Friday, July 21, 2006

Local chess has lost its iron man.

GM Alexander “Wojo” Wojtkiewicz, Maryland’s highest-rated player and one of the most active and successful players on the U.S. chess scene for nearly a decade, succumbed to liver disease July 14 at the age of 43.

An ethnic Pole born in Latvia in 1963, the popular Wojtkiewicz packed a lot of adventure and achievement into a too-short life. According to his official biography and several press profiles, he was a candidate master by the age of 15 but had a promising chess career cut short when refused induction into the Soviet Army.

He spent time in a Soviet prison and moved to Warsaw after his release in 1986. He was twice Polish national champion and competed on his country’s Olympiad team before gradually relocating to the United States in the early 1990s. For many years, he was among the country’s busiest grandmasters, winning multiple Grand Prix awards for accumulating the most points from qualifying tournaments.

A miniprofile of the peripatetic Pole, written for a New York tournament, noted, “He can play in an event in Las Vegas one day and have no problem flying to Europe the next. His strong opening knowledge makes such situations easy for him, as he is so well versed in the positions that he usually gets that he can play without much sleep or right after landing in a new country.”

His massive over-the-board record includes wins over such luminaries as former Soviet world champion David Bronstein, Hungarian GM Judit Polgar, English GM Michael Adams and virtually every active top-ranked U.S. player.

What makes the loss all the more tragic is that the Baltimore grandmaster was on a roll, winning or tying for first in his last few tournaments, including the prestigious National Open in Las Vegas in June and this month’s World Open in Philadelphia.

We mark Wojo’s passing with two of his finer efforts, one from early in his career and one played just last month in Las Vegas.

More comfortable in quiet, positional maneuvering, Wojtkiewicz showed excellent combinational flair in his much-admired win over Greek GM Spyridon Skembris in the 1990 Olympiad in Yugoslavia. Black finds himself in a bad cramp coming out of the opening, and Wojtkiewicz, playing for the Polish national team, strikes just as Black seems about to relieve the pressure.

Thus: 21. Ne5 Bc8 22. Rxd8 Qxd8 (Rxd8 23. Qh5! g6 [gxf6 24. Qxf7+ Kh8 25. Qxf6+ Bg7 26. Nf7+ Kg8 27. Qxe7] 24. Qf3 keeps the edge, as 24…Qd6? 25. Nxf7 Kxf7 26. Be5+ wins the queen) 23. Rd1 Qc7 24. Qh5!, when 24…gxf6 25. Qxf7+ Kh8 26. Qxe8 wins decisive material.

Black defends f7 with 24…Nf5 (see diagram), only to be rocked by the disruptive 25. Rd7! Bxd7 26. Qxf7+ Kh8 (Kh7 27. Nxd7 Rc8 28. Nxf8+ Rxf8 29. Qxc7) 27. Be4!!, a brilliant and necessary follow-up. (Skembris may have been banking on 27. Nxd7?, when Black turns the tables with the intricate 27…Nd6! 28. Be5 Nxf7 29. Bxc7 Bxb4! 30. axb4 Re7, winning material.)

Instead, White’s bishop move poses insoluble mating threats for the Black king, with the first threat now 28. Ng6+ Kh7 29. Nxf8+ Kh8 (Rxf8 30. Qxg7 mate) 30. Bxf5 exf5 31. Bxg7 mate. Black tries 27…Qd6, but White fires back with 28. Nxd7 Qd1+ 29. Kg2 Qe2 (a more prosaic loss comes on 29…Nd6 30. Qg6 Nxe4 31. Qxe8 Nxf6 32. Nxf6 Qd6 33. Nd7 Kg8 34. Nxf8 Qxf8 35 Qxe6+) 30. Bxg7+!, destroying the Black defensive fortress.

The finale 30…Nxg7 (Bxg7 31. Qxe8+ Kh7 32. Qxe6) 31. Qg6 Nf5 32. Bxf5 exf5 33. Nf6, and Black packs it in as he must give up his queen to stop the mates threatened at h7 and g8.

That the Baltimore GM was in top form right to the end can be seen in his last-round win over Nevada IM Enrico Sevillano at the National Open, where Wojtkiewicz tied for first with an undefeated 5-1 score. Curiously, the same motif that defeated Skembris — the deflecting rook move to the seventh rank — helps clinch the point here as well.

In a Sicilian Scheveningen, Sevillano as White drops a pawn with 14. Rfe1?! Nfxe4! 15. Bxe7 (Nxe4 Bxg5) Nxc3 16. Qxc3 Qxe7, and his efforts to scratch his way back into the game are turned aside coolly by Wojtkiewicz. By 19. b4 Na4 20. Qc7, White appears to have made some headway, attacking the bishop and the d6-pawn with Black’s knight seemingly locked out of the game.

But the grandmaster has things in hand: 20…Ba8 21. Rxd6?! (21. Bb3 may be more prudent) Rxd6 22. Qxd6 Nc3 23. Bb3 Rd8 24. Qc7 Ne2+! 25. Kf1 (Nxe2?? Qxg2 mate; 25. Rxe2?? Rd1+ 26. Nf1 Qxg2 mate) Nf4, and suddenly the marooned knight is right in the thick of Black’s raging attack.

With 26…h5!, preparing to oust the knight on g3, Black poses yet another headache for the White defense, and 28…Bd5! removes a key White defender.

Another rook deflection seals the deal: 29. Kg1 (Bxd5 Nxd5 30. Qg1 Rc8 31. Rc1 Rc3 32. Ne4 Qf4, and Black dominates) Bxb3 30. cxb3 Rd3 31. Qc1 Qg5 32. Qc2 (to cover g2 if the knight on g3 moves) Rd2!!, drawing the queen to a fatal square.

As 33. Qxd2 Nh3+ 34 gxh3 Qxd2 35. Re4 Qc1+ 36. Kg2 Qb2+ 37. Ne2 Qxb3 is pretty bleak, White resigned.

29th Olympiad, Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, November 1990


1. Nf3d518. Qxe4Rcd8

2. c4e619. Qg4Bf8

3. g3Nf620. Bf6Ne7

4. Bg2c521. Ne5Bc8

5. 0-0Nc622. Rxd8Qxd8

6. d4Be723. Rd1Qc7

7. dxc5Bxc524. Qh5Nf5

8. a30-025. Rd7Bxd7

9. b4Be726. Qxf7+Kh8

10. Bb2a627. Be4Qd6

11. Nbd2Re828. Nxd7Qd1+

12. Rc1Bd729. Kg2Qe2

13. Qc2Rc830. Bxg7+Nxg7

14. Qb1h631. Qg6Nf5

15. Rfd1Qb632. Bxf5exf5

16. e4dxe433. Nf6Black

17. Nxe4Nxe4resigns

National Open, Las Vegas, June 2006


1. e4c517. Nf5Qg5

2. Nf3d618. Ng3Rad8

3. d4cxd419. b4Na4

4. Nxd4Nf620. Qc7Ba8

5. Nc3a621. Rxd6Rxd6

6. Bc4e622. Qxd6Nc3

7. Bb3b523. Bb3Rd8

8. Bg5Be724. Qc7Ne2+

9. Qf3Qc725. Kf1Nf4

10. 0-00-026. f3h5

11. a3Nbd727. Qe5Qh4

12. Rad1Nc528. Qe3Bd5

13. Ba2Bb729. Kg1Bxb3

14. Rfe1Nfxe430. cxb3Rd3

15. Bxe7Nxc331. Qc1Qg5

16. Qxc3Qxe732. Qc2Rd2

White resigns

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by e-mail at dsands@washington

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