SANDS: Sometimes a chess queen is too powerful for her own good

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As the great chess theorem we just invented puts it: More power, more problems.

The king and queen, in their different ways, are the two most powerful pieces in chess. Lose the king, of course, and you lose the game. And combining the force of a rook and bishop, the queen is obviously the most powerful and versatile member of the king’s court. But her majesty’s impressive firepower can often work against her, like an overmuscled fighter who can fall victim to more nimble and less valuable adversaries.

As a general rule, the opening theorists advise, you don’t want to bring the queen out too early in the game. Such a powerful weapon should be kept in reserve until it’s clear where she can be best deployed.

Even the greatest players sometimes forget: At the powerful Unibet Norway Chess Tournament now finishing up in Stavanger, Norway, world No. 2 GM Levon Aronian of Armenia brought out his queen prematurely in an English Opening against Russian GM Alexander Grischuk only to have her trapped and captured in the center of the board on Move 14. (Grischuk would go on to win the game in 40 moves.)

Two excellent examples of the ambivalent nature of the queen’s power come from last month’s Chicago Open, won by Aronian’s compatriot GM Gabriel Sargissian and Indian IM Priyadharshan Kannappan.

Shabalov-Sargissian after 17. Ne4.

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Shabalov-Sargissian after 17. Ne4. more >

In a game critical to the tournament’s outcome against Pittsburgh GM Alex Shabalov, Sargissian offered a speculative sacrifice of his queen for just a rook and knight, but the power of his remaining pieces kept Black in the game until White finally cracked under the pressure.

Win or lose, Shabalov is almost always a lock to produce an interesting game, and here play in this popular line of the Closed Catalan is already sharp after 15. e4 Bc5 16. exd5!?, seeming to invite the speculative 16…Nxf2!? 17. Na4! (better than 17. Rf1 Ng4+ 18. Kh1 exd5 19. Qe2) Nxd1+ 18. Nxc5 bxc5 19. d6 Nxb2 20. Bxb2, and Black’s exchange and extra pawn may not be enough to cover his severe positional shortcomings.

Sargissian chooses a very different path, parting with his queen on 16…cxd5 17. Ne4 (see diagram) dxe4!!? (White may have been counting on 17…Nxe5 18. Nxc5 19. cxd5 Bxd5 20. Bxd5 exd5 21. Qxc5 Qf6, with at least equal play) 18. Rxd8 Raxd8, and banking on his slew of minor pieces as compensation.

By 21. Bf4 Rfd8, all of Black’s pieces occupy great squares, and play quickly centers on Sargissian’s advanced pawn after 22. b4 Bxf2+!? (Black also had 22…Bxb4 23. Qe2 Nxf2 24. Rxf2 Bc5 25. Bxe4 Bxe4 26. Qxe4 g5 27. Qe2 Rd1+ 28. Kg2 Bxf2 29. Qxf2 gxf4 30. Qxf4 R1d2+, with two powerful, coordinated rooks for the queen) 23. Rxf2 e3 24. Re2 Bxg2 25. Kxg2 Rd2, when trading down with 28. Rxd2?! exd2 29. Ke2 28. Bxd2 Nxe5 leaves only Black with winning chances in the endgame.

Shabalov labors mightily to hold things together, but misses his chance just when equality seems within grasp: 31. Bd2 Nh6?! 32. Ke3? (now was the time for 32. c5! bxc5 [e1=Q+ 33. Bxe1 Re2+ 34. Re3] 33. bxc5 Nf5 34. c6 e1=Q+ 35. Bxe1 Re2+ 36. Kf4 Rxe1 37. c7 Ne7 38. c8=Q+ Nxc8 29. Rxc8+ Kh7 40. Ra8, with a likely draw) Rh2! (shifting the battle to another front, eyeing the weak kingside pawns) 33. c5 bxc5 34. Bxc5 Nf5+ 35. Kd3 Rxh3 36. Kxe2 Rxg3 37. Rc1 (c6? Nd4+ 38. Kf2 Rxc3 39. Bxc3 Nxc6 and wins) Nd4+, and White resigned facing 38. Kf2 Rd3 39. Bc3 Nc6, with an unbreakable blockade on the passed c-pawn and the Black kingside pawns ready to roll.

The queen’s propensity to get into early trouble was on amusing display in another game from the same event, a win by Utah’s Kayden Troff, America’s newest grandmaster, over expert Gopal Menon.

Troff as White actually sheds his queen for three minor pieces by Move 8 in this 4. Qb3 Grunfeld line, but it is the Black queen who gets pinballed around on 11. Bxc4 Qxd4?! (developing another piece with 11…Nc6 might have worked out better for the second player) 12. Bd5 c6 13. Nge2 Qf6 14. Bf3 Nd7 15. Ne4 Qe6 16. Nf4 Qf5 17. g4! Qb5 18. Bb2 Ne5 (Qxb2?? 19. Bc3+) 19. Bc3, and as in the first game, White’s minor pieces occupy magnificent outposts while the Black queen is more target than terror.

The queen’s miseries are compounded after 22. b3 Qa3 23. Nd3 c5 24. Nb2!, and suddenly Gopal’s queen finds herself trapped in a cage from which there is no good escape.

The trap closes with sadistic slowness: 27. Bxc4 Rad8 (a5 28. Nd2 a4 29. Kf2 axb3 30. axb3 also wins the queen) 28. Ke2 Rd7 29. Nd2 Rxd2+ (White finally threatened 30. Nb1, but even with this trade, the queen can’t get out of her box) 30. Kxd2 Rd8+ 31. Ke2 Rd4 (desperately hoping to spring the queen; also failing was 31…Rd6 32. Rhd1 Kf8 [Rb6?? 33. Rd8 mate] 33. Rxd6 exd6 34. Kf2 and White has a big material edge and the queen is still trapped) 32. Rhd1; Gopal resigned since 32…Rxc4 again allows 33. Rd8 mate.

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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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