American chess players seem to have a penchant for spectacular entrances on the international stage.
The unknown Paul Morphy, a provincial from New Orleans, defeated Europe’s best during his triumphal tour of London and Paris in 1858. Nearly 40 years later, it was young Harry Nelson Pillsbury astonishing the chess world by winning the fabled Hastings 1895 tournament over a world-class field in his international debut.
A century after Morphy’s exploits, it was Bobby Fischer qualifying for the world championship cycle at the tender age of 15 with a fifth-place finish at the 1958 Portoroz interzonal.
New York GM Robert Hess, at 19 one of the country’s rising stars, got his first real exposure to top-flight international competition with the just-completed Aeroflot Open in Moscow, a Swiss event that annually attracts a deep field of local and international talent. It wasn’t quite a Morphyesque debut, but the Yale-bound Hess performed quite credibly with a 50 percent result at 4 1/2-4 1/2. Two midtournament losses, including one to French star GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, dented the American’s hopes.
The New Yorker’s best win came early, with a nice performance with Black against Norwegian GM Jon Ludvig Hammer.
With the confidence of the young, Hess is not afraid to enter into early complications against his higher-rated opponent in this Nimzo-Indian, unbalancing the position quickly with 8. Bxc4 Nxd5!? 9. Bxd5 (exd5? is bad because of 9…Qh4+ 10. Nf2 Qxc4 and Black is much better) exd5 10. Qxd5 Ba6, when the White queen would be trapped after 11. Qxa8?! Qh4+ 12. Kd1 Nc6.
Things grow even more double-edged on 14. Be3 Ne5!? 15. a3 Bc4 16. Na4!? (Qd2 Bxc3 17. bxc3 Qc6 18. Nf4 f5! and Black has the initiative) Qb8 17. Qd1 Bb3 18. Qf1 Bxa4 19. axb4 Bc2, when 20. Rc1 Bxe4! 21. fxe4? Ng4+ 22. Ke2 (Kf3 Nxh2+) Rxe4 23. Rc3 cxb4 24. Rd3 Rfe8 wins for Black.
Black wins the exchange, but he must withstand some uncomfortable pressure from Hammer on his king position before securing the point. The young American shows some veteran poise, however, finding a nice combination to simplify down to a winning ending and, when White makes one last oversight, even is able to deliver mate.
Thus: 28. Ng5 h6 29. Ne4 Rxe4! (not only removing White’s most annoying piece, but eyeing a combination exploiting the unguarded rook on a1) 30. fxe4 Rxd6! 31. cxd6 Qe5+, forking king and rook. An understandably deflated White decides he’d rather not stick around too long, allowing a tidy ending with 33. Qf7 Qf6 34. Qxd7 (even here, 34. Qb3 Qg5 sets up the devastating threat of 35. Nf4+) Qf3 mate.
Vietnamese GM Le Quang Liem, proving his surprise win in Moscow last year was no fluke, again topped the Aeroflot field on tie-breaks over Russian GM Nikita Vitiugov. One of the most entertaining games of the event was played much further down the leaderboard, where Greek GM Vasilios Kotronias appears to be channeling Morphy’s Romantic flair in defeating Chinese IM Xiu Deshun.
The Sicilian Poisoned Pawn line and its variants have provided some of the most entertaining attacking games of the past half-century. Even the great Fischer fell ignominiously to Boris Spassky in this line in one of his two over-the-board losses during their epic 1972 world title match.
Here Kotronias as White gives up not just the “poisoned” b-pawn but his c-pawn as well. The attack might not have withstood the scrutiny of today’s superstrong computers, but against a fallible human opponent it proves more than adequate to do the job.
After 9…Qxb2 10. Rb1 Qxc2 11. Bc4 Nxe4, White goes all in with 12. 0-0!!? Qxc3!? (also possible was 12…Nxc3, as Black appears to survive on 13. Nxg7+!? Bxg7 14. Bxf7+ Kxf7 15. fxe5+ Nf6 16. Bxf6 Nxb1 17. Bxg7+ Bf5 18. Qxb7+ Ke6) 13. Qxe4 Nc5 (see diagram) 14. Bxf7+!? Kxf7 15. Qd5+, when White already has invested a piece and two pawns in his quest to mate the Black king.
Critical now seems to be the line 15…Kg6! 16. Nh4+ Kh5 17. Qf7+ g6, and Black’s king is way out on a limb, but there is no obvious way for White to bring him down.
As is so often the case, the defender’s job proves much more difficult in these positions, as a single oversight can mean instant loss. That happens here with Xiu’s 15….Be6?, walking right into a brilliant concluding display of fireworks from White: 16. Rxb7+!! Kg8 (Black may have missed that 16…Nxb7 is refuted by 17. Nh6+!! gxh6 18. fxe5+ Kg7 19. Qxe6, and there’s no defense against the threat of 20. Bxh6 mate) 17. Rxg7+! (drawing the Black bishop away from the defense of the e7-square) Bxg7 18. Ne7+ Kf7 19. fxe5+ Bf6 (Ke8 20. Qxa8+ Kd7 21. Qc6+ Kd8 22. Nf5+ Bf6 23. Bxf6 mate) 20. Rxf6+ Kxe7 (Kg7 21. Bh6 mate) 21. Qxd6+, and Black resigns just ahead of the inevitable 21…Ke8 22. Rf8+! Rxf8 23. Qe7 mate.
Hammer-Hess, Aeroflot Open, February 2011
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3 c5 5.d5 b5 6.e4 0-0 7.Nh3 bxc4 8.Bxc4 Nxd5 9.Bxd5 exd5 10.Qxd5 Ba6 11.Bg5 Qb6 12.Kf2 Nc6 13.Rhb1 Rae8 14.Be3 Ne5 15.a3 Bc4 16.Na4 Qb8 17.Qd1 Bb3 18.Qf1 Bxa4 19.axb4 Bc2 20.bxc5 f5 21.Bf4 Bxb1 22.Qxb1 fxe4 23.b4 exf3 24.gxf3 Qb5 25.Kg3 Ng6 26.Qb3+ Kh8 27.Bd6 Rf6 28.Ng5 h6 29.Ne4 Rxe4 30.fxe4 Rxd6 31.cxd6 Qe5+ 32.Kh3 Qxa1 33.Qf7 Qf6 34.Qxd7 Qf3 mate 0-1.
Kotronias-Xiu, Aeroflot Open, February 2011
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 Nbd7 7.f4 e5 8.Nf5 Qb6 9.Qf3 Qxb2 10.Rb1 Qxc2 11.Bc4 Nxe4 12.0-0 Qxc3 13.Qxe4 Nc5 14.Bxf7+ Kxf7 15.Qd5+ Be6 16.Rxb7+ Kg8 17.Rxg7+ Bxg7 18.Ne7+ Kf7 19.fxe5+ Bf6 20.Rxf6+ Kxe7 21.Qxd6+ 1-0.
David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.