The chess world has not been spared from the ravages of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
We haven’t lost any notable players (so far), but the world title Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia, was halted last month, and major events such as the 2020 Olympiad, the U.S. national championships and the World Open have been postponed or scrubbed.
But as the philosopher Homer Simpson once remarked of alcohol, for the chess player the game is both the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems. Yes, the game can be a tough mistress, the source of frayed nerves, sleepless nights and bottomless self-mortification.
But chess in this period of quarantines and social distancing is also an endless source of solace and distraction. We can finally tackle the mountain of magazines and unread books on the shelf, starting for me with Jesus de la Villa’s “100 Endgames You Must Know.” Online events and leagues are still thriving.
And for a chess writer, there’s a vast storehouse of games, studies and oddities to fill a thousand columns a week.
For instance, I found today’s entertaining game while tumbling down a viral rabbit hole at the fabulous Chess Archaeology website (ChessArch.com), reading clips from the columnist from a previous incarnation of The Washington Times (who also covered checkers and whist). The 1904 game, played at the long-gone Washington Chess Club at 12th Street Northwest, featured two D.C. city titleholders, F.N. Stacy and Russian-born, Spanish-American War vet Vladimir Sournin. This may be the first time the game has seen the light of day since that first publication 116 years ago.
The early part of this Petroff is a very modern handling of a very old opening. White’s 9. c3!? f5 9. c4!? is either a tempo-wasting two-step or an admirable ability to change course in the face of changed circumstances.
Whichever, after 15. Bc4 Qd6 16. a4 Rae8, White claims an edge given Black’s clumsy setup, but both sides get in their licks in the enterprising play that follows: 17. d5!? (h3 Bh5 18. Qd3, was worth a look, if only to tempt Black with 18…Bxf3 19. Qxd4 Nxd4? 20. cxd4 Qxd4 21. Bb5! Qxa1 22. Bxe8 Rxe8 23. Qe2 Qxa4 24. Qe6, with a deadly e-file pin despite the three-pawn deficit) Bxf3 18. Qxf3 Ne5 19. Qe2 Nxc4? (Ng4! — it never hurts to threaten checkmate — 20. g3 Qg6 21. Qf3 Qh5, and Black seizes the initiative) 20. Qxc4 Bf6?! (Qc5 was the prudent choice) 21. Bf4 Be5 22. Qe2!, exposing Black’s back-rank vulnerability.
Sournin cedes the exchange, but it’s still a terrific fight after 22…Bxf4 23. Qxe8 Bxh2+ (Rxe8?? 24. Rxe8+ wins on the spot) 24. Kh1 Bf4 25. Re6 (an intriguing position: both queens are attacked but neither technically is hanging) Qc5 26. Re7 Rg8?! (better was 26…Kg8 27. Qd7 Qxc3 28. Qe6+ Kh8 29. Re1 Bd6 30. Re8 g6, with a long struggle still ahead) 27. Qf7, when Black still can fight on with 27…h6! 28. Kg1 Bg3 29. Rf1 Bd6.
Instead, 27…Qxf2? proves to be the losing move, though after 28. Re8 Qh4+ 29. Kg1 Bh2+ 30. Kf1, White no doubt was sweating a few bullets as his king faces a barrage of queen checks on the open board. It’s finally over after 34. Kc4 b5+ 35. Kb3, when Black can’t put off the crushing mate threat on g8.
One can also turn to the great logician and polymath Raymond Smullyan, who passed away in 2017, for some more enjoyable ways to pass the time at the chessboard these days. Smullyan reimagined Sherlock Holmes as a chess detective using his powers of deduction to solve chess mysteries, including this Schrodinger’s cat of a puzzler from today’s diagram, where White is to play and mate in two moves.
Ingeniously, the way forward depends on the way we got here. If Black can’t castle, the answer is the trivial 1. Ke6 and 2. g8=Q mate. But what if Black can castle?
Well, if Black can castle long, that must mean his last move must have been with the pawn, and must have been…e7-e5. That, in turn, means White can take en passant and the solution is now 1. d5-e6 e.p. 0-0-0 (on any other Black king or rook move, 2. g8=Q is mate again) 2. b7 mate.
Both solutions, Holmes/Smullyan noted, are correct, though neither can be “right” if the other one is.
Stacy-Sournin, Washington Club Championship, April 1904
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. d4 d5 6. Bd3 Nc6 7. O-O Bg4 8. Re1 Be7 9. c3 f5 10. c4 O-O 11. Nc3 Nxc3 12. bxc3 Qd7 13. cxd5 Qxd5 14. Qe2 Kh8 15. Bc4 Qd6 16. a4 Rae8 17. d5 Bxf3 18. Qxf3 Ne5 19. Qe2 Nxc4 20. Qxc4 Bf6 21. Bf4 Be5 22. Qe2 Bxf4 23. Qxe8 Bxh2+ 24. Kh1 Bf4 25. Re6 Qc5 26. Re7 Rg8 27. Qf7 Qxf2 28. Re8 Qh4+ 29. Kg1 Bh2+ 30. Kf1 Qc4+ 31. Kf2 Qh4+ 32. Ke2 Qg4+ 33. Kd3 Qg3+ 34. Kc4 b5+ 35. Kb3 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.