- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

It’s become a paradox of modern sports: Choosing up sides has become as big a draw as the games themselves.

The NFL draft, once a relatively low-key affair, now is a three-day televised extravaganza, dissected by an army of analysts. The hot-stove league in baseball — with breathlessly covered free-agent signings and blockbuster trades — draws fan attention through the long, cold months after the last World Series game is played.

Chess fans can now get in on the action with the news — first reported in the mass media at WashingtonTimes.com — that superstar grandmaster Fabiano Caruana is coming home and now will compete under the U.S. flag. The Florida-born, Brooklyn-reared Caruana, 22, has dual citizenship and has competed for the Italian chess federation as he has rocketed up the world ratings in recent years.

But after a persistent wooing campaign from the U.S. Chess Federation, Caruana confirmed last week that he is switching his allegiance back to the U.S.

And like the quintessential “Big Three” stars so coveted in pro basketball, American chess now has a trio of top stars that could transform the U.S. into a powerhouse in international events such as the biennial Olympiads and the recently concluded FIDE World Team Championships. Caruana, who is off to another strong start at the FIDE Grand Prix event in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, this week, is rated No. 2 in the world, behind only Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen.

The new U.S. murderers row also includes four-time U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura, No. 4 in the most recent FIDE world rankings, and GM Wesley So, like Caruana a recent recruit who switched from his native Philippines to play for the U.S. side, who is seventh. Throw in promising young stars such as GMs Sam Shankland, Daniel Naroditsky and Ray Robson, and the U.S. suddenly can field a team to compete with the heavyweights of the chess world such as Russia, Ukraine, Armenia and China.

Caruana has done some of his best work at the Olympiads, holding down first board for Italy. His scintillating sacrificial win at the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden over Swedish star Emanuel Berg has become one of the most anthologized wins of the decade, and was featured in this column at the time. But Caruana authored another win nearly as brilliant against Lithuanian top board GM Aloyzas Kveinys from the White side of a Kan Sicilian at that same event.

White opens up a key line with 14. f5!? exf5 15. exf5 e5 16. Nd8 Qd8 (see diagram), but Black appears solid as the Caruana’s annoying knight seems forced to retreat. Instead, White presses forward with a startling piece sacrifice that frees up his rooks and bishops for a brutal kingside attack: 16. Ne6! fxe6 18. fxe6 Nc5 19. Bf5! (an important move to preserve the linchpin pawn on e6 and the bishop; White still has time to bring up the reserves) Kh8 20. Rc3 Nxd5 21. cxd5 Bxd5 22. Rh3, with tremendous pressure on the h-file.

Black fights back with 22…Bh4 23. Be1 Rg8, targeting g2, but White proves willing to throw a queen into the sacrificial mix to keep his attack alive: 24. Bxh4 Rxg2 25. Qxg2! (losing was 28. Bxd8? Rxe2+ 29. Rhf3 Rxd8, followed by 30…Bxf3) Bxg2+ 26. Kxg2 Qf8, and now the White bishop pair get to work.

It’s over after 27. Bg6!! Nxe6 (hxg6 28. Bf6+ Kg8 29. Rh8 mate) 28. Bf6+ Kg8 29. Bxh7+ Kf7 30. Bxe5+, and Black resigned the hopeless 30…Ke7 31. Rxf8 Rxf8 32. Bg3, and White is just a piece to the good.

The potential U.S. Olympiad lineup sparks memories of a time when Americans were dominant in the global event, one of the biggest international sporting events outside of the Olympics or soccer’s World Cup. From 1931 to 1937, the U.S. team took four consecutive gold medals, an achievement tainted only slightly by the fact that the rising Soviet Union juggernaut did not compete in those years.

Stalwarts on those winning teams included such American greats as Sammy Reshevsky, Reuben Fine, Frank Marshall and longtime New York Times columnist I.A. Horowitz. Twice holding down first board for the gold medal American squad was GM Isaac Kashdan, one of the best players in the world in the 1930s and a strategist of such clarity and accuracy that he was dubbed “the little Capablanca.” Kashdan gave the world a taste of things to come with his victory over Czech star Salo Flohr at the 1930 Olympiad in Hamburg, Germany, where the U.S. team finished seventh.

