Was it the field or the format? This year’s Reggio Emilia Tournament, the 54th edition of the event held in the small northern Italian city at the start of the new year, proved to be one of the most entertaining events in recent memory, with a large number of decisive games, an epic collapse by American GM Hikaru Nakamura and a stunning come-from-behind victory for 17-year-old Dutch star Anish Giri, who won the first of what likely will be many elite tournament trophies in the coming year.
Nakamura dominated the first half of the event and appeared to be coasting to an easy victory before three losses in the final three rounds enabled his rivals to catch up. By contrast, Giri started with two losses and two draws - ordinarily enough to doom one’s chances in a 10-round elite event. But he scored five points in his next six games, including a Round 9 win over Nakamura, to finish alone in first.
Reggio Emilia’s organizers benefited from an intriguing cast of characters who enjoy mixing it up, including Nakamura, Russian star GM Alexander Morozevich and mercurial Ukrainian veteran Vassily Ivanchuk, along with a contingent of hungry youngsters represented by Giri and young Italian GM Fabiano Caruana.
But the Italian organizers also adopted what has become known as the “Bilbao Rules,” a scoring system in which wins are worth three points and draws one instead of the traditional one point for a victory and a half-point for a draw. With a win now three times more valuable than a draw, players tend to fight longer and harder, and those like Giri who start out poorly still have a fighting chance of getting back into the mix.
In Reggio Emilia’s final round, Giri drew with Caruana, while Nakamura was losing to Ivanchuk and Morozevich was blowing a won game against fellow Russian GM Nikita Vitiugov, giving Giri 16 “Bilbao” points to 15 for Nakamura, Morozevich and Caruana.
Whatever the cause, we should be grateful for the games the players produced, starting with Nakamura’s wild battle with Ivanchuk in Round 5, which put the American in the lead for the first time. Playing Black, Ivanchuk actually wins the opening battle in this English Opening, with 23. … h5! and 25. … b5 severely pressuring White on both sides of the board.
The play becomes radically unbalanced on 31. Qb3 Qe5! (playing for the attack) 32. Ne3 Rxd1 33. Qxd1 Rxc5!? 34. Nc4 Qc7 35. Bxc5 Qxg3+ 36. Kh1 Qxh3+; Nakamura has a rook for three pawns, but it’s an open question how long his king can survive on his own against the Black queen and knights. Ivanchuk may have missed a win on the next move, as after 37. Kg1 (see diagram), 37. … Ng4! 38. Qe2 Nh4 39. Nd2 Qg3+! 40. Kh1 Nf3 41. Nxf3 exf3 42. Qe8+ Kh7 43. Rc2 f2 44. Rxf2 Nxf2+ 45. Bxf2 Qxf2 produces a won queen-and-pawn ending.
On the game’s 37. … Qg3+?! 38. Kf1 Ng4 39. Qd8+ Kh7 40. Qd5 Qf3+? (the computers say Black can still draw with 40. … Nh2+ 41. Ke2 Nd4+!! 42. Qxd4 [Bxd4 Qf3+ 43. Kd2 Qd3+ 44. Ke1 Qf1+] 41. Qg4+! 43. Ke3 Qg3+ 44. Kxe4 Qf3+, with a perpetual) 41. Ke1 Ng3 42. Rc2, White has set up a defensive barricade that (barely) blocks mate, with the bishop on c5 covering the critical squares.
In the final position after 56. Rd6+ Kg7 57. Rd8, Black has no checks and his king soon will be mated; Ivanchuk resigned.
Giri’s Round 9 win over Nakamura was a far more straightforward affair and one that played a crucial role in the event’s outcome. In a Petroff, Giri criticized White’s 11. Bd3 d5 12. Ng5?!, which proves to be a major waste of time after 12. … Nf8! 13. h5 Bf6, and the knight is already looking for a way to retreat.
White’s 16. gxf3 Ne6 17. f4, hemming in his own dark-squared bishop, is a sign things have gone seriously wrong, and soon Black is dictating the play with his queen-side pressure. Both players may have missed a tactical finesse after 20. Bf5 Na4 21. Qd3, as 21. … Nxc3! - instead of the game’s 21. … Nc5 - appears to give Black a solid edge in lines such as 22. Bd3 (bxc3? Bxc3 23. Reg1 c5) d4! 23. bxc3? dxc3 24. Be3 Qxa3+ 25. Kd1 Rad8.
Still, Giri maintains a clear positional advantage as White tries desperately to restrain his opponent’s coming central pawn break, a break that loses none of its force after the queens are off the board: 30. Qd3 b6 31. Qxc4 Rxc4 32. Rd1 d4! 33. cxd4 cxd4 34. b3 (White may have counted on this move to evict the rook, but Black has seen just a bit further) dxe3!! 35. bxc4 exf2 36. Rf3 (Rh3 Re1 37. Rh1 Bh4! preserves Black’s bind) Re1 37. Kc1 Bd4, when White is paralyzed as 38. Kd2 would be met by 38. … Be3+! 39. Rxe3 Rxd1+ 40. Kxd1 f1=Q+, winning.
As it is, after 38. c3 Be3+ 39. Kc2 f5 40. a4 a5 41. c5 Bxc5, Nakamura soon will face zugzwang as Black penetrates decisively; e.g. 42. Kd2 Be3+ 43. Kc2 g5 44. fxg5 hxg5 45. Rxf5 Kg7 46. Rf3 Rxd1 47. Kxd1 g4 and wins. Nakamura resigned.