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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Throughout the near year-long struggle of the coronavirus pandemic, we have become accustomed to witnessing major sporting events taking place sans spectators in the eerily quiet cauldron of vast empty stadia. And chess is no different, as the lifeblood that made for the very special atmosphere at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee was the large crowd of Dutch spectators crammed inside the de Moriaan playing hall.

Back in 1975, the organisers of the-then Hoogovens super-tournament initiated the “Leo van Kuijk prize” for the Most Spectacular Game of the tournament. Poignantly, the inaugural winner was Lubos Kavalek, the recently-deceased Czech-American grandmaster  – though not for a striking win, as some would expect for such prizes, but instead for a truly fascinating draw against the tough Hungarian Lajos Portisch, who went on to claim victory that year in the tournament.

And over the four decades plus since, many grandmasters have been rewarded for their thrilling play, including some world champions. The magnificent game christened as “The Pearl of Wijk aan Zee” saw Vadim Zvjaginsev receive the award in 1995. Four years later, Garry Kasparov created his “immortal masterpiece” against Veselin Topalov in 1999 to take the prize; and in 2004, making his Wijk debut, 13-year-old Magnus Carlsen was dubbed the “Mozart of Chess” by first recipient Kavalek in his Washington Post column after winning the prize for his victory over Sipke Ernst.

Holding court in the tented spectators commentary annex each day throughout the tournament would be the ‘usual suspects’ of grandmasters Genna Sosonko, Hans Böhm, Hans Ree, Paul van der Sterren, John van der Weil, Gert Ligterink, and not forgetting the unquestionable amateurs’ favourite, the late Lex Jongsma (1938 – 2013). They would run the demonstration boards for the spectators, answer questions, and each day would ask them to raise their hands to vote – in their mind – for the best game of the day. And by the end of the tournament, one of the vox populi selections would inevitably go on to win the overall main prize.

Sadly this year, for obvious Covid safety protocols, there were no spectators to pass judgment on each day’s best games – but if they were, I have no doubt that sensational local hero-winner Jorden van Foreest would have been a very patriotic contender for the main prize, with his stunning last round win that appeared in our previous column; and also an equally leading candidate would have been today’s sacrificial effort from the young Norwegian, Aryan Tari.

GM Aryan Tari – GM Andrey Esipenko
83rd Tata Steel Masters, (11)
Ruy Lopez, Modern Steinitz Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 d6 The venerable Steinitz Defence, as made famous by first World Champion Wilhelm Steiniz, and also adopted by his two successors, Emanuel Lasker and Jose Raul Capablanca. Today the backbone of Black’s repertoire is based on the Modern Steinitz Defence, and just see how quickly the position transposes into a Modern Defence set-up. 5.0-0 Nf6 6.Re1 Bd7 7.c3 g6 8.d4 Bg7 9.Nbd2 0-0 10.Bc2 It’s all a little like Geller’s Quiet System against the Modern Defence, the only difference being the white bishop on c2 rather than d3, and the black bishop on d7. 10…Nh5 The knight is heading to f4. 11.dxe5 dxe5 12.Nf1 And while Esipenko eyes-up the f4 outpost for his knight, Tari heads for the d5 outpost to challenge the black knight, via Nf1-e3-d5. 12…Nf4 13.Ne3 Kh8 14.Nd5 Ne6 15.h4! Gaining some space on the kingside, perhaps even looking to play a Ng5 after …f5; possibly even to push on with h5 to further expose the black king. 15…h5?! Esipenko is clearly worried about the h5 push – but this comes at the cost of now …f5 coming with great risks. 16.Be3 f6 17.b4! With Black’s normal kingside counter-attacking chances with …f5 effectively ruled out for now, Tari has something of a free-hand to expand on the queenside. 17…Ne7 18.Qe2 Nc8 19.c4 Qe8 20.c5 a5 21.a3 Na7 White enjoys far too much control on the queenside – and perhaps now was the time to try and limit the damage with 21…axb4 22.axb4 Rxa1 23.Rxa1 Bb5!? as 24.Bd3 Bxd3 25.Qxd3 c6 26.Nc3 (The alternative 26.Nb6 Nxb6! 27.cxb6 Qe7 28.Ra7 Rd8 offers good chances for Black.) 26…Qf7 which was certainly “holdable”, unlike what now comes in the game. 22.Bb3 Nb5 23.Bc4 axb4 24.axb4 Rxa1 25.Rxa1 f5? Esipenko probably thought he had everything covered to play …f5 – but a big shock soon awaits the young Russian. 26.exf5 gxf5 27.Ng5 As we warned in an earlier note, this is one of the drawbacks of meeting h4 with …h5, as Black’s king is exposed, so the warning signs were all there for Esipenko that his king would be in danger – but he didn’t realise just how grave! 27…Nxg5 28.hxg5 f4 29.Ra8!! [see diagram] A truly spectacular bolt out of the blue from Tari, who takes full advantage of his opponent’s chronically over-worked queen having to defend the vulnerable h5-pawn. 29…Qg6 The rook is taboo, as after 29…Qxa8 white quickly mates with 30.Qxh5+ Bh6 (And no better is 30…Kg8 31.Ne7#) 31.Qxh6+ Kg8 32.Nf6#. And you know it is bad when the engine tells you that Black’s best move was the hopeless 29…f3 30.Rxe8 fxe2 31.Rxf8+ Bxf8 32.Bxe2 Bc6 33.Nf6 h4 34.Bc4 Bg7 35.Kh2 and an easily won endgame a pawn up, the better minor pieces, and Black’s h-pawn also set to drop. 30.Rxf8+ Bxf8 31.Bd2 Na3 32.Bd3! All those open lines around the Black king means that Esipenko can’t avoid being mated. 32…Qxg5 33.Qe4 1-0 And Esipenko finally throws in the towel, as 33…Qg7 34.Bc3 and the only way to stop Bxe5 and Qh7 mate involves a heavy loss of material with …Bd6.

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