If grandmasters are intent on making a draw, even flamethrowers can’t make them want to fight.” — Mikhail Tal
Mikhail Tal, the great Soviet world champion, rarely lacked the will or the inclination to mix it up, but the same thing cannot always be said of his elite peers. The recent dreary world title match between Indian world champion Viswanathan Anand and Israeli challenger Boris Gelfand in Moscow, featuring just three decisive results out of 16 classical and rapid games, is a case in point.
But at a Moscow tournament being played in Tal’s honor, the combativeness quotient has been much higher. The seventh annual Tal Memorial, featuring Norway’s world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, former world champion Vladimir Kramnik and American champion Hikaru Nakamura, is a 10-player, all-GM round-robin that runs through June 18.
The event got off to a fighting start with four decisive games out of five in the very first round, with only Carlsen-Kramnik ending peacefully. Nakamura, who won his third U.S. crown last month, ran into a buzz saw in the person of Armenian star Levon Aronian, who found a key move to disrupt the American’s promising position and then flawlessly closed out the endgame win.
In an English, Black’s impatience appears to spoil a good position after 20. Bxb6 cxb6 21. Nd5, when Aronian later conceded that 21. … Rad8! (ignoring the threat to the trivial b-pawn) 22. d4 fxg3 23. hxg3 exd4 leaves White fighting to regain equality. Instead, Nakamura overlooks a little trick that allows White to transition smoothly to a pawn-up ending: 21. … g5? (see diagram) 22. Bd7! Re6 (Qxd7 23. Nxf6 wins, while 23. … Red8 24. Bxc6 bxc6 25. Nxb6 Ra7 26. Rxc6 wins two pawns; Aronian now returns the exchange to quash any Black attack and head for the endgame) 23. Bxe6 Bxe6 24. Nxf6! Qxf6 25. Rxc6! bxc6 26. Qa1! and the crucial e-pawn must fall.
The rest is a matter of (world-class) technique, as White liquidates the queen-side pawns, uses his rook and knight to keep the Black king bottled up, and switches to a won rook-and-pawn ending at just the right moment. Black is stymied in the final position, as any rook move allows White to take the h-pawn with check; Nakamura resigned.
World title matches can have a noticeable impact on the rise and fall of certain openings. Fischer-Spassky dealt a blow to the reputation of the Sicilian Poisoned Pawn, while Kramnik’s success with the Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense against Garry Kasparov in 2002 spawned a number of imitators.
The Rossolimo Sicilian (3. Bb5) got a workout in the Anand-Gelfand match, not least in Anand’s match-clinching rapid playoff win. Whether the line will get a bump remains to be seen, but Chinese GM Lu Shanglei did score a nice point with White over Vietnamese FM Tran Quoc Dung at the recent Asian Team Championships employing Anand’s new pet variation.
The contest quickly becomes more exciting than anything Anand and Gelfand produced, as Black after 10. g3 Qb8 (White already threatened 11. Ndb5! axb5 12. Nxb5, winning) 12. Nd5!? wisely rejects the piece offer in light of 12. … exd5?! 13. Nf5 g6 14. Nd6+ Bxd6 (Kf8 15. Qxd5 Bxd6 16. exd6 h6 17. Qe5) 15. exd6+ Kf8 16. Qd4 f6 17. Bh6+! Nxh6 (Kf7 18. Qxd5 mate) 18. Qxf6+ Nf7 19. Re8+! Kxe8 20. Qe7 mate.
Tran defends well and survives the first wave of attack, though his position is horribly disconnected. Lu steps up the pressure with 18. gxf5 gxf5 19. Nxf5!? (the computer doesn’t like this sacrifice, but refuting it at the board is another matter) exf5 20. e6 Nf6?! (Ne7! seems the ways to go — 21. exd7+ Kxd7 22. Bg5 Rg8 23. Rad1+ Kc8 24. Rxd8+ Kxd8 25. Qxf5 is still a game) 21. Qxf5 Rg8+ 22. Bg5 Qd6, and both kings find themselves under fire.
One more defensive lapse seals Black’s fate: 23. Rad1 Qc5 (Qc6!, loading up on the long diagonal, gives better survival chances in lines such as 24. Ne4! Be7 25. Rxd7 Rxg5+ 26. Qxg5 Nxd7 27. Qg8+ Nf8 28. Qf7+ Kd8 29. Rd1+ Kc8 30. Qxe7) 24. Re5! d5 25. Ne4!, neatly exploiting the pins on the d-pawn and Black knight (25. … Nxe4?? 26. Qf7 mate). With 25. … Qe7 26. Kf1!, White frees up his bishop for the final salvo — 26. … dxe4 (Rxg5 falls short because of 27. Qxg5 dxe4 28. Qg6+ Kf8 29. Rxd8+! Rxd8 [Qxd8 30. Qf7 mate, again] 30. Rf5 Qg7 31. Rxf6+ Kg8 32. e7 Rd1+ 33. Ke2 Qxg6 34. Rxg6+ Kf7 35. Kxd1 and wins) 27. Bxf6 Qxf6 28. Rxd8+!, and Black resigns as he loses his queen on 28. … Rxd8 29. Qxf6 or his king on 28. … Qxd8 (Kf7 29. Rd7+) 29. Qf7 mate.
Tal Memorial, Moscow, June 2012
1. c4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. g3 d5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. Bg2 Nb6 7. 0-0 Be7 8. d3 0-0 9. Be3 f5 10. Rc1 Kh8 11. a3 Bf6 12. Bc5 Re8 13. b4 Be6 14. Re1 Qd7 15. e4 a6 16. Bh3 g6 17. Be3 Qg7 18. Ng5 Bg8 19. Nf3 f4 20. Bxb6cxb6 21. Nd5 g5 22. Bd7 Re6 23. Bxe6Bxe6 24. Nxf6 Qxf6 25. Rxc6bxc6 26. Qa1 a5 27. Qxe5Qxe5 28. Nxe5 axb4 29. axb4 c5 30. bxc5 bxc5 31. gxf4 gxf4 32. Kg2 Ra3 33. Kf3 c4 34. Kxf4 cxd3 35. Rd1 Ra2 36. Nxd3 Bc4 37. f3 Rxh2 38. Ne5 Ba2 39. Rd7 Rh6 40. Nf7+ Bxf7 41. Rxf7 Kg8 42. Rf5 Rh1 43. e5 h5 44. Rg5+ Kf8 45. Kf5 h4 46. Rh5 Kg7 47. f4 h3 48. Ke6 Kg6 49. Rg5+ Kh6 50. Kf5 Rh2 51. Rg8 Rh1 52. e6 h2 53. Rg2 Black resigns