The vagaries of the Swiss system pairings used in U.S. tournaments often mean that the “critical” games of the event come well before the final round.
That was certainly the case with this month’s 4th Continental Class Championships in Arlington, won by popular Pennsylvania GM and four-time national champion Alex Shabalov over a strong 33-player field that included 20 titled players. Shabalov was an undefeated 7-2, clinching the title with a 15-move draw in the final round against Canadian IM Bindi Cheng.
But “Shabba” really won the tournament on the strength of his wins in Round 4 and 5 against two of his chief rivals. Not only did the champion dispatch Russian GM Aleksander Rakhmanov and New York GM Alex Lenderman in successive rounds, but he needed only a combined 43 moves in the two games to earn the 2 points. He never trailed after that.
The 24-year-old Rakhmanov has competed mostly in Europe, and may not have been fully aware of the risks run by players who engage Shabalov, one of the country’s most imaginative attacking players, in open tactical warfare. The Russian, playing White in this English Opening, provokes his adversary early on with 4. h4 Nf6 5. h5!? Nxh5 6. e4 fxe4 (0-0 7. exf5 Rxf5 8. g4 Re5+ 9. Kf1 Nf6 is also fine for Black) 7. Rxh5!? gxh5 8. Qxh5 Kf8, when 9. Bxe4 Qe8 10. Qf3+ Qf7 11. Bxb7? is turned aside by 11 … Bxb7 12. Qxb7 Qxc4 13. Nc3 (Qxa8 Qxc1+ 14. Ke2 Qxb2) Qc6.
Black shows fine defensive skills with 9 … Qe8! 10. Qh4 Nc6 11. Nc3 d6 12. Nd5 Bxh3 13. Qxh3 (Bxh3 Nd4 14. Kf1 Qf7 15. Qxe4 e5, and White has nothing to show for his material deficit) Nd4 14. Bxe4 c6!, when 15. Nc7 is bad because of 15 … Qc8! 16. Qxc8+ Rxc8 (the knight is trapped) 17. Ne6+ Nxe6 18. Bf5 Kf7 and wins.
Trying to justify his sacrifice just puts Rakhmanov deeper into the hole: 16. Ne2 Qe6! (Nxe2?! 17. Kxe2 Qf7 18. d3 h5 19. Be3 and the White bishop pair can still do some damage) 17. Qh4 (now Black has forking threats at both c2 and f3, with just the White bishop on guard, so ) d5! 18. Bg2 (Bb1 Nf3+) Nc2+ 19. Kd1 Nxa1 20. cxd5 cxd5, and White gave up; even if he can extricate his knight, he will be down two exchanges with no compensation.
The play was even sharper and the struggle more balanced a round later in Shabalov-Lenderman, but the young New Yorker manages to last only three more moves before resigning. Again, Shabalov mixes attack and defense in impressive fashion, with a couple of hanging knights key to his win.
The play is complex from the get-go in this Caro-Kann Advance variation, with pawns and pieces under attack all over the board after just 12 moves. But White handles the complications better on 15. Rh3! (a key move that defends c3 while developing the rook) Rc8 (better here might have been 15 … Nd3 [Kf8 16. Kg1 Nb4 17. Rf3! is strong for White] 18. Rc2 Bxf2+ 19. Kh1 Qb6 20. Rxd3 Bxd3 21. Qxd3, with a small edge for White) 16. Nxg7+ Kf8 17. Nf5! Na3 (see diagram; 17 … exf5 18. Rxc2 — Shabalov’s 17th move cut off the Black bishop on h7 from the defense of c2 — Qb6 19. Nxd5 Qa6+ 20. Kg1 fxg4 21. Qxg4 is good for White) 18. Ne4!, a picturesque concept as now 18 … dxe4 loses to 19. Qd6+! Ne7 (Bxd6 20. Rxc8 mate) 20. Qxe7+! Bxe7 21. Rxc8+ Bd8 22. Rxd8 mate.
Black tries 18 … Qb5+ 19. Kg1 dxe4 (Nc4 20. Rb3 Qa6 21. Nxc5 Rxc5 22. Nd6 b5 23. Rxc4 dxc4 24. Qf3 Bg6 25. Ra3 Qb6 26. Qa8+ Kg7 27. Bd8 traps the queen) 20. Rxc5! Rxc5 (Qxc5 21. Rc3 Qxc3 22. Qd6+) 21. Rc3!? (giving Black a sliver of hope; 21. Qd6+ wins at once) Rxc3? (Lenderman could try to fight on after 21 … Bxf5! 22. Qd6+ Kg7 23. Rxc5 Nc4 24. Rxb5 Nxd6 25. exd6 Bxg4 26. d7 Nf6) 22. Qd6+! Ne7 23. Bh6+, and Black resigned as 23 … Kg8 (Ke8 24. Qxe7 mate) 24. Nxe7 is mate.
Shabalov’s wins came so quickly we can squeeze in a game from Rakhmanov’s remarkable comeback that earned him a tie for second with Canadian IM Leonid Gerzhoy at 6-2. The Russian’s loss to Shabalov, followed by another defeat at the hands of GM Alexander Stripunsky in the very next round, usually spells disaster in the tight Swiss format. But Rakhmanov bounced back with four wins in the last four rounds, including a concluding victory over Pennsylvania IM Bryan Smith.
Rakhmanov’s aggressive play in this Larsen-Nimzovich Opening works out better here than it did against Shabalov, as after 10. g4!? Kh8 11. h4 Bf8 12. g5 Ng8 (Black’s king and rook to have been set up on the wrong squares at the start of the game) 13. e4 d6 14. f4!, White has a clear spatial advantage and a target in Black’s cornered king.
Smith can generate no counterplay as the White pieces occupy prime attacking positions after 26. Rhg1 Qe7 27. Raf1. The breakthrough comes on 29. Nd5! (targeting Black’s best defensive piece, the knight on f6) Nxd5 (Qf8 30. Nxf6 gxf6 31. Qxh5+ and mate next) 30. Rf7 Nb4+ 31. Kb1 Qxf7 32. Qxf7 Re7 33. Qxh5+ Kg8 34. d4, and Black has only a rook and knight for the lost queen.
In the end, after 35. d5 Bd7 36. Qg5 Rf8, Black resigned before White could administer 37. Bxe5 Bxe5 (Rxe5 38. Qxg7 mate) 38. Qxe7 and wins.