It’s nearly nine months now since the world championship Candidates tournament in Ekaterinburg was abruptly halted halfway through due to the Covid pandemic. Since then, there have been a few opens and league events held ‘live’ over-the-board, with the only top-level events proving to be the Norway Chess tournament (won by Magnus Carlsen) in October, and the recently concluded Russian Championship Superfinal in Moscow’s historic Central Chess Club.
Even this though was hit by the virus. One of the twelve participants, Mikhail Antipov, tested positive for Covid before the seventh round and was forced out of the tournament. All the other players tested negative. In the end, after a close race and a number of amazing games, Ian Nepomniachtchi – who along with France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave is in the joint-lead in the Candidates – emerged as the winner to take his second Russian title; his previous victory proving to be exactly a decade previously, in 2010.
And with victory, Nepomniachtchi now rises nearly 5-points on the unofficial 2700 live rating list, to 2788.8, and just a couple of rating points adrift of Ding Liren, the world #3.
The player Nepomniachtchi has to simultaneously curse and thank is the always-creative young Muscovite Daniil Dubov, who stole the show and set the tournament ablaze with his daring and electrifying play that had the fans cheering and applauding, sensationally taking down both the tournament leaders in breathtaking statement games: first Nepomniachtchi, then Sergey Karjakin. Going into the final round, Dubov played arguably the best live game of this fateful year, as he channelled the spirit of the former Soviet legend Mikhail Tal with a dazzling display of pyrotechnics to demolish Karjakin and gift Nepomniachtchi the crown.
That game was almost a throwback to a more romantic-era in chess, a swashbuckling affair that you could well imagine coming from one of the venerable old masters during the game’s late 19th Century. Indeed, at one point, with his stunning queen sacrifice, there were even shades of Frank J. Marshall and those mythical gold coins being thrown at the board. Commenting on his brilliancy, Dubov said: “I saw the idea of Qxg6 and first of all, I thought, I’m not worse, and second, in principle, why not make myself and the spectators a gift?”
And indeed, what a wonderful early Christmas gift it was, Daniil!
1. Ian Nepomniachtchi, 7½/11; 2. Sergey Karjakin, 7; 3-4. Vladimir Fedoseev, Daniil Dubov, 6½; 5-6. Maksim Chigaev, Vladislav Artemiev, 6; 7-8. Peter Svidler, Nikita Vitugov 5½; 9-10. Andrey Esipenko, Maxim Matlakov, 5; 11. Aleksey Goganov, 3½; 12. Mikhail Antipov*, 2.
(*Antipov had to withdraw due to a positive Covid test)
GM Daniil Dubov – GM Sergey Karjakin
Russian Championship Superfinal, (11)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 exd4 6.b4 A rare bird in the Giuoco Piano – and immediately you begin to realise you could well be entering ‘Dubov world’. 6…Bb6 7.e5 Ne4 8.Bd5 Nxc3 9.Nxc3 dxc3 These moves are all the most obvious on the board – but now comes Dubov’s twist. 10.Bg5!?N Previously seen here was 10.0-0 h6 11.Qb3 0-0 12.Qxc3 d6 and White has nothing special – but in the spirit of the great Mikhail Tal, Dubov wants to take his opponent into a deep dark forest where 2+2=5, and the path leading out is only wide enough for one! 10…Ne7 The only move, considering that 10…f6? 11.Bh4 g5 12.Nxg5!! is crushing. 