- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Magnus Carlsen is on a roll.

The world’s best player is also the world’s hottest player, as the Norwegian world champ has run up a spectacular string of top-flight wins this spring, including four straight first-place finishes — Tata Steel, Shamkir, Grenke and, last week, the rapid/blitz Grand Chess Tour event in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

Streaks — from Joe DiMaggio’s hits to Susan Lucci’s losses — are funny things. Mathematicians tend to dismiss the idea that a competitor can get “hot” as something of a statistical freak. A penny that turns up heads 100 times in a row has no better odds of being heads on the 101st toss.

Still, chess, that beautiful blend of sports, art and mathematics, has a particular affinity for the hot streak. Bobby Fischer had a couple of beauts — his eight U.S. championships without a loss between 1957 and 1967 and his incredible 20 straight wins in the 1971-1972 candidates cycle. When Cuban world champ Jose Raul Capablanca lost his first tournament game in eight years to Richard Reti in the fabled 1924 New York invitational tourney, the result made the front page of The New York Times sports section.

Even many chess fans might be surprised to learn that the identity of the player with two of the longest verified unbeaten streaks ever — former world champion Mikhail Tal. An incandescent attacker, the Latvian great often took huge risks at the chessboard and doesn’t seem the type to avoid the occasional loss.

But twice in the early 1970s. Tal reeled off incredible unbeaten streaks, one of 86 and one of 95 games. (Chinese GM Ding Liren finally bested that mark with a 15-month, 100-game streak before losing French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave last November.) It was Russian GM Yuri Balashov who finally broke Tal’s first streak at a Moscow tournament in 1973.

In a Sicilian Scheveningen, Tal is forced into an uncharacteristically passive position on 18. Qf2 Ne5?! (Bd8 is a better waiting move) 19. Qg3 g6 (Ng6 20. h4 h5 21. Nxe7+ Qxe7 22. Bxf6 gxf6 [Qxf6 23. e5! Qe7 24. exd6+] 23. Rxd6, and White is clearly better) 20. Be3. With his kingside pieces pinned down, Black gets into serious trouble on 27. b3 Nxa3 28. Qa7! (a disorienting move and much stronger than 28. Qxd6?! Qxd6 29. Rxd6 Nc5 and Black fights on) Bc8 29. Rxd6 Qf7 30. Rfd1 Re7 31. Nd5 Re6 32. Nb6 and Tal’s entire position is under siege.

It’s over on 32…Rxd6 33. Rxd6 Nxc2 (no better is 33…Ne5 34. Nxc8 Rxc8 35. Qxa6 Qc7 36. Bxe5 fxe5 37. Qxa3 and wins) 34. Nxc8 Rg7 35. Nb6 Nc5, and Black resigns before White can administer the crushing 36. Rd8+.

Polish great Akiba Rubinstein engineered one of the greatest tournament runs in chess history in 1912, winning four world-class events (San Sebastian, Bad Pistyan, Breslau and Vilnius) while defeating such immortals as Alekhine, Nimzovich, Tarrasch, Marshall and Schlechter. A sample of Rubinstein’s brilliantly logical play comes from today’s diagram against fellow Pole Grigory Levenfish in Vilnius, after Levenfish as Black has just played 21…Nb4-d5.

Black done well for himself in this Classical Dutch, but proceeds to underestimate the power of White’s kingside attack: 22. Bc1 Qc6? (the simple 22…g6 keeps Black very much in the fight in lines such as 23. h4 Qc6 24. f5 gxf5 25. Nd4 Qc8) 23. f5! (undermining e6) Nc7?! (again, tougher now was 23…Rac8; Rubinstein offers his opponent no quarter in the game’s final phase) 24. Bg5! b5 (Bxg5 25. Nxg5 h6 26. Nxe6! Nxe6 27. Rd6 Qb7 28. Rxe6) 25. Qe2 Rae8 26. f6! gxf6 27. exf6 Bd6 (Bxf6 28. Bxf6+ Rxf6 29. Qe5 Nd5 30. g5 Rg8 31. Kh1 wins decisive material) 28. Ne5, and the White attack can’t be held back.

The finale: 28…Bxe5 29. Qxe5 Rf7 (preventing the deadly advance of the f-pawn, but White now exploits the blockader’s immobility) 30. Rd6 Qb7 31. Rd7! Ref8 (Rxd7 32. f7 mate) 32. Bh6 Qc8 33. Rxc7! (Bxf8? Qxd7 34. Bd6 Nd5 35. Bxc5 Qc7 and Black can fight on), and Levenfish resigned facing 33…Qxc7 (Rxc7 34. f7 mate) 34. Qxc7 Rxc7 35. Bxf8 and wins.

Balashov-Tal, 9th Soviet Match Tournament, Moscow, April 1973

1. 1.e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e6 7. Be2 Qc7 8. f4 b5 9. Bf3 Bb7 10. a3 Nbd7 11. Qe2 Rc8 12.O-O e5 13. fxe5 Nxe5 14. Kh1 Be7 15. Nf5 O-O 16. Rad1 Nc4 17. Bd4 Rce8 18. Qf2 Ne5 19. Qg3 g6 20. Be3 Kh8 21. Bh6 Rg8 22. Nxe7 Qxe7 23. Bg5 Qe6 24. Qf2 Nfd7 25. Qd4 f6 26. Bf4 Nc4 27. b3 Nxa3 28. Qa7 Bc8 29. Rxd6 Qf7 30. Rfd1 Re7 31. Nd5 Re6 32. Nb6 Rxd6 33. Rxd6 Nxc2 34. Nxc8 Rg7 35. Nb6 Nc5 and Black resigns.

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

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