Sometimes, even a world champion faces a steep learning curve.
Ruslan Ponomariov was a promising teenage Ukrainian star when he scored an improbable victory in the 2001 FIDE world championship knockout tournament, inheriting the crown once claimed by Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky and Garry Kasparov.
Although Ponomariov has shown grit and maturity far beyond his years, his play in the 1 years since winning the crown has been solid but unspectacular. He has struggled to keep up with his more established rivals and posted some mediocre results in top-flight events. He’s a clear underdog, despite his title, against Kasparov in the planned semifinal candidates match to reunify the divided world championship system.
However, Ponomariov gave a hint this month that his playing strength may be catching up with his credentials, winning the four-grandmaster Ciudad Leon rapid tournament in Spain, beating strong Bulgarian GM Veselin Topalov in the four-game final.
Ponomariov and Spanish GM Francisco Vallejo Pons engaged in a superb positional battle in the preliminary knockout round, with the champ proving just a little tougher in the crunch. Ponomariov as White chooses a solid QGD line with 5. Bf4 but selects a double-edged follow-up with 7. c5!? c6 8. h3 b6 9. b4.
White voluntarily relinquishes his pressure on d5 in a bid to grab space on the queen-side, an advance Vallejo Pons energetically targets. On 15. axb4 Rfa8 16. Ne1 b5, the skirmish has ended in a draw, with Black in control of the open a-file. Ponomariov immediately switches flanks and begins a dangerous king-side push.
What makes the strategic battle so compelling is that White must constantly stand guard against those a-file rooks. Ponomariov shifts his king to the queen-side to bolster the knight on c3 and free his rooks for the attack, but that exposes the monarch to Black sniper attacks in the center.
With 29. Nf4 Qf7 30. g6 hxg6 31. Nxg6, White appears to have made real progress, threatening a powerful push of the h-pawn if Black does not respond. Vallejo Pons is equal to the challenge: 31…e5! 32. Kd2 (finally freeing the rook on c1 for king-side duty) f5!? (Black probably saw the coming tactic and liked his counterplay; more stolid was 32…Nf8 33.h5 exd4 34. exd4 Nce6) 33. Qxf5! exd4! (Qxf5? 34. Ne7+ Kh7 35. Nxf5 gives Black no compensation for the lost pawn) 34. exd4 Ne6 35. Re1 (guarding the pawn with 35. Ke3 [Kd3?? Qxf5+] Qe8 gets very dicey for the White king) Nxd4 36. Qh5.
Despite the threats at h8 and on the e-file, Black still could hold here with 36…Nxf3+ 37. Kd1 (Kc2? Rxc3+! 38. Kxc3 d4+ 39. Kd3 Ra3+ 40. Ke2 Qa2+ 41. Kf1 Nh2+ 42. Kg1 Rg3+ 43. Kh1 Qg2 mate) Qf6, when White’s best option is to bail out with a perpetual check on 38. Ne7+ Kf8 39. Ng6+ Kg8 40. Ne7+.
But Black underestimates the mating matrix of queen and rook, with fatal consequences: 36…Qf3? 37. Qh8+ Kf7 38. Re7+! Kxg6 (Kf6 39. Qxg7+ Kf5 40. Rf7+ also ends in mate) 39. Qxg7+. With both 39…Kf5 and 39…Kh5 met by 40. Qg5 mate, Vallejo Pons resigned.
The combination of lumbering rooks and nimble knights probably has brought on more tactical tragedy than any other tandem in chess. Theoretically worth far more than the knight, the blunt, straight-moving rook is peculiarly susceptible to the knight’s sidestepping forks.
At the 4th Individual European Men’s Championships, now in the final furlongs in Silivri, Turkey, Russian GM Pavel Tregubov gave a particularly clever demonstration of the knight’s fancy-stepping ways in his win over Macedonian GM Trajce Nedev.
In a Gruenfeld, Black seeks early simplification through trades, but the position after 9. Nxd4 Qxd4 10. Qxd4 Bxd4 11. Nb5 Be5 12. Bf4! leaves him dealing with some very uncomfortable pressure on his queen-side. White’s last move trades off Black’s most active defender at the modest cost of a doubled pawn, while White’s fianchettoed bishop will exert lasting pressure on Black’s vulnerable queen-side.
