Friday, December 30, 2005

Becoming world champion has not done wonders for the play of Russian Vladimir Kramnik.

When Kramnik defeated compatriot and longtime champ Garry Kasparov in London in 2000 for the classical chess title, he was widely considered one of the hardest men to defeat in the history of the game. His iron nerves and rock-solid style clearly frustrated Kasparov, who did not come close to winning a game in their match.

The years since have not been kind to the Russian. The divisions in the chess world have cast a shadow over the legitimacy of his crown, and his own play has been uncharacteristically sloppy. In his one real title defense, he barely held off Hungarian Peter Leko last year in a drawn match.

The Russian national championship, now finishing up in Moscow, has been another so-so outing for Kramnik. With two rounds to go at midweek, Kramnik was a disappointing 41/2-41/2, two full points behind leader Sergei Rublevsky. The champ’s struggles were on display in his Round 6 loss to veteran GM Evgeny Bareev, in which Kramnik fumbled away a point in a position he used to handle with consummate skill.

The QGD Slav Exchange variation is one of Kramnik’s trademarks, and the nearly symmetrical position out of the opening gives White the chance at a clear initiative on the queen-side.

Kramnik wins bishop for knight with 16. h3 Bxf3 (not a horrible trade as White’s bishop lacks scope, but now Bareev must react quickly to counter White’s growing queen-side superiority) 17. Bxf3 e5! 18. Qb6 (dxe5 Nxe5 19. Rfc1 Nxf3+ 20. gxf3 d4 is good for Black) exd4 19. exd4 g6 20. Rd1 h5 21. b4 Kg7 22. Be2, and White is primed for his queen-side pawn break.

But Black defends resourcefully (25…Nd8! keeps things under control) and saves his harassed b-pawn with some nice tactics: 29. a4 Nc6 30. Qb6 (Qxd6 Rxd6 31. Bxc6 Rxc6 32. Rxc6 bxc6 33. Ra1 Ra5 is equal) Qe7 31. Bxc6 Re1+ 32. Kh2 Qd6+ 33. g3 (this weakening of the king’s pawn platoon will prove costly) Rxb1 34. Qxb1 bxc6 35. Qa1.

Once upon a time, Kramnik would have held such a position with ease, but now comes a painful lapse: 37. a5 Qf5 38. Ra2? (see diagram; 38. Rd2! appears to hold after 38…hxg3+ 39. fxg3 Rh8 40. h4 Rxh4+ 41. gxh4 Qf4+ 42. Kh1 Qxd2 43. a6 Qf2 44. a7 Qxh4+, with a perpetual check) Rxa5!, exploiting the overworked White rook.

White’s game implodes on 39. Rxa5? (abject surrender — Kramnik at his peak would at least have tried the doughtier 39. Qb2 Rxa2 40. Qxa2 Qd3 41. Qb2 hxg3+ 42. fxg3 Qe3, though even here Black is much better) Qxf2+ 40. Kh1 hxg3 41. Qg1 (Ra2 g2+ 42. Kh2 g1=Q mate) g2+! 42. Kh2 (Qxg2 Qe1+ snares the rook) Qf4+ 43. Kxg2 Qd2+, picking off the rook anyway. By 46. Kg2 Qd6, Black’s sheltered king gives White no opportunity for cheapo checks; Kramnik resigned.

Vadim Zvjaginsev (a last-minute addition to the Moscow field) is not well-known on the international circuit but has long been one of Russia’s strongest players and a brilliant tactician to boot. In a tense affair with former FIDE world champ Alexander Khalifman, Zvjaginsev tries a risky piece sacrifice that forces his opponent into a fatal defensive error.

This exotic Sicilian line (2. Na3!?) turns into a slow maneuvering battle, and Zvjaginsev methodically prepares his central break: 26. Bg5 Nxf3+ 27. Nxf3 Rd7 28. e5, putting strong pressure on Black’s game. White’s 28…dxe5 29. Nxe5 Rxd5 30. Nxf7!? is the only logical follow-up, but Black reacts precisely with 30…Rxe3 31. Rxe3 (Nh6+ Kf8 32. Bxe3 Bb7 is no stronger) Kxf7 32. Re7+ Kf8 33. Qe4.

Now 33…Qd6! looks necessary, as Khalifman survives 34. Bh6+ Bg7! 35. Bxg7+ Kg8 36. g3 (the White king needs an escape square) Bb5 37. Kh2 Rd2. Instead, Black’s 33…Rd1+?? clears the way for a nasty White queen check on a8 and loses quickly: 34. Kh2 Qd6+ 35. f4 Bf6 (Bb5 36. Bh6+ Bg7 [Kg8 37. Qb7! Bd7 38. Qa8+ Qb8 39. Qxb8+ Bc8 40. Qxc8+ Rd8 41. Qxd8 mate] 37. Rxg7 and wins) 36. Bh6+ Kg8 37. Qa8+.

Black resigns, as 37…Qd8 38. Re8+ Kf7 39. Rxd8 Rxd8 40. Qxa6 is an easy win for White.

Washington chess lost a gentle, genial friend this week.

Joseph McLellan, who died the day after Christmas at the age of 76, was best known for his long tenure as the leading music critic for the Washington Post, but he also carried on a lifelong, passionate love affair with the game of chess.

A fine amateur player and a gentleman at the board, McLellan covered a number of world championship matches, wrote a chess column for the Post for a time and helped launch GM Lubosh Kavalek’s column for the paper.

For a while in the pre-Internet era, McLellan and The Times’ own Ed Albaugh were the only sources of national and international chess news available to local fans. He will be missed.

Russian Superfinal, Moscow, December 2005


1. d4d524. b5axb5

2. c4c625. Bxb5Nd8

3. Nf3Nf626. Qa7Re7

4. Nc3a627. Qc5Re6

5. cxd5cxd528. Rb1Ra8

6. Bf4Nc629. a4Nc6

7. Rc1Bf530. Qb6Qe7

8. e3Rc831. Bxc6Re1+

9. Be2e632. Kh2Qd6+

10. 0-0Bd633. g3Rxb1

11. Bxd6Qxd634. Qxb1bxc6

12. Na40-035. Qa1Qf6

13. Qb3Rc736. Rc2h4

14. Nc5Rb837. a5Qf5

15. Rc3Bg438. Ra2Rxa5

16. h3Bxf339. Rxa5Qxf2+

17. Bxf3e540. Kh1hxg3

18. Qb6exd441. Qg1g2+

19. exd4g642. Kh2Qf4+

20. Rd1h543. Kxg2Qd2+

21. b4Kg744. Kg3Qxa5

22. Be2Nd745. Qe3Qc7+

23. Nxd7Rxd746. Kg2Qd6

White resigns

Russian Superfinal, Moscow, December 2006


1. e4c520. Re3Rae8

2. Na3Nc621. Rde1a5

3. Bb5Qc722. Nb1b4

4. Nf3g623. Qc2Nd7

5. c3a624. Nd2Ba6

6. Bxc6Qxc625. Ngf3Ne5

7. 0-0Bg726. Bg5Nxf3+

8. d4d627. Nxf3Rd7

9. d5Qc728. e5dxe5

10. h3Nf629. Nxe5Rxd5

11. Bf40-030. Nxf7Rxe3

12. Re1b531. Rxe3Kxf7

13. Qd2Bb732. Re7+Kf8

14. Rad1Rfe833. Qe4Rd1+

15. c4Qb634. Kh2Qd6+

16. Bh6Bh835. f4Bf6

17. b3e636. Bh6+Kg8

18. Ng5exd537. Qa8+Black

19. cxd5Re7resigns

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by e-mail at

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