SANDS: Moscow battle hints at championship fight

The mashup between chess and boxing is all the rage these days, with “chessboxing” clubs springing up all over the globe and reports that a Kickstarter campaign has just been launched to fund a documentary on the phenomenon. Contestants alternate games at the board and rounds in the ring, with lots of airy talk about the parallels between cerebral and physical combat skills involved.

But there’s one way in which chess is not like boxing — you would never have seen Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali mixing it up in the ring just months before any of their title fights.

That’s roughly what happened, though, at the Tal Memorial tournament that ended Sunday in Moscow. The highlight of the event was the Round 5 meeting between world champion Viswanathan Anand of India and Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen, who will try to seize Anand’s crown when the two meet later this year in Chennai, India, for a 12-game world championship match. In a good sign for the young challenger, Carlsen won a convincing victory, bringing his record in classical chess matches with Anand to 3-6, with 20 draws.

In a Nimzo-Indian, Anand’s passive play as Black may suggest he didn’t want to show his young opponent of his preparation for the upcoming title match. Carlsen, for his part, simply plays good, logical moves in quickly building up a winning advantage.

After 12. Bb4!? Nf6?! (Bxb4 makes it harder for Black to break out of his bind, but simply 12…c5 right now promised a more active defense) 13. 0-0 Re8 Rc1 c6 15. Bxe7 Rxe7 16. Re1 and White is clearly dictating play.

Carlsen-Anand after 21...Qd7.

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Carlsen-Anand after 21…Qd7. more >

With Black’s queen rook out of play, White has time for 19. f3! Be6 20. e4 dxe4 21. fxe4, and Black’s tangled pieces are just so many targets for the powerful White pawns. Carlsen breaks the game open with a classic central thrust.

Thus: 21…Qd7 (see diagram; 21…b5!? 22. Qb4 Qxb4 23. axb4 Rac8 24. Rc3 Bc4 25. b3 Be6 26. Rec1, and White maintains his edge) 22. d5! cxd5 23. Qxd7 Rxd7 24. Nxe6 fxe6 25. Bh3! — far more forcing than 25. exd5?! and a move Black may have missed or badly underestimated.

As 25…Nxe4? (Kf7? 26. exd5 Nxd5 27. Bxe6+ is deadly, while 25…Re8 26. exd5 Rdd8 27. Bxe6+ Kh8 28. Rcd1 is no better for Black) 26. Bxe6+ Rf7 27. Rc7 Raf8 28. Bxd5 Ng5 29. Ree7 carries the unstoppable threat of 30. h4, Anand tries 25…Kh8, but White’s precise play forces an early termination of the contest: 26. e5! Ng8 27. Bxe6 Rdd8 28. Rc7 d4 29. Bd7!, and a paralyzed Black resigned facing lines such as 29…Ne7 30. e6 Nd5 31. Rb7 Nf6 32. e7 Rg8 33. Rd1, and the d-pawn falls.

Carlsen would go on to finish second in Moscow a half-point behind Israeli GM Boris Gelfand, the only undefeated player in the field. American GM Hikaru Nakamura, who led the elite field halfway through the event, suffered losses in his last three games to finish in sixth place at 4½-4½. Anand finished at -2 at 4-6, tied for eighth in the 10-player event just ahead of former world champ Vladimir Kramnik of Russia.

Such pre-match matchups between champion and challenger are not always indicative of how the title match will go. Bobby Fischer famously had a record of two draws and three losses against Boris Spassky before the two sat down for their celebrated 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland.

But such games can be instructive. Dutch great Max Euwe’s win over world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1935 is considered one of the great upsets in history, and Alekhine would take back the crown in a rematch two years later. But a hint that Euwe was not to be underestimated came a year before the 1935 match, when the Dutchman dealt the champ his only defeat in the great Zurich tournament of 1934, an event won by Alekhine and featuring a field that included former world champion Emanuel Lasker, Czech star Salo Flohr and two-time title challenger Efim Bogolyubov of Germany.

The game is a Semi-Slav QGD, but quickly develops real parallels to Carlsen-Anand, as Black’s c-pawn becomes a chronic weakness on the half-open file. Alekhine’s strange sally with the knight to h4 also appears to be a major time-waster, as his Dutch opponent makes simple logical moves. With 19. a5 b4, Black is doomed to the defense of the backward pawn, and White’s positional dominance, as so often happens, leads to tactical opportunities.

Thus: 27. Ne5 Re6 28. e4 Nxe4 29. Nxe4 dxe4 30. Rxe4 f6? (walking into a White right cross; on a better day, Alekhine might have tried 30…Qd6 31. Qxd6 Nxd6 32. Ree1 f6 33. Nd3 Rxe1+ 34. Rxe1 Nf5 35. Nc5! Nxd4 Nxa6 Ra7 37. Nc5, although White should win the endgame) 31. Nf7!!, the main point being that 31…Kxf7? loses to 32. Qh5+ g6 (Ke7 33. Rxe6+ Kxe6 34. Re1+ Kd6 35. Qc5+ Kd7 36. Qf5+ Kd6 Qe6 mate) 33. Qxh7+ Kf8 34. Qh8+ Ke7 35. Rxe6+ Kd7 36. Qxd8+ Kxd8 37. Rexc6.

But the ill-fated Black c-pawn falls on the game’s 31…Qe8 32. Rxe6 Qxe6 33. Nd8! Qe4 34. Nxc6, and the rest is really a matter of grandmaster technique. In the final position after 52. a6 Ke6 53. Rxd8, White’s a-pawn will queen after 53…Nxd8 54. a7; Alekhine gave up.

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About the Author
David R. Sands

David R. Sands

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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