There was some strange karma going on in two chess tournaments a world apart last week.
At the Chicago Open, 14-year-old IM Jeffery Xiong of Texas shocked a field of proven veterans to finish alone in first at 7-2, surpassing the 2500 ratings mark and notching his third grandmaster norm to put him on track to become the first Chinese-American grandmaster in the U.S. Four days later, 15-year-old Chinese prodigy GM Wei Yi shocked a field of proven veterans to finish alone in first in the Chinese Chess Championships in Xinghua, becoming China’s youngest national champion ever while cracking the top 30 in the world FIDE rankings.
Even weirder, the key wins for both Xiong and Wei came in defeating a higher-ranked rival from the White side of the same variation of the Ruy Lopez Berlin Defense. At least the two youngsters took very different approaches in breaking down the dreaded “Berlin Wall” and winning a vital point.
For Xiong, the tournament turned on his tough last-round victory over Cuban GM Lazaro Bruzon Batista, a former world junior champion. White displays admirable patience in trying to break down Black’s entrenched fortress and shows maturity beyond his years by outplaying his older rival at a key point in the rook ending.
The Berlin earned its fearsome reputation as a drawing line when Russian GM Vladimir Kramnik famously used it to repeatedly frustrate Garry Kasparov’s attacking ambitions in their 2000 London world championship match. White Ruy players have learned to take it slow, as Xiong does here, in nursing White’s small spatial edge deep into the middle game.
The trade on 27. Bd2 b6 (Bd8!?, preserving the bishop pair, was worth considering) 28. Bxg5 is a small positional win for White, although Black’s remaining bishop remains powerful. The fight suddenly shifts to the queenside after 35. Nd5 Re8 36. b4!? cxb4!? (36…Bxd5 37. cxd5 Nf4 seems only good for equality after 38. Rc3 cxb4 39. Rc4 Ng6 40. Rxb4 Nxe5 41. Nxe5 Rexe5 42. d6) 37. Nxb4 Rhh8 38. Ne3 Ba4 39. Ra1 Ra8 40. Rda3 Nc5, setting up some delicate tactics along the a-file.
Positions with knights and rooks can be notoriously tricky, and the Cuban GM appears to slip with a tactic that leaves only White with winning chances: 44. Nc3 Nd3+?! (Black had two other tries that appear keep the balance: a) 44…Rae8 45. Nxa4 Nxa4 46. Nd5 Rf5+ 47. Kg1 Nb2! 48. Ra7+ Kc6 49. Rxc7+ Kd6 50. Rb7 Nxc4 51. Nxb6 Ne5; and b) 44…Nb3 [perhaps best] 45. Rd1 Nc5 46. Rd4 Bc6 47. Rxa8 Kxa8 48. Rxh4 Rxg5) 45. Ke2 Rae8 46. Nxa4 Rxe3+ 47. Kd2 Re2+ 48. Kxd3 R8e3+ 49. Kd4 c5+ 50. Nxc5 — and not 50. Kd5?? Rd2+ and mate next.
The ending comes into focus after 54. Ra5 Rxh3 55. Rf5, when Black’s h-pawn can still hold the draw with the precise 55…Rg3! 56. Rxf7+ Ka6 57. Rg7 h3 58. c5 h2 59. Rh7 Rxg5 60. Rxh2 Rg6+ 61. Kd7 Kb5, and the last pawn is stopped. Instead, Bruzon errs with 55…Rd3+? 56. Ke7 h3 57. Rxf7 h2 58. Rh7 Rd2 59. g6, and White retains the critical g-pawn.
It’s over after 60. g7 Re2+ 61. Kd6 Rd2+ and Black resigned. One winning method: 62. Kc5 h1=Q 63. Rxh1 Rg2 64. Rh7 Ka6 65. Kc6 Rg5 66. c5 Rg2 67. Kd7 Rd2+ 68. Kc8 Rg2 69. c6 Kb6 70. c7 Kc6 71. Rh6+ Kc5 72. Kd8 Rd2+ 73. Ke7 Re2+ 74. Re6, and the White pawns can’t be stopped.
In the very same Berlin line, Wei took a very different tack against three-time national champ GM Ding Liren in Xinghua. By 18 Nf5 Bf8 19. b3 Bd7 20. Bb2, White has a big edge in space and a clear lead in development, though Black’s defenses remain sturdy. It’s only when Ding, understandably tired of playing defense for the whole game, tries to activate his piece that Black runs into trouble.
