Once They Were Kings - First Move Chess -First Move Chess


Once they were Kings. Alekhine, Botvinnik, Keres, Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov – true titans of the game with one thing in common: past winners of the once mighty and prestigious USSR Championship, the legendary gladiatorial contest that spanned the period from Alekhine’s win in civil-war torn 1920 (where a players’ protest succeeded in raising their food rations), through to the last, in 1991, following the dissolving of the Soviet Union.

The demanding series was rightly regarded as the ultimate in tournament praxis, receiving almost iconic status, and came replete with that fine old Soviet tradition of a mind-numbing twenty-two round all-play-all – lasting almost a full month! – that not only involved world champions past, present and future, but also many of the world’s top elite players.

Even its successor, the Russian championship, has lost a lot of its allure with the demise of Russian chess with no world championship titles, team gold hegemony they once had in abundance – but unlike most major chess events that were forced online through this troubled, pandemic year, at least the latest edition of the Russian championship is a ‘live’ event (albeit with face-coverings a-plenty and perspex glass across the board between the players).

The 73rd Russian Championship Superfinals (Open and Women’s) is a 12-player round-robin tournament taking place from 5-16 December 2020 in the fabled Central Chess Club in Moscow. Sergey Karjakin, who before this event last played a classical game in the Jerusalem Grand Prix almost a year ago on December 15 2019, and Magnus Carlsen’s former title-challenger looked to be relishing the return to ‘normality’, as he took the early in round 3 after beating Nikita Vitiugov.

But Karjakin’s lead proved short-lived, now being caught by Ian Nepomniachtchi, who won in today’s round 4, with both top seeds sharing the lead on 3/4.

1-2. Sergey Karjakin, Ian Nepomniachtchi, 3/4; 3-4. Maksim Chigaev, Vladimir Fedoseev, 2½; 5-8. Peter Svidler, Vladislav Artemiev, Daniil Dubov, Nikita Vitiugov, 2; 9-10. Andrey Esipenko, Aleksey Goganov, 1½; 11-12. Maxim Matlakov, Mikhail Antipov, 1.

