SANDS: Glorious imperfection of a titanic prize fight in chess

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The cover of my paperback copy of R.N. Coles’ “Epic Battles of the Chessboard” has come off and the contents are showing their age as well: The latest game, Matanovich-Rossolimo, dates back to 1951 and the chess moves are in the old English descriptive notation.

But Coles’ anthology of 50 “titanic clashes of chess history” remains as fresh as ever, a collection of thrilling but highly imperfect games, filled with errors, reversals and dramatic denouements that aren’t typically included in standard brilliancy collections. “Here may be seen,” Coles wrote, “how the masters react when a combination goes wrong or when their opponents fight back; in these games neither player is content to be smothered by the brilliant imagination of the other, nor to allow master technique to win a won game by copybook methods. Here is complicated, fighting chess.”

A titanic clash of glorious imperfection is a good description of last week’s battle between Armenian star GM Levon Aronian and French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave at the sixth annual Final Masters Tournament in Bilbao, Spain. In a cut-and-thrust English Four Knights, Aronian as Black builds up a near-winning position, overlooks a rook sacrifice that lands him in a lost position, and bounces back when Vachier-Lagrave loses his way and winds up in a lost endgame. Aronian would go on to win the four-player double-round robin event ahead of England’s Michael Adams.

Aronian as Black wins the opening battle with Black in this English Opening, as after 18. Nb3 b5! (locking in the bishop on a3) 19. h3 Be6 20. Rfd1 bxa4 21. Nxa4 Nb5 22. Bb2 Bxb3! 23. Qxb3 c5, Black claims control of both the queenside and the center. The b-pawn becomes a real force on 25. Qa2 cxb4 26. Rc6 Kg7 27. d4 b3!, when 28. Qxb3? falls to 28…Na7, winning material.

But Black misses the putaway volley on 31. Rxd7 Qxa4 32. e5?! (U.S. GM Josh Friedel, analyzing the game on Chessbase.com, gives here the remarkable line 32. Rcc7! Qa2 33. Rxf7+ Kg8 34. Qd3! b2 35. Qd7 b1=Q+ 36. Kh2 Qbb2 37. Rxf8+! Kxf8 38. Qd6+ Kg8 39. Qxg6+, with a draw by perpetual check) Re7 33. Rdd6 (see diagram), when winning for Black was the cold-blooded 33…b2!, as Aronian can defend all his kingside squares after 34. Rxg6+ fxg6 35. Qxg6+ Kh8.

Suddenly it is White with the winning attack after the game’s 33…Qa2?? 34. Rxg6+! fxg6 35. Qxg6+ Kh5 36. Bd5! Rg7 37. Qxh6+ Rh7, when the Frenchman misses a forced win with 38. Qg6! Rg7 (Bg7 39. Be4 Rxh3 [Rh6 40. Qf5!, threatening both 41. Rc8+ and 41. Rxh6+] 40. Kg2, collecting the rook) 39. Qh5+ Rh7 40. Qg4! Qb1+ (Rg7 41. Rh6+) 41. Kg2 Be7 42. Rg6!, with the deadly threat of 43. Rg8+.

Aronian reclaims the high ground on 38. Qe6? Qb1+ 39. Kg2 Rg7 40. Rc8 Rxc8 41. Qxc8 Rg8!, when 42. Bxg8 Qe4+! — a key zwischenzug — 43. Kh2 Kxg8 44. Qe6+ Kh8 45. Qxb3 Qxe5 is strong for Black. White gets three dangerous passed pawns for the rook, but Black’s a-pawn is a critical factor in the ensuing endgame.

With the nice finesse 48. g4 Bg7! 49. e6 Bf6 50. Kg3 a5 51. h4 Rg8 52. g5 Kg7!, Black gives up his bishop to immobilize the White pawn flotilla, allowing him to push the a-pawn with impunity. After 55. gxf6+ Kxf6 56. e7 (Friedel notes that 56. h5 a4 57. h6 Rd8! 58. Ba2 Rd2 also wins for Black) a4, Vachier-Lagrave bows to the inevitable and resigns. Not a perfect performance by either player, but, as Coles would say, a “rattling good game.”

With the Nov. 7 opening ceremony for his 12-game title match against Indian world champion Viswanathan Anand just weeks away, Norwegian GM Magnus Carlsen is deep into his final preparations and won’t be playing any public events until then. How the 22-year-old Carlsen will fare against his more experienced opponent is unclear, but we can get a little taste of the Norwegian “style” from that country’s recent club championships. If Carlsen can display the same aggressiveness seen in GM Leif Johannessen’s win over FM Kristian Holm from a recent round, he should be fine in Chennai next month.

In a Classical Nimzo-Indian, Holm as Black spends a lot of time targeting White’s immobile pawn center, eventually picking off one of the doubled c-pawns on 12. Rf3 Na5 13. Ng3!? (fxe5 dxe5 14. Qa2 Qe7 15. a4 c5 16. d5 Nb7 17. Ng3 Nd6 18. Nf5 also looks promising for White) Bxc4 14. fxe5 Bxd3 15. Rxd3 dxe5. But White gets more than enough compensation through his strong pressure on the kingside after 16. Nf5 Kh8 17. Rh3.

Black now should have tried 17…Qf6 18. a4 g6 19. Ne3 Rfe8 with a playable defense, but instead opens the floodgates with 17…Nc4? 18. Qe2 Nd6 (Black understandably wants to get this knight back in the game, but now White has a very promising speculative sacrifice) 19. Nxg7! Kxg7? (the last hope was again 19…Qf6 20. Nh5 Qe7, hoping to hang on) 20. Qh5 Nf6 21. Qh6+ Kh8 22. Bg5 Ndxe4 23. Bxf6 Nxf6 24. dxe5, recovering the piece as any knight retreat allows 25. Qxh7 mate

Black’s desperado 25…Rxg2+ 26. Kxg2 Qd5+ is easily turned aside by 27. Rf3 Rg8+ 28. Kf2 Qc5+ 29. Qe3, and Holm resigned as his checks have run out and he’s a full rook down.

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

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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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