SANDS: Politics can make for some dicey chess pairings

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With more than 170 member nations, the Paris-based chess federation FIDE is one of the largest sporting organizations in the world.

Which isn’t always a good thing.

The diverse membership can make for some tense political pairings. During the Cold War, a number of Soviet bloc stars who defected to the West were not exactly welcome when they tried to play in events back home. Arab and Iranian players have refused to participate in some events where Israelis are competing. And let’s not even get started on Bobby Fischer’s unorthodox political ideas and the problems they posed for organizers, sponsors and fans.

Most players manage to deal with the awkwardness, but that’s not to say it is a thing of the past. At the FIDE world championship candidates tournament that got underway last week in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, one key early game pitted top-seeded Armenian star Levon Aronian against Azerbaijani No. 1 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. (The two countries remain technically at war because of a bitter territorial dispute.) One of the highlight games of the just-concluded European Individual Championship pitted Russian GM Alexander Motylev against Ukrainian GM Pavel Eljanov, even as their home countries were locked in a nasty clash over Crimea.

Whether the political backstories played roles or not, both games produced some spirited chess.

Aronian-Mamedyarov after 13...Ne7.

Enlarge Photo

Aronian-Mamedyarov after 13…Ne7. more >

Aronian, picked by many to win the candidates tournament as the world’s second highest ranked player, stumbled out of the game with a loss to former world champion Viswanathan Anand of India in Round 1. But he rebounded in the very next round in the best way possible by finding a cute trick that cost the Azerbaijani star his queen and sent him on the road to defeat.

Black’s 9. Bd3 Ng6?! has a bad reputation in this line, though it is hard to see why at first. But Mamedyarov’s kingside pieces start getting into each other’s way, and Aronian alertly takes advantage with a surprising early tactic.

Thus: 11. f4 h6?! 12. Bxf6 Qxf6 13. f5 Ne7? (see diagram; Black is a fine tactician but his sense of danger deserts him here — the Black queen has surprisingly few safe squares at her disposal and Black’s last move cuts off her retreat; a far better course was the sharp 13…Qg5! 14. Qe2 Nh4 15. Nf3 Nxf3+ 16. Qxf3 Qf6, although White’s coming e3-e4 is a strong positional threat) 14. Nde4! (an unexpected shot exploiting Black’s ill-placed queen) dxe4 15. Nxe4 Qh4 16. g3 Qh3 17. Nf2, and the queen is trapped.

After 17…Qxf1+ 18. Kxf1 Nxf5 19. Qf3 Nd6 20. e4, Black isn’t quite lost, but he’s down a queen for rook and bishop and is fighting for a draw. Trying to complicate things by opening up the play only helps the player with the queen; e.g. 20…f5? 21. e5 Ne4 22. Bxe4 fxe4 23. Qb3+ Kh8 24. Qxb4, and Black has no time for 24…e3 because his rook on f8 is hanging.

A dispirited Black sees even his mild initiative turned back after 29. a4 a6 30. a5 Nc8, and Aronian switches over to the attack with 31. e5 Ne7 32. e6. The Armenian keeps his edge even while missing a winning shot: 37. Rxg7+! blows up the Black defense on 37…Kxg7 38. Qh5 Ne7 (Rf8 39. Bxd5 cxd5 40. Qg6+ Kh8 41. Qxh6+ Kg8 42. Qg6+ Kh8 43. e7 and wins) 39. Qf7+ Kh8 40. Qxf6+ Kg8 41. Qf7+ Kh8 42. f6 and wins.

After making it to the first time control, White cashes in with 43. d5! Nxd5 44. Bh5, and Black resigns a hopeless cause facing 44…Rf8 (Re7 45. Qxe7! Nxe7 46. Rxd8+ Kh7 47. Bg6+ Nxg6 48. fxg6+ Kxg6 49. e7) 45. e7 Nxe7 46. Qxe7 Rxd1 47. Qxf8+ Kh7 48. Bg6 mate.

With another win over Russian GM Peter Svidler in Monday’s Round 4, Aronian is tied for second with another former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia at 2-1, a half-point behind Anand. The double round robin event to determine a challenger to Norwegian titleholder Magnus Carlsen concludes March 30.

Despite the grim geopolitical backdrop, Motylev’s surprise win in the European Individual Championships in Yerevan, Armenia, proved popular and deserved. The 34-year-old Russian GM is better known as a coach and second (he has worked extensively with Russian star Sergey Karjakin, who is in the candidates field at Khanty-Mansiysk), but he moved from the wings to spotlight with a powerful 9-2 result. Eljanov was one of the highest-rated players in the event, but the surging Russian took him down in Round 8, providing the winner with critical distance from the rest of the field.

The early play through 16. Bg2 a5 17. Bd4 in this Sicilian Taimanov appears balanced, with both players retaining their bishop pair and material dead even. Eljanov as Black has an obvious plan in launching a queenside attack, but must decide what to do with his own king before initiating operations.

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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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