- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The six-game match between Russian GM Vladimir Kramnik and Armenian GM Levon Aronian that wrapped up in Zurich on Sunday proved unexpectedly entertaining. The world’s No. 2 and No. 3 players, evenly matched and theoretically armed to the teeth, showed a refreshing willingness to mix it up and take risks before settling for a 3-3 tie after Kramnik just missed a win in Sunday’s final round.

After a stunning loss with White in Game 1, Kramnik bounced back with a strong performance in Game 3, goading Aronian into a speculative queen sacrifice and navigating the ensuing complications with aplomb. Kramnik’s Four Knights Scotch was an inspired opening choice, and after the kings castled on opposite wings, White got the double-edged battle he was hoping for. Aronian, already up a point in the match, also deserves some credit for not trying to run out the clock.

The battle is joined almost immediately with 9. … d5!? 10. exd5 Nxd5 11. Bg5 Nxc3!? (playing for the win; 11. … Nde7 [Nce7?! 12. Bb5 c6 13. Nxc6! is unpleasant for Black] 12. Nxc6 Qxd2+ 13. Rxd2 Nxc6 14. Nd5 Re1+ 15. Rd1 Rxd1+ 16. Kxd1 Be6 was a safer choice) 12. Bxd8 Nxd1 13. Bxc7! (ruthlessly gobbling up material and stronger than 13. Qxd1?! Rxd8 14. c3 Nxd4 15. cxd4 Be6, and all of Black’s minor pieces are active) Bxc7 14. Nxc6 Ne3 15. Bb5! - the one move that appears to give White an edge in all variations.

Aronian gets three minor pieces for his queen and two pawns, but his forces become disorganized under pressure from White’s active queen. A timely exchange sacrifice only emphasizes Black’s problems: 30. Re8+! Rxe8 31. Qxd5 Rd8 32. Qb5 Rd6 33. Kc2 Kg7 34. b4, and the advance of White’s queen-side pawns poses one more headache for Black.

With 40. Qxc7 Nxb5 41. Qe5!, Black’s king side is essentially paralyzed, and after 41. … Na7 42. Kd3, Aronian gave up in light of the decisive penetration of Kramnik’s king in lines such as 42. … Nc6 43. Qa1 Nd8 44. Kc4 Nc6 45. Kb5 Ne7 46. Qe5 Ng8 47. c6 Kf8 48. c7 Ne7 49. Qxf6.

Kramnik-Aronian serves as a nice appetizer for the world championship match that will be served up next week in Moscow. Indian titleholder Viswanathan Anand will defend his crown in a 12-game match against Israeli challenger Boris Gelfand. We’ll have all the news and some games from the match in the coming weeks.

Two rising American stars passed a milestone last month as IMs Marc Arnold of New York and Darwin Yang of Texas each notched their first grandmaster norm while tying for first in the 10-player St. Louis Invitational. Yang, Arnold and Iranian GM Elshan Moradiabadi all finished at 6-3 in the Category 10 event.

Yang needed a strong closing kick to secure his norm, with wins over GM Ben Finegold in Round 7 and veteran IM Michael Brooks in the ninth and final round to qualify. His tense win over Finegold from the Black side of a sharp QGD Botvinnik was one of the best games of the event.

Yang later admitted that White was well-versed in this tricky opening line and his speculative piece sacrifice was a bid to change the flow of the game: 17. h4 Nxf6!? 18. Bxf6 Rxg3 19. Ne4 Rhg8 20. Bg5 (Nxg3? Rxg3 21. Rfd1 Bxf2+ 22. Qxf2 Rxg2+ 23. Kh1 Rh2+! 24. Kxh2 Qxf2+ 25. Kh3 Qg2 mate) Qc6, producing a challenge for White as his f-pawn, fianchettoed bishop, knight on e4 and even the bishop on g5 are tied down by pins.

Both sides must delicately balance attack and defense: 22. Kh2! (sidestepping some of the pins and putting the question to Black’s rook) Rxg2+!? (Rd3 23. b4! Bb6 [Bxb4 allows 24. Qxd3! cxd3 25. Rc1 fxe4 26. Bxe4 Kd7 27. Bxc6+ Bxc6 28. Rfd1, holding] 24. f4 fxe4 25. Bxe4 Qxe4 26. Qxe4 Bxe4 27. Rxe4, with a balanced game) 23. Kxg2 fxe4 24. Qg4. White maintains his material edge, but the Black queen and bishops dominate the long diagonals.

