It has been a bit of a fallow period for the past few centuries or so, but Italian chess may finally be experiencing its Renaissance.
Italy was the first great European power at the modern game, bequeathing us the fianchetto, the gambit, the Guioco Piano and Ponziani’s Opening after taking up the game from the Arabs. But there followed a long and puzzling decline, during which Italy failed to produce a truly world-class player from basically the late 17th century on. Italy has participated in nearly every biennial Olympiad since the competition began in 1924, for example, and has yet to earn a single medal, gold, silver or bronze.
But now comes word that Italy has produced a world champion: Fabio Finocchiaro, a 73-year-old correspondence grandmaster who lives in a remote Sicilian town and still transmits his moves by snail mail on postcards, has just won the 25th International Correspondence Chess Federation championship final, with an undefeated 10-5 score. In fact, Italians monopolized the podium, with correspondence GMs Elio Vassia and Sante Giuliani tying for second at 9-6.
The games from the tournament, which began in 2009, have not been released, but we can offer an example of Finocchiaro’s talent from the 15th ICCF world title tournament, a victory over British correspondence star Michael Prizant. (Finocchiaro would finish sixth in that event, won by Dutch star Gert Jan Timmerman.)
Black’s Modern Benoni takes on a Benko Gambit-like quality after Prizant’s 9. Bd3 b5!? 10. Nxb5 Re8, when Finocchiaro steers away from the dangerous-looking 11. Nc3?! Nxe4 12. Nxe4 f5 to get his king to safety. By 14. Rxe8+ Nxe8 15. Nc4, Black has a great Benoni bishop on g7, but White’s minor pieces are more active, so the position is roughly equal.
But in postal, the slightest inaccuracy can lead to major suffering, and after 21. fxg3 Ra7 22. Bf5! (a nice forcing move) c4?! (Bb7 23. Qd2 Ba8 is more logical, but White still has the initiative after 24. h4!) 23. Bxc8 Qxc8 24. Nd4, the d4-square will prove a powerful staging post for White’s operations for the remainder of the game.
Black’s queenside play proves no match for White’s nimble knights and his kingside activity as Finocchiaro increases his edge move by move through to the finale: 26. Kh2! (tucking the king away before the final assault) Qa5 27. Ng4 Qxa2 (Kh7 28. Qc2 Qxd5 29. Nxd6+ Qd3 30. Qxd3+ cxd3 31. Nxe8 Rc2 32. Rd1 and wins) 28. Nfxh6+ Kf8 (Kh8 29. Qc2 Nf6 30. Qf5 Nxg4+ 31. Nxg4 and White enjoys tremendous pressure) 29. Qc2 c3 (Black is running out of options; on 29 Bxh6, White wins with 30. Nxh6 Kg7 31. Nf5+ Kf8 32. Nd4 Qa5 33. Qh7! Ke7 34. Qe4+ Kf8 35. Rf1 Ng7 36. Qh7 Qxd5 37. Qh8+ Ke7 38. Qxg7) 30. Re1!.
Prizant’s resignation here may look a tad premature, but with the luxury of correspondence “time controls,” he can see his position is bad and will only get worse; e.g. 30 Qxd5 (Qxb2 31. Qh7 Be5 32. Nxe5 dxe5 33. Rxe5 Nf6 34. Qh8+ Ng8 35. Qxg8 mate) 31. Qh7! (a lethal move in a number of variations here) f5 (Bxh6 32. Qh8 mate) 32. Qg6 Re7 33. Rxe7 Kxe7 34. Nxf5+ Kf8 35. Nxg7 Nxg7 36. Qf6+ Kg8 37. Qe7 cxb2 38. Nf6+ Kh8 39. Qf8+ Qg8 40. Qxg8 mate.
Italy also can now boast a superstar in over-the-board play — GM Fabiano Caruana, who was born in Miami and raised in Bobby Fischer’s Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood but has dual citizenship and competes under the Italian flag. Just 20 years old, Caruana ranks fifth in the world and could be a dark-horse contender for the world title fight this year.
One of Caruana’s most spectacular wins came while holding down the top board for his adopted country in the Olympiad in Dresden in 2008. From a relatively placid position against Swedish champion Emanuel Berg, Caruana unleashes a lightning sacrificial attack that leads — after a string of inspired tactical touches — to a winning material edge.
The French Defense can lead to some clotted positions, but occasionally, as here, it can lead to wide open play following mass central exchanges. Berg runs into trouble when his perfectly logical defensive idea to remove White’s most annoying piece runs into a stunning refutation: 17. Bg3 Bd6 18. Qe4 Nf6 (leading to sharp play by another path would have been 18 f5 19. Qh4 f4!? 20. Bxf4 g5 21. Bxg5 hxg5 22. Qxg5+ Qg7) 19. Qh4 Nd7? (see diagram; Black wants to evict the knight on e5, and Berg can hardly be blamed to failing to see Caruana’s response) 20. Nxf7!! Kxf7 (Bxg3 21. fxg3 Nc5 22. Bg6, and White has won a pawn a nd still is on the attack) 21. Rxe6!! — the point, as losing for Black is 21 Kxe6 (Qc6 22. f3 Nf6 23. Rxf6+! gxf6 24. Qh5+ Ke7 25. Re1+ Kd7 26. Bb5) 22. Bc4+!. Black’s king can find no refuge in lines like 22 Bd5 (Kf5 23. Qh5+ g5 24. Qf7+ Nf6 25. Be6+ Ke4 26. Qg6+ Kd4 27. Qd3+ Kc5 28. Qc4 mate) 23. Qe4+ Kf6 24. Qd4+ Be5 25. Qxd5 Rf8 26. Qe6+ Kg5 27. f4+ Rxf4 28. Rxf4 Bxf4 29. h4+ Kh5 30. Be2 mate.
But the blows keep coming after the game’s 21 Nc5 22. Rxd6! (Bg6+? Kg8! throws away White’s attack) Rxd6 23. Qf4+ Ke7 24. Re1+ Kd7 (Ne6 25. Bc4! Qc6 26. Qxd6+ Qxd6 27. Bxd6+ Kxd6 28. Rxe6+, with an easy endgame win) 25. Bb5+ Bc6 (Kc8 26. Re8+ Rd8 27. Qxc7 mate) 26. Qf5+ Ne6 (Kd8 27. Qf8+), and Black’s clotted pieces allow White to conclude things in style.
Thus: 27. Bxd6 Qxd6 28. Rxe6!, and Black resigns as 28 Qxe6 (Qd1+ would be a nice back-rank mate except for the fact that the blocking 29. Re1 is a discovered check) 29. Bxc6+ Kd6 30. Qxe6+ Kxe6 31. Bxa8 leaves the second player a full piece down. Brilliant stuff from Caruana.