11.0-0 h6 12.Bh4 0-0 Worrying for Karjakin, was the fact that Dubov was literally blitzing his moves out – psychologically that comes as a blow, especially when you worry if you are about to stray into a minefield. The position is indeed full of hazards, especially as 12…g5 backfires as White can calmly play 13.Bg3 (It’s in the back of your mind that you could be ripped apart with the crowd-pleaser of 13.Nxg5!? Nxd5 14.Nf3 Ne7 15.Re1 the engine tells you that it’s -1.33 or even a little higher, but the human gut reaction here is in a panic, as you know your king is caught stranded in the middle of the board, unlikely to survive.) 13…Nxd5 14.Qxd5 and Black is going to have trouble finding a safe haven for his king. 13.Re1 Qe8 It at least breaks the pin, but it does leave things a bit cramped for the kingside defence. 14.Bb3 a5? Karjakin really is asking for it with moves like this – he needs to start developing his pieces, seeking exchanges, and the more natural 14…Nf5 was the move, and now 15.Qd3 d6! 16.Bc2! g6 17.Bf6 Qc6 where the unbeating heart of the cold machine tells you that Black is doing OK. But then again, our old friend ‘human psychology’ comes into play, as you begin to wonder just how deep is Dubov’s prep here? 15.Bf6! The fact that this was the first move Dubov went into the tank for, should be the warning sign that your last move was a lemon – and sure enough, Dubov executes the remainder of the game like one of those old masters from a more Romantic era for chess. 15…a4? If the previous move was a lemon, then this is a double lemon. Again, the only practical chance was 15…Nf5 and play the chips where they may fall. 16.Bc4 Ng6 Now it is all too late for 16…Nf5? as 17.Qd3! d5 18.exd6 Qd7 19.Be7 with a crushing attack. If 19…Re8 White wins in the style of Adolph Anderssen with 20.Bxf7+! 17.Qd3 The only minor misstep of the game from Dubov – the attack is still crashing through, but the engine soon finds the clinical-kill with the stunner 17.Nh4! Nxh4 18.Qg4 Nf5 19.Bd3 and we are definitely heading for another Romantic-era mate. 17…d5 18.exd6 Be6 19.Qxg6!! [see diagram] Just when you think the ‘Minister of Defence’ is organising his escape, he’s hit by the mythical Marshall gold coins moment with Dubov’s spectacular queen sac! 19…fxg6 20.Rxe6 Qf7 It was either this or attempting to hang on longer via the ‘Windmill’ treatment with 20…Qc6 21.Re7+ Qxc4 22.Rxg7+ Kh8 23.Rxc7+ Rxf6 24.Rxc4 Rxd6 25.Rxc3 Rad8 26.Re1 but White has a big material and positional advantage heading into the endgame. 21.Bxc3 Kh8? It’s a crucial miss from Karjakin, as the zwischenzug with 21…Bxf2+! is the missing link for survival, as 22.Kxf2 Kh8 23.Re4 Qf5 24.Bd3 Qd5 25.Rd4 Qe6 26.d7 Rad8 27.Re1 with the three-pieces, a big d7-pawn and dominating rooks, but there’s just so much play still left in this position. 22.Re4 Qf5 23.Re7 Rg8 There’s just no way to defend g7, and now 23…Bxf2+ can be simply answered by 24.Kh1! Rg8 25.Bxg8 Rxg8 26.dxc7 Qc2 27.Be5 and a similar finish as in the game. 24.Bxg8 Rxg8 25.dxc7 Something now has to give with the hit on g7 and the big passed pawn on c7. 25…Qc2 26.Be5 Bxf2+ 27.Kh1! Bb6 28.h3 More clinical was 28.Nd4! but with all the time in the world in this position, what with g7 under pressure and the c7-pawn, Dubov just plays a safety-first move to give his king an escape square. 28…Kh7 29.Re1 a3 30.Kh2 It is a somewhat cruel move to make with your opponent helpless, but Dubov just doubles down on making sure there are no tricky checks for his king. 30…g5 31.Nd4 And with the knight heading for f5, Karjakin is a dead man walking. 31…Qc4 32.Nf5 Qxb4 33.Rc1 There’s just so many ways now for Dubov to win. 33…Kg6 34.Rxg7+ Kxf5 35.Rxg8 Bxc7 36.Bxc7 Qb2 37.Rc5+ With Karjakin’s king wandering in the razor wire of No Man’s Land, the resignation is not far off now. 37…Ke4 38.Rd8 1-0