- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Next time you’re dining in Gibraltar, think twice before ordering the pawns.

Two sharp games showcasing the notorious Sicilian Poisoned Pawn Variation top the menu today, served up at the just-concluded Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, held on the British island at the entrance to the Mediterranean. Black found the antidote in the first game, but the poisoned offering — which famously proved indigestible even for Bobby Fischer in his Reykjavik match with Boris Spassky - proved highly toxic for French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave a round later.

Young women’s world champion Hou Yifan gave one of the greatest performances ever by a female player in an open tournament in Gibraltar, losing in a rapid playoff to English GM Nigel Short after tying for first with an 8-2 score. The 17-year-old Hou was seeded just 25th in a Tradewise field that included 11 2700-plus grandmasters, but she scored a string of upsets, including a highly charged encounter with Hungarian GM Judit Polgar, the greatest female player in history.

Hou even snatched that poisoned pawn from the great attacking Spanish GM Alexei Shirov, once a contender for the world title, and lived to tell about it. Shirov is one of the world’s best players in sharp positions and one of the great endgame players of modern times, but the young Chinese grandmaster more than holds her own in both aspects of their game.

After 7. … Qb6!? 8. Qd2 Qxb2 9. Rb1 Qa3, the pawn is “poisoned” because Black has wasted several moves and put his queen out of play to win it. With 14. e6 Bxe6 15. Nxe6 fxe6 16. Be2 (Rxb7 Bd6 17. c4 Nc6 18. cxd5 Bb4 19. Rxb4 Qxb4 20. Qxb4 Nxb4 21. dxe6 Rf8 is better for Black) Be7 17. Bh5+ Kd8 18. Bxe7+ Qxe7 19. 0-0 Nd7 20. Rxb7 (interesting also is 20. Rf7 Qc5+ 21. Kh1 Rf8 22. Rxg7 Qb6!? 23. Qd1 Qc6, with rough equality), Shirov is still a pawn down, but Black’s shaky king position gives him sufficient compensation.

Berg-Vachier-Lagrave after 15...Nbd7.
Berg-Vachier-Lagrave after 15…Nbd7. more >

Hou prudently gives back the pawn to free her game, but the resulting position proves far easier for Black to play than White, with her connected central pawns repeatedly limiting Shirov’s options. White’s g- and h-pawns, by contrast, never really develop into a threat that can divert Black from her plans.

As Black’s king activates, White’s king finds himself pinned to the back row on 39. Bf5 Ra2+ 40. Kf1, since 40. Kg3? runs into 40. … e4 41. Rh8 Kd4 42. h5 e3 43. Re8 e2 44. h6 Ne4+, winning for Black. White’s cramped confines also nullify the theoretical advantage his long-range bishop should hold over the Black knight in the ending.

Shirov finally gets his h-pawn moving, but his problem is that Black’s pawn advances also generate nasty mate threats at the same time, winning invaluable tempos. After 52. h6 d4 53. h7 Rh2, White resigns, as the Black central pawns triumph in lines such as 54. Rb7 d3 55. Re7+ Kf3 56. Rf7+ Kg3! 57. Kc1 Rh1+ 58. Kb2 e2 59. Re7 d2 and wins. All told, Hou faced seven grandmasters rated 2700 or higher at Gibraltar, scoring four wins, two draws and a loss. She is a force to be reckoned with.

Despite the reams of analysis devoted to this line, the Sicilian Poisoned Pawn still retains considerable sting for the unwary. Vachier-Lagrave played one careless move against Swedish GM Emanuel Berg and found himself on the wrong end of a brief, brutal brilliancy.

Black tries a small finesse in a bid to get his undeveloped knight to a better square, only to be shocked by 14. 0-0 Kh8 15. Kh1 Nbd7? (see diagram; Black calculated that the e6-pawn is immune, but 15. … Nc6 was indicated here) 16. Nxe6!! (a nasty shock, which gives White a winning attack for his queen) Ne5 17. Nxf8! Nxd3 18. Ng6+ Kh7 (Kg8 19. Nxe7+ Kf7 20. Bxf6 gxf6 21. Ncd5 is winning for White) 19. Bxd3 Kxg6 (Vachier-Lagrave has little choice but to plow forward) 20. e5+, when 20. … Kf7 21. exf6 gxf6 22. Nd5 is winning.

With 22. Bxf6 gxf6 23. Rb3!, the b-file opened up by Black’s pawn grab on Move 9 becomes the route for the White rook to join the final attack. After 27. hxg4+ Rxg4 28. Be2 Qe1+ 29. Kh2, Black has no defense in lines such as 29. … Qxe2 30. Rh3+ Rh4 31. Ng3+ Kg5 32. Rxh4, with an overwhelming material edge; Vachier-Lagrave resigned.

Short takes … Congratulations to 13-year-old Maryland master Kevin Wang, the only local player to qualify for the 2012 All-America Chess Team honoring the country’s top-ranked players younger than 18. … A political controversy may be brewing for FIDE, the international chess federation. Armenian GM Levon Aronian, the world’s No. 2 player, who was profiled in this column last week, has sent a letter to FIDE officials saying he will decline to play in the next Candidates Tournament for the world championship if it is held in neighboring Azerbaijan. The two countries have long had a politically tense relationship. Azerbaijan and Bulgaria have submitted the only two bids to host the tournament.

Shirov-Hou, Celeta, Gibraltar, February 2012

Story Continues →