There is some brilliant positional jousting from both players in this rare Nimzovich Defense, and Flohr’s decision to sacrifice a piece on 19. Ne2 axb4 20. g4 bxa3!? 21. gxf5 gxf5 22. Rg1 b5 looks eminently reasonable given his queenside dominance and the connected passed a- and b-pawns. But the precise Kashdan halts the pawns’ advance with timely moves such as 25. Rg3! and 26. Nc1!, and by 33. Qb8 Qa6+ 34. Kd1 Rc8 35. Rxc8 Qxc8 36. Qxc8+ Kxc8 37. Kc2 Kb7 38. Nc1, White has simplified down to an ending where he is a piece ahead and the Black’s passed pawns are doomed.

But Black retains strong drawing chances, and Kashdan would win the Olympiad’s prize for the best endgame with a marvelously played finale to take the full point — 62. Kg3 Ke4 63. Ng5+!! (White may have had to calculate already to the end to make this move, which puts all of White’s chips on his last surviving pawn) Kxd4 64. Kf4 Kd5 65. Nf3 Kc4 66. Kg5! Kd5 67. Kf6! (lacking tempos, Black’s king must soon abandon the pawn on e6) f4 68. Nh4 Ke4 69. Kxe6! f3 70. Nxf3 Kxf3 (the pawn race will be a tie, but White has a final, lethal finesse) 71. Kf5 h4 72. e6 h3 73. e7 h2 74. e8=Q Kg2 75. Kg4, and Black resigns because it’s a textbook loss after 75…h1=Q 76. Qe2+ Kg1 77. Kg3!, and there’s no counter to the threat of 77. Qf2 mate.

Caruana-Kveinys, 38th Chess Olympiad, Dresden, November 2008

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Bd3 Nf6 6. O-O Qc7 7. Qe2 d6 8. f4 Be7 9. c4 Nbd7 10. Nc3 b6 11. Kh1 Bb7 12. Bd2 g6 13. Rac1 O-O 14. f5 gxf5 15. exf5 e5 16. Nd5 Qd8 17. Ne6 fxe6 18. fxe6 Nc5 19. Bf5 Kh8 20. Rc3 Nxd5 21. cxd5 Bxd5 22. Rh3 Bh4 23. Be1 Rg8 24. Bxh4 Rxg2 25. Qxg2 Bxg2+ 26. Kxg2 Qf8 27. Bg6 Nxe6 28. Bf6+ Kg8 29. Bxh7+ Kf7 30. Bxe5+ Black resigns.

Kashdan-Flohr, 3rd Olympiad, Hamburg, July 1930

1. e4 Nc6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. c3 e6 5. Ne2 Nge7 6. Ng3 Bg6 7. Bd3 Qd7 8. Qf3 b6 9. Nd2 Na5 10. h4 Bxd3 11. Qxd3 c5 12. b4 cxb4 13. cxb4 Nc4 14. h5 Rc8 15. h6 g6 16. Nf3 Nf5 17. a3 Qa4 18. Rb1 a5 19. Ne2 axb4 20. g4 bxa3 21. gxf5 gxf5 22. Rg1 b5 23. Nd2 Nxd2 24. Bxd2 b4 25. Rg3 Rc4 26. Nc1 Qa7 27. Nb3 Qc7 28. Ke2 Kd7 29. Rbg1 Rc2 30. Rg8 Rxg8 31. Rxg8 Be7 32. Qb5+ Qc6 33. Qb8 Qa6+ 34. Kd1 Rc8 35. Rxc8 Qxc8 36. Qxc8+ Kxc8 37. Kc2 Kb7 38. Nc1 Kc6 39. Kb3 Kb5 40. Na2 Bh4 41. Be1 f6 42. Nxb4 fxe5 43. dxe5 Bg5 44. Nc2 Kc6 45. Nd4+ Kd7 46. Kxa3 Bxh6 47. Kb3 Bf4 48. Nf3 h5 49. Bc3 Bh6 50. Bb4 Bg7 51. Bd6 Bh6 52. Kc3 Bg7 53. Kd3 Bh6 54. Ke2 Bc1 55. Kf1 Bb2 56. Bc5 Kc6 57. Bd4 Bc1 58. Kg2 Bf4 59. Be3 Bxe3 60. fxe3 d4 61. exd4 Kd5 62. Kg3 Ke4 63. Ng5+ Kxd4 64. Kf4 Kd5 65. Nf3 Kc4 66. Kg5 Kd5 67. Kf6 f4 68. Nh4 Ke4 69. Kxe6 f3 70. Nxf3 Kxf3 71. Kf5 h4 72. e6 h3 73. e7 h2 74. e8=Q Kg2 75. Kg4 Black resigns.

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

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