- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The two most dangerous opponents in chess are those who are desperate for a win and those who have nothing to lose.

Armenian star GM Levon Aronian falls into the latter category right now, which may explain his strong start at the final FIDE Grand Prix event now underway in the Spanish city of Palma de Mallorca. Up for grabs at the elite event are the final two slots for the Candidates Tournament next year to pick the challenger for world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway.

But Aronian, who has enjoyed a major comeback year by winning some of 2017’s strongest events, already has booked his berth by winning FIDE’s World Cup knockout tournament in September. To judge from his smashing win over strong Dutch GM Anish Giri last week, Aronian is playing now with the free, easy confidence of a player who is gambling with house money.

Aronian’s hypermodern setup as White in this English Opening doesn’t promise early fireworks, and it is Black who gets his king safely castled early while the White monarch remains on his home square.

But with 8. h4 and 9. h5, White signals his aggressive intentions, and after 12. Qa4 Na5?! (Aronian later recommended 12…Qd5 13. dxc4 Qa5 right away to forestall White’s attack, and 12…cxd3 13. Qh4 f6 14. exd3 Qd5 also holds the balance) 13. d4 b6 14. Bg2 Bb7 15. Qc2 Qd5 16. Nh4! Qd7 17. e4! e5 18. d5!, White has seized a real space advantage while blocking the diagonals for both Black bishops. The most important open line on the board is now the open h-file — right in the kitchen of the Black king.

Given the initiative and with a ticket to the Candidates already in his pocket, Aronian ups the stakes with 19. f4! (not exactly the kind of move you make when your king is still in the center) Qe7 (exf4 20. gxf4 Nb7 31. Be3 is very pleasant for White, while 19…Qg4 20. Bf3! Qxg3+ 21. Ke2 leaves the Black queen trapped) 20. f5 g5 21. Qd1!!, a speculative piece sacrifice designed to exploit Giri’s airy kingside.

There followed 21…fxh4 22. Rxh4 Rd8 (on 22…f6, GM Dejan Bojkov, analyzing the game on Chess.com, recommends 23. Qh5 Rf7 24. Qh7+ Kf8 25. Bf3! Qc5 26. Kf1!, stopping all checks and winning after 26… Nb7 27. Rg4 Nd6 28. Rxg7 Rxg7 29. Qh8+ Kf7 30. Bh5+) 23. Qh5 Kf8 24. Rg4!? (even stronger might be 24. Qg4!, with the threat of 25. Rh7 Bf6 26. Bh6+ Ke8 27. Qg8+ Kd7 28. Rxf7; e.g. 24…Bf6 25. Rh7 Ke8 26. Bh6 Nb7 28. Qg8+ Kd7 28. Qxf7 Qxf7 29. Rxf7+ Be7 30 f6 and wins), and now Black’s last best hope of organizing a defense was 24…Qd6 25. Qh7 (Bojkov suggests 25. Rxg7!? Kxg7 26. Qg5+ Kf8 27. Kf2! Ke8 28. Qg7 with a raging attack) Bf6, though White still looks to have an edge in lines like 26. Bh6+ Ke7 27. Rg7! Bxg7 28. Qxg7 Re8 29. Bg5+ Kd7 30. Qxf7+ Re7 31. Bxe7 Qxe7 32. Qxe7+ 28. Kxe7 33. Ke2.

Instead, Black cracks under the pressure with 24…Bf6? (see diagram), and Aronian reels in the point with the incisive 25. Bh6+ Ke8 26. Rg8+ Kd7 27. d6!, winning at once as 26…Qxd6 (Kxd6 28. Rd1+ Kc7 29. Rdxd8 Qxd8 30. Rxd8 Bxd8 31. Qxf7+ Bd7 32. Bg7 Nc6 33. f6 is also hopeless for Black) 27. Rd1 Qxd1+ 28. Qxd1+ Kc7 30. Rxd8 Bxd8 31. Qd5 Nc6 32. Qxf7+ wins. Black resigned.

The “desperate” players in the final Grand Prix field would be GMs Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, fighting for the final two Candidates slots. If they fall short, then the spots will go to Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Russia’s Alexander Grischuk, who are not in the field. The Candidates Tournament will be held in March in Berlin.

Aronian-Giri, FIDE Grand Prix, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, November 2017

1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. cxd5 Nxd5 5. d3 Bg7 6. Bd2 O-O 7. g3 c5 8. h4 Nc6 9. h5 Nxc3 10. bxc3 c4 11. hxg6 hxg6 12. Qa4 Na5 13. d4 b6 14. Bg2 Bb7 15. Qc2 Qd5 16. Nh4 Qd7 17. e4 e5 18. d5 Bc8 19. f4 Qe7 20. f5 g5 21. Qd1 gxh4 22. Rxh4 Rd8 23. Qh5 Kf8 24. Rg4 Bf6 25. Bh6+ Ke8 26. Rg8+ Kd7 27. d6 Black resigns.

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

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