- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Yogi Berra once described a restaurant as so popular that “no one goes there anymore.” Today, we have a game with a sacrificial idea so popular, you never see it anymore — at least at the very top levels.

The so-called “Greek gift” — a bishop sacrifice against the castled king on the h-file followed by a knight-and-queen mating attack — is one of the oldest tactical motifs in the game. The Oxford Companion to Chess says the basic idea was first described by Italian master Giulio Polerio in the 16th century, shortly before he went off to play a match with Ruy Lopez. Even club-level players these days are careful not to put themselves in a position where they have to accept the poisoned “gift.”

So it’s all the more shocking to see the current world champion become the sacrifice’s latest victim.

In what very well may qualify as the game of the year, Armenian GM Levon Aronian defeated world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway at the ongoing 5th Norway Chess tournament, employing the very bishop sac that Polerio described five centuries ago.

Make no mistake — this is still high-level stuff. Coming out of a tricky line in the QGD Chebanenko Slav, the world champ didn’t “miss” White’s idea, and attack and defense are finely balanced for another 20 moves before Black finally succumbs.

The Armenian said after the game that his 10. Bc2 Rd8 11. a3! Bxa3 (accepting the challenge; 11…Bd6 was the safer choice) 12. Rxa3! Qxa3 13. c5 b6! (after 13…h6, nipping any Greek gift ideas in the bud, White has 14. Nb1 Qa2 15. Bb4! a5 16. Nc3 Qb2 17. Na4 Qa2 18. Bb1 Qa1 19. Bh7+, winning the queen) 14. b4, cutting off the Black queen, was based on an idea he first explored back in 2003.

Forced to improvise, Black responds well with 14…Ne4 15. Nxe4 dxe4 16. Bxe4 Rb8 (see diagram; Black allows the elements for the sacrifice to lock into place, but GM Dejan Bojkov points out on Chess.com that 16…Bb7 17. Qc2 Nf6 [17… f5 18. Bd3 a5 19. Bc4 Nf8 20. Ne5 is smothering] 18. cxb6 Nxe4 19. Qxe4 Qa2 20. Ng5 is very strong for White; e.g. 20….Qxd2 21. Qxh7+ Kf8 22. Qh8+ Ke7 23. Qxg7 Rf8 24. Qe5 Qc2 25. Ne4 Rad8 26. Nc5! with a winning attack despite being down a rook), 17. Bxh7+! Kxh7 18. Ng5+ Kg8 (interestingly, the computers see things as close to level after the inhuman 18…Kg6) 19. Qh5 Nf6! (Nf8 20. Qxf7+ Kh8 21. Qe7! Bd7 22. Nf7+ wins the rook) and the attack is on is earnest.

White calculated the tactical thickets all the way through to 21. Qc7 Bd7! 22. Nf7+ Kh7 23. Nxd8 Rc8! 24. Qxb6 Nd5 25. Qa7 Rxd8, when White has three pawns for the lost piece and a more coherent position. Carlsen doesn’t help his cause with 26. e4 Qd3?! (better seems 26…Nf6 27. Bg5 Qxb4 28. e5 Qxd4 29. exf6 gxf6, with hopes of surviving the opposite-colored bishop ending) 27. exd5 Qxd2 28. Qc7 Qg5 29. dxc6 Bc8 (Be8 30. Qb7!), and White is definitely in command.

As often happens, a single mistake can undermine a long, arduous defense: 33. Qe7 Bf5? (Rg8 offers some survival chances) 34. Rg3 Bg6 (Qg8 35. Qh4 mate) 35. Qh4+, when both 35…Qh5 36. Qxd8 and 35…Bh5 36. Rg5 are devastating. Carlsen resigned.

The Aronian-Carlsen battle stands out even more in a tournament which saw just five decisive games in the first five rounds. With a win Monday over former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, Aronian is tied for the lead with American star Hikaru Nakamura at 4-2 in an event which features the ten-highest rated players on the planet.

Aronian-Carlsen, 5th Norway Chess Tournament, Stavanger, Norway, June 2017

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6 5. e3 a6 6. b3 Bb4 7. Bd2 Nbd7 8. Bd3 O-O 9. O-O Qe7 10. Bc2 Rd8 11. a3 Bxa3 12. Rxa3 Qxa3 13. c5 b6 14. b4 Ne4 15. Nxe4 dxe4 16. Bxe4 Rb8 17. Bxh7+ Kxh7 18. Ng5+ Kg8 19. Qh5 Nf6 20. Qxf7+ Kh8 21. Qc7 Bd7 22. Nf7+ Kh7 23. Nxd8 Rc8 24. Qxb6 Nd5 25. Qa7 Rxd8 26. e4 Qd3 27. exd5 Qxd2 28. Qc7 Qg5 29. dxc6 Bc8 30. h3 Qd5 31. Rd1 e5 32. Rd3 exd4 33. Qe7 Bf5 34. Rg3 Bg6 35. Qh4+ Black resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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