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SANDS: The game’s great runners-up make for a mighty lineup
Though they fell short of the summit, you could make a pretty formidable team from what might be called the Also-Rans Club.
Early-20th-century Austrian great Karl Schlechter is best remembered today for nearly toppling longtime world titleholder Emanuel Lasker in their 1910 championship match. Russians Vassily Smyslov, Boris Spassky and reigning world champ Viswanathan Anand of India all lost their first world championship matches before rebounding to seize the crown later on. And the amazing Viktor Korchnoi, born in the Soviet Union and now a Swiss citizen, has forged a record-setting career well into his 80s after losing two brutal matches to Anatoly Karpov in 1978 and 1981.
Two grandmasters who know the pain and frustration of losing a world title match turned in superb results at the just-concluded FIDE Grand Prix Tournament in London. Israeli GM Boris Gelfand, who took Anand to a rapid-game playoff in their title match earlier this year, and Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov, who lost close matches to Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik and Anand, tied for first in London with Azerbaijani GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. The undefeated Topalov earned bragging rights for having the best tiebreaks.
Long one of the most active grandmasters on the elite circuit, Topalov appears to have dialed things back in the past two years. He did not play in several high-profile events, and his 2752 rating, while astronomical, leaves him out of the world top 10 for the first time in nearly a decade.
But he showed strong form in London with a plus-three result, including a nice defeat of Spain’s Lenier Dominguez-Perez using a timely piece sacrifice.
White’s 6. c5 in this QGD Slav Defense closes up the center and sets the stage for some intricate positional maneuvering. Topalov’s 13. Bf3 Ne4 14. Bxe4!? is an interesting choice, betting the knights will be more effective in the blocked-up position than Black’s bishop pair.
The weak pawn on c6 causes Black to lose the battle for the one open line on the board: 22. Bh4 Rba8 (seemingly taking control of the a-file, but it will be White who wins the skirmish) 23. Rxa6 Qxa6 24. Qe1! Qb7 (infiltration with 24. … Qa3 loses the c-pawn to 25. Nxc6) 25. Ra1 Rxa1 26. Qxa1 Nd5 27. Nxd5 Bxd5 28. Qa5!, threatening to penetrate deep into the Black position. Dominguez-Perez here might have tried 28. … Kh7, although there are still dangers lurking after 29. Qd8 f6 30. Nd7 Be6 31. Nb8! Bd5 32. Bg3 f5!? 33. Bh4, when 34. … Bf6? loses to 34. Bxf6 gxf6 35. Nd7, boxing in the Black king.
Black tries to lock down his weak points, but leaves himself exposed on another front — 28. … Qc8 29. Bxe7 Qe8 30. Qc7 f6 31. Qd7 Bf7 32. Bxf6! Bxf6 33. Qxc6 Bxe5 34. Qxe8+ Bxe8 35. fxe5, and White has three imposing passed pawns for his bishop. Topalov’s king, while far from the action, has a clear path up the board to help escort the pawns to glory.
The pawns prove too much for the Black king and bishop in the end: 44. e7+ Ke8 45. c6 Be6 (the tricky 45. … Bf3 loses to 46. gxf3 h3 47. c7 Kd7 48. c8=Q+! Kxc8 49. e8=Q+ and wins) 46. Kc3 Bd5 47. c7 Bb7 48. Kd4 Kd7 49. Kc5, and Black resigns. There’s no salvation in lines such as 49. … Ba6 50. Kb6 Bc8 51. Ka7 Ke8 52. Kb8 Kd7 53. e8=Q+ Kxe8 54. Kxc8 and wins.
Like Schlechter, British GM Nigel Short won a lot of admirers while losing a world championship match. The first Westerner to play for a title since Bobby Fischer 21 years earlier, Short went toe to toe with Garry Kasparov when the Russian was at perhaps the peak of his strength. The result of their 1993 London match was lopsided, but Short missed several chances to land a serious blow and the games were far more entertaining than is typical in these nerve-wracking affairs.
Short remains a dangerous pairing on the international circuit, but no longer rates among the game’s very best. He had a tough time at the recent 13th Karpov International in Poikovsky, Russia, finishing at the bottom of the crosstable with a 3-6 score. Tournament winner GM Dmitry Jakovenko took a point off the Englishman with a fine attacking game, aided by another piece sacrifice.
In an English Opening, Short as White castles by hand with the provocative 18. Ba3!? (0-0 Qc2 19. Ba3 was very playable) Qc3+ 19. Kf1 Qa5 20. g4 Be6 21. Kg2 Qd8 22. h3 Nf8 23. h4, apparently hoping to accelerate his kingside assault. But the attack goes nowhere and it is the White king who soon finds himself in an awkward perch after 28. Qxg4 Rc6! 29. Kh3 Rac8 30. Rg1 R8c7 31. f4?!, a nervous move that only opens up the game to Black’s benefit.
That awkwardness comes back to bite Short as Jakovenko gives up a piece to initiate a mating attack with 35. Kh3 Qd8 36. Kh2 (see diagram; temporizing with 36. Bc5 doesn’t work because of 36. … b6 37. Ba3 a5 38. Bb2 [Bc1 h5! 39. Qxh5 Qc8+ picks off the bishop] Re7! 39. Rgxf3 Re4) Rf5! 37. Qxg6 Qxh4+ 38. Kg1 Rh5 39. Kf1 Rg5! 40. Rxg5 hxg5, a clever concept that employs the Black pawn on g5 to cut off the White queen from the defense.
Even White’s desperate attempt to return his extra material doesn’t slow down Black, as his passed kingside pawns roll after 41. Ke1 (Kg1 Qg4+ 42. Kh1 Qh3+ 43. Kg1 Rf6 44. Qe8+ Kh7 45. Qe5 Rh6 46. Rh2 f2+ 47. Kxf2 Qxh2+ and wins) Qh1+ 42. Rf1 Qh2 43. Qd3 g4 44. Rf2 Qh4 45. Bd6 g3 46. Bxg3 (Rf1 g2+ is crushing) Qxg3 47. Qf1 g5. With the f- and g-pawns about to push all the way down the board, Short resigned.
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About the Author
Raised in Northern Virginia, David R. Sands received an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He worked as a reporter for several Washington-area business publications before joining The Washington Times.
At The Times, Mr. Sands has covered numerous beats, including international trade, banking, politics ...
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