Yang keeps his cool until his older opponent finally slips off the high wire: 26. Kh3 (Black threatened 26. … e3+ 27. f3 e2) Rf8 27. f4!? (the computer likes this move, but I’d be tempted to cork that terrifying e-pawn with 27. Be3 Rf3+ 28. Kg2 Bxe3 29. fxe3 Qxb2+ [Black can’t open himself up with 29. … Rxe3? 30. Qg8+ Kc7 31. Rf7+ Kc6 32. Qe8+ Kb6 33. Qd8+ Kc5 34. Qe7+ Kc6 35. Qxb7+] 30. Kg1) exf3 28. Rfe1 Qc7 (see diagram), when White can keep the balance in the remarkable line 29. Rxe6! (threatening 30. Re8 mate) Kb8 30. Bh6 Bg1!! 31. Rxg1 f2, and the fight goes on.

Instead, on the game’s 29. Qxe6? Kb8 30. Qe5 (Black threatened 30. … Bc8) f2 31. Qxc7+ Kxc7 32. Rf1 Be4, White cannot maintain the blockade of the f-pawn for long. With White’s pieces tied down, once again a king invasion will prove decisive. After 37. Kg2 Ke4 38. Rd1 b4 39. Kf1 c3 40. bxc3 bxc3, Finegold resigned in light of lines such as 41. Rc1 Rf3 42. Ke2 c2 43. Bd2 Be3 44. Bxe3 f1=Q+! 45. Rxf1 Rxf1 46. Kxf1 Kxe3 and the pawn queens.

Kramnik-Aronian, Match Game 3, Zurich, April 2012

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. Nxd4 Bc5 6. Be3 Bb6 7. Qd2 O-O 8. O-O-O Re8 9. f3 d5 10. exd5 Nxd5 11. Bg5 Nxc3 12. Bxd8 Nxd1 13. Bxc7 Bxc7 14. Nxc6 Ne3 15. Bb5 bxc6 16. Bxc6 Nc4 17. Qd4 Be6 18. Bxa8 Bb6 19. Qd3 Rxa8 20. Re1 Rd8 21. Qe4 g5 22. c3 Bc5 23. Re2 h6 24. g3 a5 25. f4 a4 26. f5 Bd5 27. Qd3 Bb6 28. b3 axb3 29. axb3 Na5 30. Re8+ Rxe8 31. Qxd5 Rd8 32. Qb5 Rd6 33. Kc2 Kg7 34. b4 Nb7 35. c4 Rf6 36. g4 Nd8 37. c5 Bc7 38. Qd7 c6 39. b5 Na7 40. Qxc7 Nxb5 41. Qe5 Na7 42. Kd3 Black resigns.

Finegold-Yang, St. Louis Invitational, April 2012

1. Nf3 d5 2. d4 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. Nc3 c6 5. Bg5 dxc4 6. e4 b5 7. e5 h6 8. Bh4 g5 9. Nxg5 hxg5 10. Bxg5 Nbd7 11. exf6 Bb7 12. g3 Qb6 13. Bg2 c5 14. dxc5 Bxc5 15. O-O O-O-O 16. Qe2 Rdg8 17. h4 Nxf6 18. Bxf6 Rxg3 19. Ne4 Rhg8 20. Bg5 Qc6 21. Rae1 f5 22. Kh2 Rxg2+ 23. Kxg2 fxe4 24. Qg4 Qd5 25. Rd1 Qe5 26. Kh3 Rf8 27. f4 exf3 28. Rfe1 Qc7 29. Qxe6+ Kb8 30. Qe5 f2 31. Qxc7+ Kxc7 32. Rf1 Be4 33. Kg3 Bd3 34. Bf4+ Kc6 35. Bg5 Bxf1 36. Rxf1 Kd5 37. Kg2 Ke4 38. Rd1 b4 39. Kf1 c3 40. bxc3 bxc3 White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.