- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

It’s a game played on an unchanging battlefield of 64 squares with a fixed array of forces, so it would make sense that there’s not much of a home-field advantage in chess.

In fact, a quick look at the historical record suggests the opposite — that it often is the “visiting” player who has the edge, perhaps because the local hero faces more distractions and greater pressure to perform. America’s first great player, Paul Morphy, built his reputation on a string of what might be called road wins, traveling from his hometown of New Orleans to conquer first New York City and then the chess capitals of Europe in his meteoric career.

Consider just the world championship matches: Frenchman Pierre St. Amant defeated English champion Howard Staunton in their 1843 London match, only to lose the crown later that year when Staunton triumphed in Paris. American Frank Marshall was crushed by German champ Emanuel Lasker in their title match played in several U.S. cities in 1907, and nearly a century later, British star Nigel Short suffered a similar thrashing in London at the hands of Russia’s Garry Kasparov in their 1993 tilt.

There are exceptions: Jose Raoul Capablanca thrilled the hometown fans in Havana by winning the title from an aging Lasker in 1921, and Max Euwe provided a Dutch treat for his backers by upsetting reigning titleholder Alexander Alekhine in their 1935 match played in several cities of the Netherlands. Even here, it should be noted that Alekhine would regain the title just two years later — also in a match played in Euwe’s native land.

And home cooking couldn’t save India’s Viswanathan Anand, who didn’t win a single game for his rabid fans in Chennai in ceding his crown to Norway’s Magnus Carlsen in 2013.

Carlsen himself, despite being clearly the best player on the planet right now, has had his own issues playing in his native Norway, where he is one of his country’s biggest sports stars. His record in Norwegian tournaments has been mediocre, even since winning the crown, and he compiled only a so-so (for him) record at the 2014 Tromso Olympiad, the first ever held in his country.

The “Norway curse,” as U.S. GM Alejandro Ramirez dubbed it on Chessbase.com last week, was on full display again as Carlsen scored just a draw and three losses to open the third annual Norway Chess tournament, featuring some of the world’s very top players. After losses to Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov (on a time-forfeit) and archrival Fabiano Caruana of Italy, Carlsen was taken apart by Anand in a round 4 game that must have depressed the young Norwegian’s huge cheering section.

In a Closed Ruy Lopez, Carlsen as Black deviates from the standard line (17…h6, putting the question to the bishop, is far more common than the game’s 17…Bg7) and soon has to give up his valuable dark-squared bishop without any real compensation. With Black’s hoped-for counterplay on the open b-file going nowhere, White steadily ups his positional edge on 32. Qf3 Ba6?! 33. Qg4! g5 (the abject 33…Bc8, repinning the pawn, may be best here; Anand is happy to give up the exchange to open lines on the kingside for his attack) 34. h4 Bxf1 35. Rxf1 Qd7 36. hxg5 fxg5 37. Qh5 Kh8 38. f6!, threatening 39. Nf5 Nxe4 40. Bg7+ Rxg7 [Kg8 41. Nh6 mate] 42. Qg4 Nf6 43. Nh6+ Kxg7 44. Qxg5+ Kh8 45. Qxf6+ Qg7 46. Qxd6 and wins.

Black returns the exchange, but after 41. Nf5, White dominates the board despite the material balance. The finale: 43. Ne7 Kg7 (no better was 43…Rh6 44. Rf8+ Kg7 45. Rc8 Rf6 46. Nf5+ Kg6 47. Nxd6 Rxd5 48. Rxc5, with a simple endgame win) 44. Nxg6 Kxg6 45. Rf8 a4 46. c4 h5 47. Kf2, and Black resigns as his defense falls apart after 47…Nxe4+ 48. Ke3 Nc5 49. Rd8 Nb7 50. Rd7.

The hometown curse may also be in effect in Havana, where Cuba’s two top grandmasters were lagging behind Chinese GM Yu Yangyi at the halfway point of the 50th Capablanca Memorial, a Category 19 double round-robin event that ends Thursday. Cuban star Leinier Dominguez Perez was one of Yu’s first-half victims, in a game featuring a piquant final combination.

