With soccer’s World Cup down to the frenzied matches as this is being written, let us recount all the things the Royal Game and the Beautiful Game have in common.
OK, not so many — but there are a few. Virtually every nation fields a chess and a soccer team, with FIFA and FIDE being two of the largest sporting organizations in the world. Wing attacks in both games are exciting, but it’s usually control of the center that wins games. The players of both games use their heads — a lot.
And in both chess and soccer, draws are too common and 1-0 is a very popular score.
A national affinity in one game doesn’t seem to translate into success in the other. Brazil and Germany lord it over the soccer world, but in the biennial Chess Olympiad, the only medal either nation has won in the past half-century was Germany’s surprise silver in Istanbul back in 2000. The gold medal winners in the past four Olympiads — the U.S., Armenia, China and Ukraine — didn’t even qualify for this year’s World Cup in Russia.
Belgium and France, two middling chess powers, battled it out Tuesday for a spot in the World Cup finals, with France notching the dreaded 1-0 result. For what it’s worth, when the two sides met at the 1950 Olympiad in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, it was a 2-2 draw (no penalty kicks in Olympiad chess). The Belgians’ sixth-place finish was one of their best ever, but in today’s game, longtime Belgian champion IM Arthur Dunkelblum comes up short against Russian-born French GM Nicolas Rossolimo, just three years before the remarkable Rossolimo would cross the Atlantic to settle in the U.S.
With a Frenchman as White and a Belgian as Black, of course we get an Italian Opening, a classic Giuoco Piano where Black’s provocative opening play gets him into trouble: 8. Nbxd2 Nxe4?! (only a temporary piece sacrifice, but one that will leave White with the big lead in development; safer was 8…d5 9. exd5 Nxd5 10. 0-0 0-0, and if 11. Qb3, then 11…Na5) 9. Nxe4 d5 10. Bxd5 Qxd5 11. Nc3 Qd8 12. d5 Ne7 (Qe7+ 13. Qe2 Nb4 14. Qxe7+ Kxe7 15. 0-0-0 Bf5 16. Rhe1+ Kf8 17. Re3, and White retains an edge) 13. Qb3.
White finds inventive ways to exploit his cramping d-pawn, shredding the Black blockade on 14…Nf5?! (more provocation, when 14…c6!? 15. dxc6 Nxc6 16. Rfd1 Qb6 was a tougher defense) 17. Ne4 Rb8 18. Nxd6 cxd6 (Qxd6 19. Qc4 c6 20. dxc6 Be6 21. Qd4 Qxd4 22. Nxd4 bxc6 23. b3, and Black will be hard-pressed to save the weak c-pawn) 19. Nd4 Bd7 (see diagram) 20. Ne6!, neatly forcing the issue.
After 20…Bxe6 (fxe6 21. dxe6 Bc6?? 22. e7+) 21. dxe6 fxe6 22. Rxe6 Kh8 23. Rd1 Rf6 24. Qd5!, now it is Black who is saddled with a weak, isolated d-pawn, this one with no hope of advancing.
Carefully avoiding any back-rank nonsense (26. g3!), Rossolimo cashes in on 27. Re1 Rc8 (h6 28. Qf7! Rc8 [Kh7 29. Re8 Qc7 30. Qg8+ Kg6 31. Qe6+ Kh7 32. Qe4+ g6 33. Re7+ and wins] 29. Qxb7) 28. Qf7 h6 29. Qxb7, winning a clear pawn and now needing only to show proper endgame technique.
A nice simplifying idea — 30. Re7 Rb8 31. Rd7! — gets the queens off the board, and the White king makes a beeline for the isolated Black d-pawn. It’s over after 41. Rb5 Kc6 (the pawn ending after 41…Rxb5 42. axb5 is hopeless, while White also wins easily on 41…Rc1 42. Rxd5 Rd1+ 43. Ke4 Rb1 44. Kf5 Rxb3 45. Kg6 Kf8 46. Rxa5 Rf3 47. Rf5+) 42. Kd4!, and Dunkelblum resigned facing 42…Rxb5 43. axb5 g5 44. f4 gxf4 45. gxf4 h5 46. f5 h4 47. h3, and the Black king must abandon the pawn.
9th Chess Olympiad, Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, September 1951
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6 5. d4 exd4 6. cxd4 Bb4+ 7. Bd2 Bxd2+ 8. Nbxd2 Nxe4 9. Nxe4 d5 10. Bxd5 Qxd5 11. Nc3 Qd8 12. d5 Ne7 13. Qb3 O-O 14. O-O Nf5 15. Rac1 a6 16. Rfe1 Nd6 17. Ne4 Rb8 18. Nxd6 cxd6 19. Nd4 Bd7 20. Ne6 Bxe6 21. dxe6 fxe6 22. Rxe6 Kh8 23. Rd1 Rf6 24. Qd5 Rxe6 25. Qxe6 Rc8 26. g3 Rc6 27. Re1 Rc8 28. Qf7 h6 29. Qxb7 d5 30. Re7 Rb8 31. Rd7 Rxb7 32. Rxd8+ Kh7 33. b3 Rb5 34. Kf1 a5 35. a4 Rc5 36. Rd6 Kg8 37. Ke2 Kf7 38. Kd3 Ke7 39. Rg6 Kf7 40. Rb6 Ke7 41. Rb5 Kd6 42. Kd4 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email email@example.com.