She was the U.S. women’s chess champion three times in the space of five years, played the great Maya Chiburdanidze for the women’s world crown in 1986 and was a star on Olympiad teams for both her native Soviet Union and her adopted American homeland. But Elena Akhmilovskaya, who died last week at the too-young age of 55 after a long battle with brain cancer, may be best remembered for her starring role in a dramatic Cold War love story.
It was 1988, and Akhmilovskaya was once again compiling a stellar score for the Soviet women’s team at the Olympiad in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was there that news leaked out of her secret marriage two years earlier to American IM John Donaldson, also in Greece as captain of the U.S. men’s team. The couple fled to the United States before the tournament had even ended, in an escape that made newspaper front pages around the world.
The marriage would not last — Akhmilovskaya divorced and eventually married Washington state IM and fellow Russian emigre Georgi Orlov — but the St. Petersburg-born women’s grandmaster would compile an enviable chess record in the United States. She won the women’s national title in 1990, 1993 (sharing honors with Irena Levitina) and 1994, and played on five American Olympiad teams.
In recent years, she and Orlov have helped sustain the Northwest chess boom through their chess schools in Seattle and Redmond, Wash. In 2010, Akhmilovskaya was awarded the title of FIDE Instructor.
She had a reputation as a patient player with a formidable endgame technique, as befits a graduate of the renowned Soviet Botvinnik chess school. But Akhmilovskaya also could attack when the occasion warranted, as can be seen from her electrifying win over Georgian WGM Nino Khurtsidze at the 2002 Olympiad in Bled, Slovenia, where the American women finished in a tie for ninth.
In a sharp Queen’s Gambit line, Khurtsidze as White wins the exchange on 15. Nc6 Qb6 16. Nxa7 Qxa7 17. 0-0 0-0 18. Bc2, but Akhmilovskaya’s bishop pair will prove more than enough compensation in the open position that results. Black lets her queenside pawns fall by the wayside as she lines up the bishops for an attack, finding a striking sacrifice to clear more lines for her pieces.
Thus: 29. Nxf5 Bd5 (Rxf5? 30. Bxf5 Qxf5 31. Qxc6) 30. Qd3 (see diagram; Akhmilovskaya now forces open the g-file to devastating effect) Nf4!! 31. gxf4 (refusal is out of the question as Black threatened both the queen and 31. … Nh3 mate) gxf4, when the computer gives White a fighting chance with 32. h4! b3! (Rxf5?! 33. Qxf5 Qg7+ 34. Qg5 is the point of the h-pawn thrust) 33. Rfc1 (Bxb3? Bxb3 34. Qxb3 Qxf5 leaves Black on top, as does 33. Bb1 Rg8+ 34. Kh2 Rg2+ 35. Kh3 Qe6 36. Re1 Qg8) Qe6! 34. Nxd4 Qg8+ 35. Kf1 Bc4, though Black still should win.
Instead, a rocked Khurtsidze folds quickly on 32. Rfd1 Rxf5! 33. Kf1 (Qxf5 Qg7+ 34. Kf1 Qg2+ 35. Ke2 Qxf2+ 36. Kd3 Qe3 is mate) Rg5, when flight with 34. Ke2 loses to 34. … Rg2 35. Rf1 Bxb2 36. Rad1 f3+ 37. Ke1 Bc3+ 38. Rd2 e4 39. Qe3 Qb5 and wins.
White tries 34. axb4, but it’s over on 34. … Rg2 35. Rxa6 (with some hopes of defending with 36. Rh6, but it’s far too late) Rxf2+ 36. Ke1 Rxh2 37. Bb3 Qg4 38. Bc4 Qg1+ 39. Qf1 Qg3+, and White resigns as it’s mate next move on 40. Qf2 Qxf2.
In other women’s chess news, the 64-player field at the FIDE Women’s World Cup knockout tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia is down to two: former world titleholder GM Antoeneta Stefanova of Bulgaria and IM Anna Ushenina of Ukraine. The winner of the finale will face reigning women’s titleholder GM Hou Yifan of China next year for the women’s crown.
Four American junior stars took home honors earlier this month in the World Youth Championships in Maribor, Slovenia. NM Kayden Troff took gold as the new World Under-14 champion, while California master Sam Sevian won the Under-12 title. Cameron Wheeler earned a silver medal in the Under-12 championship, while Christopher Shen brought home the bronze medal in the Under-8 competition. Overall, the U.S. team placed third behind powerhouses Russia and India.
Troff is probably the strongest player ever to come from the state of Utah, and he played some impressive chess down the stretch to claim his title. His Round 9 win over Ukrainian master Pavlo Vorontsov was a nerve-wracking affair, as the American had to survive an imposing onslaught from his opponent.
Vorontsov as White is the aggressor in the early play of this 2. … d6 Sicilian, sacrificing a pawn to exploit his lead in development with 14. d5 Na5 15. d6!? Bxd6 (Nxc4 16. dxe7 Qxe7 17. Qa4 Qc7 also looks playable) 16. exd6 Nxc4. But Black shows he, too, is playing for the win with 17. Rb4 Ba6 (Nxd6? 18. Rd4 wins material) 18. Ra4 Bb5 19. Rb4 Nxd6! 20. Re1!? (Rd4 Bxf1 21. Kxf1 Qc8 22. Rxd6 Rd8 23. Rxd8+ Qxd8 24. Qb3 Qd5, and Black has a slight material edge and the more favorable winning chances) Bc6! 21. Ne5 Bd5, and Troff has consolidated while keeping his extra pawn.
But Black must still tread warily, as White’s active pieces begin to flood the king’s zone. Just when the pressure starts looking scary, Troff turns the tables by exploiting White’s extreme back-rank vulnerability with a string of nervy moves: 26. Bb2 (with the sneaky threat of 27. Bf6! gxf6 28. Rxf5! exf5 29. Rxe8+ Qxe8 30. Nxf6+ Kf8 31. Qh6+ Ke7 32. Nxd5+ Kd7 [Kd8 33. Qd6+ Qd7 34. Qf6+ Qe7 35. Qxe7 mate] 33. Nf6+ Ke7 34. Nxe8, and the White queen defends the c1-square against the back-rank mate) Rc2! 27. Bf6 (Bxg7? Kxg7 28. Ne5 Rf8 29. Rg4+ Kh8 30. Qxf7 Qe7! and wins) Re2!! 28. Rxe2 (Bxd8 Rxe1 mate) Qc7! (hitting f4 and c1) 29. Rfe4 (Bb2 Qxf4 30. Ne5 Nd6 holds and wins) Bxe4 30. Qg5 (with the idea of 31. Nh6+ Kf8 32. Nxf5 g6 33. Qh6+ Kg8 34. Qg7 mate) Rc8!, the only move that preserves the win.