Cuba is widely-known known for cars, cigars and communism – and arguably chess also should be added to that list. The game there is considered to be a blend of sports, arts and science among players and is deeply embedded in Cuban history and culture. This can be traced back to the great José Raúl Capablanca (world champion from 1921 to 1927), whose legacy was to influence generations of Cubans to study chess.
Even during the height of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime leader, played chess and promoted it along with his nationwide literacy programs. But it was Castro righthand-man, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whose passion for chess was almost as great as his desire to foment social change, that led the game there to be almost as ubiquitous in Cuba as his own image. Chess can be seen in parks, in murals, and on the streets.
And Che is the one credited with putting Cuba on the chess map. In 1962, as a government minister, he initiated and organised the first memorial tournament to honour Capablanca, that’s now held annually. And in 1966, he was the inspiration behind Cuba staging the Havana Chess Olympiad, regarded by many to have been one of the best Olympiads on record. Politics never got in the way of chess on the tiny island – even during the worst moments of the cold war.
In the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, even the intervention of the State Department couldn’t prevent US champion Bobby Fischer from playing in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial, after he was barred from travelling to Cuba. He came up with the ingenious idea of playing by telex – with the $10,000 fee paid for by Cuba – from New York; the American’s moves in Havana then subsequently being relayed to the board of his opponent’s by Capablanca’s son. Despite it being a major handicap, Fischer came second behind Soviet winner Vasily Smyslov.
Thankfully there’s no such inconvenience for the newly-minted US champion in the 53rd edition of the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, as Sam Shankland heads the field in the six-player double-round-robin elite section that runs 9-19 May. And showing that his memorable title-win last month in St. Louis was no one-off, Shankland shares the joint lead at the halfway stage with Russia’s Aleksey Dreev, both a full point clear of their nearest rival, in what looks to be a two horse race going into the home stretch.
Photo: Can US Champion Sam Shankland make it back-to-back wins? | © Lennart Ootes (St. Louis Chess Club)
1-2. S. Shankland (USA), A. Dreev (Russia) 3.5/5; 3. A. Rakhmanov (Russia) 2.5; 4-5. Y Bacallao Alonso (Cuba), L Bruzon Batista (Cuba) 2; 6. D. Anton Guijarro (Spain) 1.5.
GM Lazaro Bruzon – GM Sam Shankland
53rd Capablanca Memorial Elite, (2)
French Defence, Tarrasch Variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 c5 4.exd5 Qxd5 As Nigel Short rightly commented in his book New Ideas in the French Defence, “When else will you get the chance to play a Scandinavian as good at this!” And the outspoken former title challenger (and now Fide presidential candidate) is right, as this line has become one of the main reason for the 3…c5 in the Tarrasch once again become popular, as it avoids the main drawback – as fought-out in those many Karpov-Korchnoi world title fights through the mid-1970s – of having to contend long-term with the isolated d-pawn. 5.dxc5 The main-line runs 5.Ngf3 cxd4 6.Bc4 where the d-pawn isn’t going anywhere, and eventually White will reclaim it with Nb3 and have three pieces developed. But this line is working well for Black – and perhaps fearing he’s walking into a well-prepared line from the US champion, Bruzon instead opts for one of the less critical sidelines. 5…Nf6 6.Ngf3 Qxc5 7.Bd3 Nbd7 8.0-0 Qc7 9.Re1 Be7 10.Ne4 b6 Black has easy equality with …0-0 and …Bb7 coming. 