It was a wonderful moment of chess satire back in 2015 that went viral, as The Daily Show’s then inimitable host, Jon Stewart, after picking up on the New York Times front-page splash of Fabiano Caruana returning home – and hard on the heels of Wesley So also being recruited – to bolster Team USA going for Olympiad gold, as he over-excitedly announced “The United States is buying up nerds! Nerd mercenaries – nerdcenaries.”
And the same could well be said last week – after everyone first checked the date to see if it was April 1 – when the world #5, Levon Aronian announced that he’s now switched federations to the USA. Citing what he said was Armenian officials’ indifference to chess as one of the main reasons, the 38-year-old made the announcement on his Facebook page that took the chess world by shock.
“The past year has been very difficult for all of us with a pandemic, a war and in my case there was personal adversity [his wife died tragically following a car crash] and the state’s absolute indifference towards Armenian chess,” he wrote, referring to six weeks of fighting between ethnic Armenian and Azeri forces over the Nagorno-Karabkah enclave.
“I was faced with a choice: quit my job or move to where I am valued,” he wrote.
Aronian has become more or less a regular fixture in the Sinquefield Cup, the top US elite-level super-tournament sponsored by chess-loving billionaire Rex Sinqefield and his family. The Saint Louis Chess Club said Aronian was relocating to the US midwest city to continue his career and would represent the United States at future competitions.
And should FIDE, the game’s governing body approve the transfer (and there’s no reason to see them refusing), then Aronian would become the fifth American in the top 20 of the current FIDE world rankings, joining #2 Fabiano Caruana, #9 Wesley So, #15 Leinier Domínguez and #18 Hikaru Nakamura.
Understandably those nerd jibes resurfaced with Aronian’s dramatic switch, with some criticising Rex Sinquefield’s open check-book recruitment policy as the move makes it more difficult for home-grown talent to represent their country in the biennial Chess Olympiad and the World Championship cycle.
But this is simply disingenuous to Sinquefield, whose largesse is not just directed at the superstars of the chess world. The generous chess patron has built-up the Saint Louis Chess Club from scratch to be recognised globally as a leading chess Mecca, where anyone can watch some of the world’s best players. The club also sponsors many big tournaments with large prize-funds that have benefitted many home-grown talents of all age groups and sexes.
Photo: Now Levon Aronian moves to St. Louis to join Team USA | © John B. Henderson AF4C/FirstMove
GM Levon Aronian – GM Hikaru Nakamura
4th Sinquefield Cup 2016
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 More common in the QGD is 5.Bg5; but this line is not as innocent as it looks. It has an impeccable English pedigree, being first-played in 1887 by Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-19248), who spanned both the Victorian and early Edwardian periods as the leading master of his era. However the player who brought it to prominence was the Hungary’s Lajos Portisch, who in the late 1970s and 1980s won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up in the noughties by Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, plus also Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian. 5…0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Bd3 dxc4 9.Bxc4 a6 10.Bd3 Nc6 11.0-0 Nb4 12.Bb1 Qxd1 13.Rxd1 Nbd5 14.Nxd5 Nxd5 15.Be4! It all looks like an innocent position with the queens coming off early – but this move suddenly makes Black’s position just a little awkward to handle. 15…Nf6 In reality, the instant reaction would have been to play: 15…Nxf4 16.exf4 as Black has the bishop-pair and White has doubled f-pawns. But even here, it is even more awkward for Black, as he hasn’t solved the problem of how to develop his Bc8 – and White is ready to make life even more difficult with Rac1 and Ne5 etc. 16.Nd2 Re8 17.Bf3 e5 18.Bg3 Ra7 It looks wrong, but Nakamura take the radical approach to solving how to develop his Bc8 without losing the pawn on b7, nor let White’s rook(s) infiltrate the seventh rank. 19.Rac1 b6 20.a3 Bd7 Finally Nakamura gets his bishop out – but at what cost to his position? 