Yu manages to neutralize White’s early kingside pressure in this Bogo-Indian, and carefully husbands his bishop pair for the time when the center opens up. Dominguez Perez tries to defang Black’s attack with a rook trade, but that only seems to increase the superiority of Black’s minor pieces. An ill-timed White effort to reposition his forces allows Black to expand his edge.

Thus: 33. Re2?! (an odd-looking move whose purpose seems to be to allow the knight to move; if 33. Nf1?! right away, the Black queen invades with 33…Qb2! 34. Qd1 f4) g4! (cutting off the queen’s escape route, which proves critical in the ensuing play) 34. Be3 (h3 f4! 35. Ne4 gxh3+ 36. Kh1 Qe5 37. Qf3 fxg3 38. Qxg3+ Qxg3 39. Bxg3 Bxg3 40. Nxg3 Kg6, with a big edge for Black) Re7 35. Kf1 Re5 (Be8? is premature because of 36. Bxh6+! Qxh6 37. Rxe7+ Bxe7 38. Qxe8, equalizing) 36. Bf4 (Qh4 Qxh4 37. gxh4 f4 38. Bf2 Bf5 39. Rxe5 Bxe5 40. h5 Bf6, again with a big advantage) Rxe2 37. Kxe2 Bxf4 38. gxf4 (see diagram), and Yu finds a killer finesse to end the game.

White resigns after 38…Kf8!, as White can save his queen from the threat of 39…Be8 only by giving up his knight.

Anand-Carlsen, 3rd Norway Chess Tournament, Stavanger, Norway, June 2015

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 6. d3 d6 7. c3 O-O 8. Nbd2 Re8 9. Re1 b5 10. Bc2 Bf8 11. Nf1 g6 12. h3 Bb7 13. Ng3 Nb8 14. d4 Nbd7 15. a4 c5 16. d5 c4 17. Bg5 Bg7 18. Qd2 Rb8 19. Nh2 Bc8 20. Ng4 Nc5 21. Nh6+ Bxh6 22. Bxh6 bxa4 23. Ra2 a3 24. bxa3 Nfd7 25. f4 a5 26. Rf1 f6 27. f5 Nd3 28. Bxd3 cxd3 29. Qd1 Re7 30. Raf2 Rf7 31. Qxd3 Nc5 32. Qf3 Ba6 33. Qg4 g5 34. h4 Bxf1 35. Rxf1 Qd7 36. hxg5 fxg5 37. Qh5 Kh8 38. f6 Rg8 39. Bg7+ Rfxg7 40. fxg7+ Qxg7 41. Nf5 Qg6 42. Qxg6 Rxg6 43. Ne7 Kg7 44. Nxg6 Kxg6 45. Rf8 a4 46. c4 h5 47. Kf2 Black resigns.

Dominguez Perez-Yu, 50th Capablanca Memorial, June 2015

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Bd2 Be7 6. Bg2 O-O 7. O-O c6 8. Qc2 Nbd7 9. Rd1 b6 10. b3 a5 11. Bf4 Ba6 12. Ne5 Rc8 13. e4 Nxe5 14. Bxe5 Nxe4 15. Bxe4 dxe4 16. Qxe4 f6 17. Bf4 e5 18. Be3 c5 19. d5 Bd6 20. f4 f5 21. Qf3 Rc7 22. Nd2 Bc8 23. Re1 g5 24. fxe5 Bxe5 25. Rad1 Bd6 26. Bf2 Qf6 27. Qh5 Rg7 28. Re8 Bd7 29. Rxf8+ Kxf8 30. Re1 h6 31. a4 Rf7 32. Kg2 Kg7 33. Re2 g4 34. Be3 Re7 35. Kf1 Re5 36. Bf4 Rxe2 37. Kxe2 Bxf4 38. gxf4 Kf8 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]

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