11.Nxf6+ Nxf6 12.Ne5 0-0 13.Qf3 Bd6 As the rook can’t be taken due to 14.Qxa8 Bb7 15.Qxa7 Ra8 not just winning the queen, but also leaving White busted due to the unanswerable threats of …Bxh2+ and …Ng4, Shankland puts his dark-squared bishop on a more active diagonal. And while White’s attack looks dangerous, Black has everything covered. 14.Qg3 Bb7 15.Bh6 It all looks tempting, but truth told, with accurate play, Black will emerge with the better game. 15…Nh5 16.Qg5 f5! The key move that puts White in a spot, as it curtails the scope of the Bd3 and doubles down on the defence of g7 now with the Qc7. 17.Qxh5 Forced now, as 17.f4 Rf6! 18.Qxh5 Rxh6 19.Qe2 Qc5+ 20.Kh1 (There’s no time for 20.Qf2? as 20…Rxh2! wins on the spot.) 20…Bxe5 21.fxe5 (Not 21.Qxe5? Qf2! 22.Bf1 Qh4 and White can resign, as 23.h3 Qxh3+ quickly mates.) 21…Qd4! as in the above note. 17…Bxe5 18.Bc1 Rf6! Shankland has ‘won’ the opening, and now with the timely rook lift, he goes about winning the game by further activating his pieces. 19.Bf1 Rg6 20.c3 Rd8 21.Bg5 Rd5 There was also a case to be made for 21…Rf8 with the simple idea of …Bd5 and an overwhelming position – but Shankland has his own preference of how to go about winning this. 22.Rad1 b5 23.h4 Bh2+! It may look like a ‘nothing’ check – but it just nudges the White king onto the awkward a8-h1 diagonal that Shankland dominates, with follow-up ideas of …Bf4, …Qxf4 and …Qg4 (threatening a potential …Qh3+!) picking off the h-pawn. 24.Kh1 Bf4 25.Kg1 a6 26.a3? White really had no other option than to go for 26.Bxf4 Qxf4 27.b3! with the plan of pushing for c4, where it is not so clear Black will have enough to play for the win. Black will certainly have the better pieces and the better prospects, but accurate play should see White hold this. 26…Bxg5 27.hxg5 Qe7! The g5-weakness is going to be critical. 28.Rd4 Unfortunately, 28.f4 is not an option, as now 28…Qc5+ 29.Kh2 Qf2 will see Black picking off the weak pawns. 28…Rxd4 29.cxd4 Qd8 30.Qh2 Bd5 I like this safety-first approach from Shankland, as he just consolidates his position before looking to pick off the loose pawns. 31.Rc1 This time 31.f4 runs into 31…h6! 32.Qh5 Kh7 33.Qh4 Be4 34.Rd1 Qc7 and the Black queen will infiltrate into the White position to target the queenside pawns. Rather than that, Bruzon opts to give the pawn up to activate his pieces – his best practical chance now. 31…Rxg5 32.Qe5 h5 33.Rc3 Rg4 34.f3 Rg6 35.Qf4 h4! Shankland is ruthlessly coming in for the kill, looking to bludgeon a path through to his opponent’s shaky king – and to stop it, White has to make major concessions that leaves him with a lost endgame. 36.Kf2 Qf6 37.Rc8+ A bit more resilient was the immediate 37.Rc7 with the idea of going for Ra7. 37…Kh7 38.Rc7 Rh6 The queens are traded off now, and with it, Black has a won ending – but it is not so clinical as the engine-infused 38…h3! 39.g3 (The point is that White can’t play 39.gxh3 as now there’s the tactical point 39…e5! 40.Qxe5 (If 40.dxe5 Qb6+ picks up the loose rook hanging on c7.) 40…Qh4+ 41.Ke3 Re6 winning.) 39…Rh6 40.Rc1 g5! and White is close to resigning here. 39.Ke3 h3 40.gxh3 Rh4 41.Qe5 Qg5+ 42.Kf2 Qd2+ 43.Be2 Qxd4+ 44.Qxd4 Rxd4 45.Ke3 [see diagram] If White were simply just a pawn down, he would have some chances to hold the draw – but the big deciding factor now is the handicap of the two weak pawns on f3 and h3. 45…Rh4 46.Bf1 Kg6 47.b4 White is in a tough spot, and no better was 47.Ra7 Ra4 48.Bd3 Kf6! and Black is ready to further improve his position in the endgame with …g5. Practically, the best try was probably 47.f4 attempting to restrict the scope of the Black rook – but again, after 47…Rh8! 48.Ra7 Ra8! White will either have to exchange rooks to go into a hopelessly lost ending, or try 49.Rc7 Kf6 and again, …g5 – as in the game – is coming. 47…f4+ 48.Kf2 Rh8 Shankland strategically retreats his rook to defend his only weakness: the a6-pawn. 49.Ra7 Ra8 50.Rc7 Trading rooks simply makes Black’s task of winning easier. 50…Kf6 51.Bd3 g5 52.Be2 Rb8 53.Bd3 Rb6 0-1 White resigns, with no way to meet the threat of …Rc6 that either forces the trade of rooks or allows Black to play …Rc3 picking off the queenside pawns.