Forever Famous in China - First Move Chess -First Move Chess

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The 43rd Batumi Chess Olympiad in Georgia is now over, and while we congratulate China on becoming the first nation in over three decades to win two team golds – a feat last achieved by the Soviet Union in 1986 – I feel it is only fitting that we close our coverage by paying tribute to the man who, exactly four decades ago, played his part in a memorable Olympiad moment that started the revolution that would ultimately see China rise from obscurity to now a leading chess superpower.

Back in 1978, in what was to be China’s Olympiad debut in Buenos Aires, Jan Hein Donner famously dismissed their participation: “How could anyone lose to a Chinaman?” A few days later, Donner would be eating those self-same words, as the Dutch grandmaster was sensationally beaten with a stunning queen sacrifice by then unknown and untitled Liu Wenzhe, in a marvellous miniature that shot around the world and was subsequently hailed in magazine and newspaper columns alike to being “The Chinese Immortal”.

There’s also a nice added anecdote to the famous game that comes firsthand from the American-Czech grandmaster Lubosh Kavalek, who witnessed the sensational episode unfold during that fateful Holland-China clash in Buenos Aires. “After he resigned Donner sat on his chair for another 15 minutes, staring at the chessboard with amazement.” Then he recovered sufficiently to observe that he would be forever famous in China.

And thrust into the spotlight, Liu – who died in 2011 at the age of 70 – went on to become his country’s influential national coach and tasked with laying the foundations for China’s future chess success. For his part, Liu had been influenced by “fraternal visits” of grandmasters from the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s – part of the attempt by Moscow to seal ties with Mao’s China – but, as he explained in his extraordinary and eminently readable book, The Chinese School of Chess, he regarded the Soviet School’s method as being excessively too scientific.

So instead, he proposed a unique Chinese chess philosophy – loosely based around the Soviet methods, as endorsed by Mikhail Botvinnik – that would stem instead from the Book of Changes, the first records of which date from around 670 BC: and which, paradoxically, where the number 64 synthesises all objective situations – exactly the same number of squares as there is on a chessboard!

And as Liu started the revolution 40 years ago at an Olympiad, it is only rightly fitting, as China ends this Olympiad as dual champions for the first time, that we pay tribute to this remarkable man and his wonderful book – and what better way to do so, than with his famous game against Donner!

Photo: Double champions China at the Olympiad closing ceremony, with the Hamilton-Russell Cup and Gaprindashvili Cup | © David Lada / Batumi Chess Olympiad

Liu Wenzhe – GM Jan Hein Donner
Buenos Aires Olympiad, 1978
Pirc Defence
1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 The Pirc/Modern Defence was all the rage through the 1970s and had become a particular favourite of the Dutch grandmaster. 4.Be2 Bg7 5.g4!? Provocative, to say the least. And herein lies a tale: Donner, who thought for some 30 minutes before replying, falls into the old Bent Larsen dictum, “Long think, wrong think”, as he almost immediately makes a mistake that compounds his problems – but the real blunder only comes later in the game. 5…h6 Not the real reason for his stunning defeat – but Donner, in his long think, surprisingly ignores one of the first rules of playing the Pirc/Modern when faced by a flank attack: you should always instantly strike in the centre. Instead, he should have played 5…d5!? putting the question to White. Now, if 6.e5 Ne4 and Black is beginning to make White’s early provocative play look rather suspect. 6.h3 c5 7.d5 0-0?! This is like a red rag to a bull to the attack-minded Liu. 8.h4! It may seem suspect moving the same pawn twice in as many moves, but just by castling, Donner has, unwittingly, castled into the eye of a pawn storm. It could well be, though, that the Dutch grandmaster just didn’t realise what a free-spirited, attacking player his unknown Chinese opponent was! 8…e6 9.g5 hxg5? This is really tempting fate now – rather than voluntarily opening lines towards his own king, Donner had to try 9…Nh7 10.gxh6 Bxc3+ 11.bxc3 Qf6!? and regroup from here. It is not so easy for White to realise his material advantage, as Black has the more secure king now, and there are lots of pawn weaknesses and holes in the White position to target. 10.hxg5 Ne8 11.Qd3! Liu isn’t going in for subtle nuances here – his only interest is in getting his queen over to the h-file, and there’s no preventing this. 11…exd5 12.Nxd5 Nc6 13.Qg3 Be6 14.Qh4 Liu wrote in his book that while thinking about this move, he suddenly saw the stunning winning sacrifice: “My excitement took complete control of me”. 14…f5 15.Qh7+ Kf7 Liu recalled “at this point Donner still seemed optimistic, in view of his threat to win the Queen with 16…Rh8.” 16.Qxg6+!! [see diagram] Amazing! The queen sacrifice forces mate in seven – and with it, the game forever immortalised in the anthologies. But what’s even more amazing, is that Donner played on oblivious to what was coming. 16…Kxg6 17.Bh5+ Kh7 18.Bf7+ Bh6 19.g6+! Only now does it finally dawn on Donner the reality of the situation – the reason for playing on is that he had been counting on only 19.Rxh6+ Kg7 with no mate and Black winning. 19…Kg7 20.Bxh6+ 1-0 Donner resigned here, which I always felt was bad form, as it would have been more fitting if he had allowed Liu to play out the crowd-pleasing mate with 20…Kh8 21.Bg7+!! Kxg7 22.Rh7#.

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