White breaks on top after 27. Rd3 h5?! (see diagram; if Black can load up his rooks on the h-file, he may even claim an advantage) 28. Nxe6! (not winning, but getting rid of Black’s bishop pair and ruining his opponent’s pawn structure at the relatively modest cost of the exchange) Rxd3 29. Nxc5+ bxc5 30. e6 Rhd8 (Rd2+ 31. Rf2 Rxf2+ 32. Kxf2 Rf8?? [Re8 33. exf7 tracks the line played in the game] 33. Bg7 Rg8 34. exf7 is just winning for White) 31. exf7 Rd2+ 32. Rf2 Rxf2+ 33. Kxf2 Rf8 34. f5!, and the lone Black rook proves no match for White’s bishop and advancing pawns.
Black packs it in after 34…Rxf7 (gxf5 35. g5! Rxf7 36. g6 Rf8 37. Kf3 Re8 38. Kf4 Kc8 39. Kxf5 Kd7 40. g7 Ke7 41. Kg6 Rg8 42. Ba3 and wins) 35. Kg3 gxf5 36. g5!, and the coming zugzwang isn’t hard to see: 36…Kc8 37. g6 f4+ 38. Kf3 Rf8 39. g7 Rd8 40. Kxf4 Rg8 41. Kf5 Kd7 42. Kf6 Ke8 43. Ba3 and Black’s position collapses.
Xiong-Bruzon, Chicago Open, May 2015
1. e4 e5 1. 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 9. Rd1+ Ke8 10. Nc3 Ne7 11. h3 Ng6 12. b3 Bd7 13. Bb2 Nf4 14. Rd4 Ne6 15. Rd2 Rd8 16. Rad1 Be7 17. Ne2 c5 18. Nc3 Bc6 19. Nd5 h5 20. c4 Rd7 21. Rd3 Bd8 22. Nd2 h4 23. Nf1 Bg5 24. Nh2 Rh5 25. Ng4 Kd8 26. Bc3 Kc8 27. Bd2 b6 28. Bxg5 Rxg5 29. Kh2 Rh5 30. f3 a5 31. Kg1 a4 32. Kf2 axb3 33. axb3 Kb7 34. Nde3 Re7 35. Nd5 Re8 36. b4 cxb4 37. Nxb4 Rhh8 38. Ne3 Ba4 39. Ra1 Ra8 40. Rda3 Nc5 41. Nbd5 Rhe8 42. f4 g5 43. fxg5 Rxe5 44. Nc3 Nd3+ 45. Ke2 Rae8 46. Nxa4 Rxe3+ 47. Kd2 Re2+ 48. Kxd3 R8e3+ 49. Kd4 c5+ 50. Nxc5+ bxc5+ 51. Kxc5 Rxa3 52. Rxa3 Rxg2 53. Kd6 Rg3 54. Ra5 Rxh3 55. Rf5 Rd3+ 56. Ke7 h3 57. Rxf7 h2 58. Rh7 Rd2 59. g6 Rf2 60. g7 Re2+ 61. Kd6 Rd2+ and Black resigns.
Wei-Ding, Chinese National Championship, Xinghua, May 2015
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. O-O Nxe4 5. d4 Nd6 6. Bxc6 dxc6 7. dxe5 Nf5 8. Qxd8+ Kxd8 9. h3 Bd7 10. Rd1 Be7 11. g4 Nh4 12. Nxh4 Bxh4 13. Nd2 Kc8 14. Nf3 Be7 15. Rd3 h6 16. Nd4 b6 17. Rf3 Be8 18. Nf5 Bf8 19. b3 Bd7 20. Bb2 Be6 21. Nd4 Bd5 22. Re3 Bc5 23. c4 Be6 24. f4 g6 25. Rf1 Kb7 26. Kg2 Rad8 27. Rd3 h5 28. Nxe6 Rxd3 29. Nxc5+ bxc5 30. e6 Rhd8 31. exf7 Rd2+ 32. Rf2 Rxf2+ 33. Kxf2 Rf8 34. f5 Rxf7 35. Kg3 gxf5 36. g5 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.