Photo: © Eteri Kublashvili/73rd Russian Championship Superfinal


GM Nikita Vitiugov – GM Sergey Karjakin
73rd Russian Ch. Superfinal, (3)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 The notorious “Berlin Wall” Endgame that Vladimir Kramnik so sensationally rehabilitated at top-level after a lengthy hiatus of over a century, to famously flummox Garry Kasparov during their 2000 World Championship Match in London. Although Kasparov never lost playing against it, it proved to be his psychological downfall in London, becoming frustrated in the match because he just couldn’t break it down. Even Magnus Carlsen avoided playing into the Berlin Wall when he faced Karjakin during his title defence against the Russian in 2016 in New York. 9.Rd1+ Ke8 10.Nc3 Ne7 11.a4 Ng6 The key to Karjakin’s success in this game is the pressure he builds-up on the e5-pawn. 12.a5 a6 Just stopping the awkward a6 push – and now the battle lines are drawn, with Karjakin having the bishop-pair and that e5-pawn to target, whilst Vitiugov has the better pawn structure and a 4:3 kingside majority. 13.h3 Be7 14.Be3 h5 This is a common theme in the Berlin Wall Endgame, looking to pressuring the e5-pawn with ideas of …h4 and the rook lift …Rh5. 15.Re1 h4 16.Bg5 Rh5 17.Bxe7 This only helps Karjakin achieve the sort of endgame he’s thriving for, as it brings the Black king closer to the centre. Instead, better was keeping the tension with 17.Ne4 Be6 and now 18.Ra4 as the Ne4 plays a critical role not available in the game, as now 18…b5 19.axb6 cxb6 20.Bxe7 Kxe7 21.Neg5 c5 22.Nxe6 Kxe6 23.Rae4 and white will be following up with Nd2 and f4 to bolster the e5-pawn, all of which makes the endgame a little awkward for Black. 17…Kxe7 18.Ra4 b5 19.Rd4 After 19.axb6 cxb6 all White will have achieved is ‘gifting’ Black a clear 3:2 queenside majority. The game is now delicately poised, but Karjakin finds a telling manoeuvre that starts to push the game in his direction. 19…Be6 20.b4 Kf8!? The idea behind the subtle king retreat is not so clear, but it is simple and effective: Karjakin intends to follow-up with …Re8 to keep the pressure on the e5-pawn. Vitiugov follows up incorrectly, and he ends up paying the price. 21.Rdd1 Not losing per se, but better was staying positive with the more active 21.Re3!, as now after 21…Re8 White has 22.Ne4! with good prospects, the point being that snatching the e5 pawn with 22…Nxe5 23.Nxe5 Rxe5 there comes the awkward 24.Nc5! and Black is the one in trouble, with a6 and h4 hanging, one of which has to fall, so now probably best is 24…Rxe3 25.fxe3 Ra8 26.Rxh4 Ke7 27.Rd4 g5 and the knight on c5 is a mighty piece, effectively keeping the black rook out of the game. 21…Re8 22.Nd4 c5! Karjakin finds the key move that makes all endgame scenarios for White now a potential danger. 23.Nxe6+ If 23.bxc5 Rxe5 24.Nxe6+ fxe6! (Here the ‘correct’ recapture with 24…R8xe6 is wrong, as 25.Rxe5 Nxe5 26.Nd5! Rc6 27.Nb4 Rxc5 28.Rb1 Nc6 29.Nxa6 Rxc2 30.Nxc7 Nxa5 31.Nxb5 is complete equality.) 25.Rxe5 Nxe5 26.Rd4 Nc6! 27.Rxh4 Nxa5 and suddenly the outside passed a-pawn gives Black the endgame edge. 23…Rxe6 24.Rd8+? Karjakin takes control of the ending after this added mistake. Preferable would have been 24.Nd5 but after 24…Rc6! Black’s pieces are better-placed for the endgame. 24…Re8 25.Rxe8+ Kxe8 26.Nd5 Kd7! All that Vitiugov has achieved with the trade of rooks is to bring Karjakin’s king closer to the centre defending the weakness on c7. 27.f4? Fortune favours the lucky, as Karjakin seizes his moment with this further error. The only chance to stay in the game was with 27.Rd1! Kc8 28.f4 Rf5 29.bxc5 c6 30.Nb6+ Kb7 31.Rd7+ Kb8 32.Rd8+ Kc7 33.Rd7+ and a repetition. 27…c6 28.Nb6+ Ke7! Vitiugov probably thought Karjakin had to play …Kc7 and a repetition, as noted above – abut Karjakin spots that heading to kingside avoids the repetition, leaving White with a problem of how to defend the f4 and e5 pawns. 29.Nc8+ Ke6 30.Nd6? It’s yet another inaccuracy from Vitiugov, and they are all mounting up now. The only try was 30.Na7! as 30…Nxf4 31.Nxc6 Rg5 White has the cunning 32.Kh1! forcing 32…Rxg2 33.Rf1 Rxc2 34.Rxf4 Rc4 35.Rf1 (It’s a bit trickier to play into 35.Rxc4 bxc4 36.bxc5 Kd5 37.Nb4+ Kxc5 but after 38.Nxa6+ Kb5 39.Nc7+ Kxa5 40.Nd5 White should easily hold with careful play, but at the cost of Black capturing on e5. 30…Nxf4 31.Ne4 Vitiugov was depending on this move for salvation – but he’s seriously miss-assessed the position. 31…cxb4 32.Nc5+ Kd5 33.Nxa6 c5! 34.Rd1+ Kc4 35.Nc7 Ne6! [see diagram] The knight coming to d4 effectively stops Vitiugov’s rook getting into the game. 36.Nd5 If 36.Nxe6 fxe6 37.Kh2 Rh8 38.Rd6 Ra8 the a-pawn falls and Black’s armada of queenside pawns will win. And if 36.Rd7 Rxe5 37.a6 Re1+! 38.Kh2 Ra1 the rook will easily deal with the dangerous a-pawn. 36…Nd4 37.Nb6+ Kc3 38.a6 Kxc2 39.a7 Rh8 40.Rf1 No better was 40.Ra1 b3 41.a8Q Rxa8 42.Nxa8 b2 and Black’s queenside pawns once again win. 40…b3 41.Rf2+ Kd3 42.Nd7 Ra8! 0-1 Avoiding the last trick from White of Nb8, and now Vitiugov resigns.



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