Who’s up for a little more political talk?
It’s just a game, but chess with its global appeal can’t help but get caught up in the great controversies of the day. From the Napoleonic wars to the Cold War, battles at the chessboard too often come to be stand-ins for ideological debates on whose faith, race, country or form of government is best.
One of those fraught moments came at the just-completed Skilling Open online rapid tournament, when Azerbaijani star GM Teimour Radjabov was paired against Armenian No. 1 GM Levon Aronian — just weeks after their countries had wrapped up a nasty little war in the Caucasus.
For what it’s worth, Radjabov came out on top this time, though happily the only major casualty was Aronian’s king.
In a Queen’s Gambit, early queenside skirmishing after 12. Rb1 axb4 13. axb4 Bb7 leads to a standoff: Black must deal with a backward c-pawn while Radjabov’s b-pawn could also become a target.
But White proves nimbler at exploiting opportunities on other fronts after 16. Bc1 Nd7?! (Na3 seems the way to go in a near-equal position, as Black still has chances after 17. Bxa3 Rxa3 18. e5 Nh5 19. Bxh7+ Kh8 20. Be4 f5! 21. exf6 [Bd3 Nf4 22. Bf1 c5! 23. dxc5 Bxf3 24. gxf3 Qd4 with a strong push] Nxf6 22. Bd3 c5!?) 17. e5 f5 18. exf6 Bxf6? (letting the h-pawn go; 18 … Nxf6 19. 0-0 Na3 again looks better, though Black’s e-pawn is undeniably weak) 19. Bxh7+ Kh8 20. Be4 e5 21. d5!, refusing to cede the initiative.
With numerous holes in the Black kingside, White’s attack springs to life on 23. Qe2 Nd6 24. Ng5! Qxc1+ (desperation, but no better was 24 … Bxg5 [Qe8 25. Nc7] 25. Qh5+! Bh6 26. Bxh6 Rf6 27. Be3+ Kg8 28. Ne7+) 25. Rxc1 Bxg5 26. Rd1 Nxe4 27. Qxe4 Nf6 28. Qg6!, frustrating Aronian’s hopes of picking up a little more material for the lost queen.
White’s king’s rook finally gets into the play on 34. Rhc1! — there are no good discovered checks for Black — and Aronian resigns after 40. Rh3+ Nh7 41. Rxh7+!, as 41 … Kxh7 42. Qh4+ Kg6 43. Qxf2, snaring the loose rook, is hopeless.
Many great tournaments have been colored by the political events of the day, perhaps none more so than the ill-fated 8th Olympiad played in Buenos Aires in 1939.
Adolf Hitler’s expansionist drive already scrambled the standings — Austrian stars played for the German squad and Czechoslovakia competed as “Bohemia and Moravia” — and the strong British team left on the first day of the finals, Sept. 1, the day the Nazis invaded Poland and World War II in Europe began.
Germany’s matches with France and Poland were declared 2-2 draws by mutual forfeit, and the German team went on to win its only Olympiad gold medal. But the triumph for the Nazis was double-edged: All five members of the German team refused to return home after the event, staying to help fuel a chess boom in Argentina.
The great Austrian-born GM Erich Eliskases held down first board for the German team in Buenos Aires, scoring a key point in the preliminary round against longtime Argentine champion Roberto Grau. The early play is nicely balanced in yet another Queen’s Gambit, with Eliskases as Black sacrificing a pawn to obtain strong piece activity.
White unwisely weakens his back rank and Black pounces: 25. Qb4 Rfd8 26. Rc4? (see diagram; much better was 26. g3, as after 26 … Rd2 27. Bg2 Bxg2 28. Kxg2 Qd3 29. Kg1, White can still defend) Bxg2! 27. Rg4 (Bxg2 Rd1+ 28. Qe1 Rxe1+ 29. Rxe1 Rd2 30. a4 is not pleasant, but does offer White more drawing chances) Qf6!, and the loose rook on a1 allows Black to stay on top.
The killer pin on White’s bishop forces Grau into a lost ending after 33. f4 Ra1! 34. f5 Kf8 35. f6 gxf6 36. Rh3 Bb5 37. Rf3 Ke7 38. e4 Ke6, and White resigned as Black can force a win ending after 39. Kg2 Bxf1+ 40. Rxf1 Rxf1 41. Kxf1 Ke5 42. Ke2 Kxe4.
Eliskases would eventually become a naturalized Argentine citizen and represent the country in four Olympiads.
Radjabov-Aronian, Skilling Rapid Open, November 2020
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Be7 5. Bf4 O-O 6. e3 Nbd7 7. a3 c6 8. Be2 dxc4 9. Bxc4 b5 10. Bd3 a6 11. b4 a5 12. Rb1 axb4 13. axb4 Bb7 14. Qc2 Nb6 15. e4 Nc4 16. Bc1 Nd7 17. e5 f5 18. exf6 Bxf6 19. Bxh7+ Kh8 20. Be4 e5 21. d5 cxd5 22. Nxd5 Qc8 23. Qe2 Nd6 24. Ng5 Qxc1+ 25. Rxc1 Bxg5 26. Rd1 Nxe4 27. Qxe4 Nf6 28. Qg6 Bxd5 29. Qxg5 Bc4 30. Rc1 Bd3 31. Rc7 Rg8 32. Qh4+ Nh7 33. Kd2 Rad8 34. Rhc1 Bc4+ 35. Ke1 Rd4 36. Qe7 Re4+ 37. Kd2 Nf6 38. Rc3 Re2+ 39. Kd1 Rxf2 40. Rh3+ Nh7 41. Rxh7+ Black resigns.
Grau-Eliskases, 8th Olympiad, Buenos Aires, September 1939
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 h6 6. Bh4 O-O 7. Nf3 Ne4 8. Bxe7 Qxe7 9. cxd5 Nxc3 10. bxc3 exd5 11. Qb3 Qd6 12. c4 dxc4 13. Bxc4 Nc6 14. Qc3 Bg4 15. Nd2 Rad8 16. O-O Ne7 17. Rfc1 c5 18. Nb3 cxd4 19. Nxd4 Nf5 20. Nxf5 Bxf5 21. Qa5 Be4 22. Qxa7 Qg6 23. Bf1 Rd2 24. Qa5 Rd5 25. Qb4 Rfd8 26. Rc4 Bxg2 27. Rg4 Qf6 28. Rb1 Bf3+ 29. Rg3 Rd1 30. Rxd1 Rxd1 31. Qc4 Qc6 32. Qxc6 Bxc6 33. f4 Ra1 34. f5 Kf8 35. f6 gxf6 36. Rh3 Bb5 37. Rf3 Ke7 38. e4 Ke6 White resigns.
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