Nedev might have chosen a more active defense with 16…Nc4 17. Rfc1 Nxb2 18. Rab1 Na4 19. Bxb7, because the retreat with 16…Nc8 17. Rfd1 Bc6 18. Rac1 Nd6 (Bxg2 19. Kxg2 Nd6 20. Nd5 Rfe8 21. Rc7 keeps the pressure on) 19. Bxc6 bxc6 20. Rd2! preserves White’s b-pawn while saddling Black with a permanent weakness at c6.
Black is driven back further on 24. e4 f6 (trying to restrain the pawns, but creating a bad hole in the defense) 25. Nc5 Kf7 26. e5 Nf5 27. Rd7 Rxb4 28. e6+ Ke8 29. Rxa7, pinning the Black king to the back rank and creating a dangerous passed a-pawn.
Just when it seems Nedev might have saved the game, the rooks and knights come into cosmic alignment for White: 30…Nb5 31. Rb7 (the doubled f-pawn is far less important than helping the a-pawn along) Rxf4 32. a6 Nd6 33. Rb3 Rc4 34. Rxc4 Nxc4 35. Kg2 Nd6 (Ra8 36. a7, when 36…Rxa7?? 37. Rb8 is mate) 36. a7 Nb5 (see diagram; Black has apparently corralled the little dogie, but…) 37. Rxb5!!.
The rook’s helplessness in the face of the more agile knight is evident on 37…cxb5 38. Na6!, when 38…Ra8 39. Nc7+ Kd8 40. Nxa8 b4 41. Nb6 b3 42. a8=Q+ is winning. Black tries 38…Kd8, but now the knight runs interference with 39. Nb8! Kc7 40. a8=Q Rxb8 41. Qa7+ Rb7 42. Qc5+ Kb8 43. Qb4.
Black’s slim hopes of establishing a fortress are dashed with the blocking of his b-pawn, which allows the White king to take a leisurely stroll to join the fun. On 45. Ke4 Ka7 46. Kd4, Nedev resigned.
16th Ciudad de Leon Rapid Tournament, Leon, Spain, June 2003
1. d4d521. Qh2Qd8
2. c4e622. Qg3Ra3
3. Nf3Nf623. Rfc1Ne8
4. Nc3Be724. h4Qe7
5. Bf40-025. Kf2f6
6. e3Nbd726. g5Qf7
7. c5c627. Ke2Qg6
8. h3b628. Qg4Nc7
9. b4a529. Nf4Qf7
10. a3Ba630. g6hxg6
11. Bxa6Rxa631. Nxg6e5
12. 0-0Qa832. Kd2f5
13. Rb1Qb733. Qxf5exd4
14. Qc2axb434. exd4Ne6
15. axb4Rfa835. Re1Nxd4
16. Ne1b536. Qh5Qxf3
17. Nd3Bd837. Qh8+Kf7
18. f3Bc738. Re7+Kxg6
19. g4Qb839. Qxg7+Black
4th Individual European Chess Championships, Silivri, Turkey, May 2003
1. d4Nf624. e4f6
2. c4g625. Nc5Kf7
3. g3d526. e5Nf5
4. cxd5Nxd527. Rd7Rxb4
5. Bg2Bg728. e6+Ke8
6. Nf3Nb629. Rxa7Nd4
7. Nc3Nc630. Kf1Nb5
8. 0-0Nxd431. Rb7Rxf4
9. Nxd4Qxd432. a6Nd6
10. Qxd4Bxd433. Rb3Rc4
11. Nb5Be534. Rxc4Nxc4
12. Bf4Bxf435. Kg2Nd6
13. gxf40-036. a7Nb5
14. Nxc7Rb837. Rxb5cxb5
15. a4Bd738. Na6Kd8
16. a5Nc839. Nb8Kc7
17. Rfd1Bc640. a8=QRxb8
18. Rac1Nd641. Qa7+Rb7
19. Bxc6bxc642. Qc5+Kb8
20. Rd2Ne443. Qb4Kc8
21. Rd4Nd644. Kf3Kb8
22. b4Rfc845. Ke4Ka7
23. Na6Rb546. Kd4Black
David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.