21.Nc4! Hitting e5 and looking at invading into d6 to put those weak pawns on b6 and a6 under pressure. 21…e4 22.Be2 a5 23.Nd6 Re7 24.Nb5 Bxb5 25.Bxb5 Now the seeds of a win are there for Aronian, who has the advantage of a good bishop-pair and rooks dominating the d- and c-files. 25…Ra8 26.Kf1! With the bishops a dangerous threat to Black’s position, Aronian affords himself the luxury of not having to force anything, so he simply better readies his king for the ending. 26…Re6 Unfortunately Nakamura can’t do likewise: 26…Kf8? 27.Rxc5! bxc5 28.Bd6 Rc8 (28…Rd8 29.Ke2 Rxd6 30.Rxd6 and the pawns on c5 and a5 look doomed.) 29.h3 g6 30.Rd2 And White will simply slide his king quickly over to the queenside with Ke1-d1-c2-b3; and at the right moment, he’ll capture on e7 and have an easily won ending with the king supporting the attacks on the weak pawns on c5 and a5. 27.Ke2 g5 28.Bc4 Ree8 29.h4 h6 30.hxg5 Aronian has it easy, but Nakamura is doing all the right things he needs to do to try to salvage a draw by seeking out pawn exchanges. 30…hxg5 31.Bd6 More accurate was probably 31.Bb3 with the idea of Rc4, Bc2 and b4 leaving Black in a bad way trying to defend all the pawn weaknesses. 31…Kg7 The only move, as 31…Bxd6 32.Rxd6 and Black’s position is hopeless after White takes on b6. 32.Bb5 Bxd6 33.Rxd6 Re5?! Nakamura’s only chance to fight for survival was with 33…Rec8! 34.Rcc6 Rxc6 35.Rxc6 Rb8 36.Bc4 (If 36.Rc7 Nd5! 37.Rd7 Nf6 38.Rc7 Nd5 39.Ra7 Rc8 and Black is still in with a fighting chance, getting his rook and knight back in the game without losing any pawns.) 36…Rb7 and trying to hang on here. Not an easy position to have to defend as Black, but better than what happens in the game. 34.Rxb6 Rh8 35.Rb7 Rf5 36.Rf1 Rh2 Admittedly, it does look as though Nakamura has found ‘something’ by managing to activate his rooks – but some precise and clever play from Aronian soon shows there is nothing there for Nakamura to salvage a draw. 37.Bc4! Ne8 38.Rb5! [see diagram] Precision from Aronian: with a set of rooks being exchanged off, Nakamura now has difficulties getting his other rook back into the game to stop White’s advancing queenside pawns. Not only that, but Aronian also has a cunning plan in mind for his bishop. 38…Rxb5 39.Bxb5 Nd6 40.Bd7! Aronian is “as cunning as a fox what used to be Professor of Cunning at Oxford University,” as the famous Blackadder sketch goes. 40…Kf6 And if you are wondering why Nakamura didn’t capture the pawn on g2, it is because Aronian has set a cunning little trap for him: 40…Rxg2? 41.Rd1 Nc4 42.Rh1! Threatening Kf1 winning the rook. 42…g4 43.Kf1 Nxe3+ 44.fxe3 Rxb2 45.Rg1 Kf6 46.Rxg4 and White will win the e-pawn, and with it the game. 41.Rc1 Rh8 Once again, 41…Rxg2? is hopeless: 42.Rh1! Nf5 43.Bxf5 Kxf5 44.Kf1! Rg4 45.Rh8! and Black’s rook is awkwardly out of the game, while White’s rook is quickly threatening to capture the a-pawn. 42.b3 Ke7 43.Rc7 Rh1 44.Ra7 Ra1 45.g4 Even better was 45.Bg4+! Kf6 46.Ra6! Ke7 (46…Ke5? 47.Rxa5+ easily wins.) 47.Rxa5 and Black can resign now. 45…Rxa3 46.Ba4+ Kf8 47.Rxa5 Ra2+ 48.Kf1 f6 Nakamura is a pawn down and his knight is badly placed; and with it, Aronian easily engineers the rapid push of his passed b-pawn. 49.Ra8+ Ke7 50.Bc6 Rb2 51.Ra7+ Ke6 52.Bd7+ Ke7 53.Bf5+ Ke8 54.Be6 Not good technique, but in fact excellent technique! Aronian has indeed engineered his bishop to a better diagonal to protect both his b- and g-pawns, while at the same time confined Nakamura’s king to the back rank. 54…Rb1+ 55.Kg2 Rb2 56.Bd5 Rb1 57.Bc6+ Kf8 58.Rd7 Nf7 59.Bxe4 Another nice finesse from Aronian to win a second pawn – if Black plays …Rxb3 then Rxf7+! and Bd5+ wins on the spot. 59…Rb2 60.Rb7 Nd6 61.Rb8+ Kg7 62.Bd5 Rd2 63.e4 f5 64.gxf5 Nxf5 65.Rb7+ Kh6 66.Rb6+ Kh7 67.Rb7+ Kh6 68.exf5 It’s an easy R+P endgame win now, as Black’s king can’t cross over to cover White rapidly advancing b-pawn, as it has to keep tabs on the f-pawn. 68…Rxd5 69.f6 Rd4 70.Kg3 Kg6 71.f7 Kg7 72.b4 Nakamura should really have resigned here, as there’s nothing he can do. But probably frustrated, he dragged the game on a bit longer than it should have. 72…Kf8 73.b5 Rb4 74.b6 Kg7 75.f3 Kf8 76.Kf2 Rb3 77.Ke2 Kg7 78.Kd2 Kf8 79.Kc2 Rb5 80.Kc3 Kg7 81.Kc4 Rb1 82.Kc5 Rc1+ 83.Kd6 Rb1 84.Ke7 Re1+ 85.Kd8 Re6 86.Kc7 Re3 If 86…Kxf7 the simplest win is 87.Ra7! Re7+ 88.Kd6 and the rooks are exchanged. 87.Ra7 1-0