchallenged strong point at d6.

Black gets some real counterplay with 31. Rxd8 Rc1 32. Nf2 (Black threatened 32. … Qg1+ 33. Kh3 Qh1+ 34. Kg4 f5+ 35. exf6 g6, with a mating net) Rc2 33. Qd3 Qc7 (Qxf2?? 34. Rxf8+ Kxf8 35. Qd8 mate is too easy) 34. Ne4 Rxb2? (the only chance was 34. … Qc6 35. b3 Ra2, though White’s bind remains) 35. Qd6! (with the Black king and knight immobilized, the queen trade is decisive) Qxd6 36. exd6 Rb1 37. d7 Rd1 38. Nc5!, and Black resigned as 38. … a5 (there are no useful moves left) Rb8 g6 40. d8=Q wins easily.

Skripchenko-Fressinet, French Championships, 2002

1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nf3 d6 4. Bc4 e6 5. O-O Nd7 6. Nc3 a6 7. a4 b6 8. Bf4 Bb7 9. Qd2 h6 10. h3 g5 11. Bh2 Ne7 12. h4 Ng6 13. h5 Ne7 14. d5 e5 15. Ne1 f5 16. exf5 Nf6 17. f3 Nxf5 18. Ne4 O-O 19. c3 Kh8 20. Rd1 Qe8 21. Bb3 Ne7 22. Nxf6 Rxf6 23. g4 c6 24. c4 cxd5 25. cxd5 Rc8 26. Ng2 Qf7 27. Qd3 Rf8 28. Ne3 Qe8 29. Bc2 Kg8 30. Bxe5 dxe5 31. Qh7+ Kf7 32. d6 Rh8 33. Bb3+ Bd5 34. Nxd5 Rxh7 35. Nxf6+ Kxf6 36. d7 Qd8 37. Rd6 mate.

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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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