Last week, Latvia – seen as a coronavirus success story – became the first country in Europe to reimpose a sudden and hard lockdown as a new Covid wave hit the continent. After an unprecedented surge in infections plus a low vaccination rate, the Baltic state announced it was going into a far-reaching, month-long lockdown that was to be imposed overnight.
It all came as a big shock for chess’s governing body, Fide, especially as the draconian measures came into force on the eve of the 113-player Grand Swiss and 51-player Women’s Grand Swiss in Riga, Latvia’s capital! But the event (which originally was intended to take place in the Isle of Man, before switching to Riga due to Covid concerns) managed to obtain one of 30 international exemptions given on the grounds that the Grand Swiss – qualifying two spots into 2022 Candidates Tournament – is a major sporting event.
The deal was skilfully negotiated by Fide’s new managing director, Dana Reizniece-Ozlola, not only one of Latvia’s top female players, but also formerly her nation’s high-profile finance minister. However, there are strict health and safety measures put in force, with players/officials also having to adhere to the 8pm-5am curfew with an earlier starting time for each round.
The Grand Swiss – which officially got underway today – was also hit by a number of notable late withdrawals following the shock news. Hikaru Nakamura, the five-time US champion, who skipped last week’s US championship to better prepare for Riga, was the first to withdraw, citing health and safety concerns for himself and his trainer. Next to drop out was top seeds Alexander Grischuk, Richard Rapport, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Liem Quang Le. In the women’s event top seed Kateryna Lagno also pulled out.
Before heading to Riga, Nikita Vitiugov and Valentina Gunina were on top form with both winning their respective Russian Championship Superfinal titles in Ufa. For Gunina, it was her fourth national title; but for Vitiugov, it was finally success for the 34-year-old from St. Petersburg, with his first title coming on his 15th attempt, as he top-scored with an unbeaten +3 score of 7/11.
Photo: Valentina Gunina and Nikita Vitiugov receive their trophies | © Eteri Kublashvili / Russian Chess Federation
GM Nikita Vitiugov – GM Dmitry Andreikin
74th Russian Ch. Superfinal, (5)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+ 5.Nc3 0-0 6.Bg2 dxc4 7.0-0 Nc6 8.Re1 In the Open Catalan, for the sacrificed pawn, White gets excellent compensation with his central pawns on d4 and e4, and will look to later pick-off Black’s c4-pawn – but right now, it is all about central control. 8…Be7 9.e4 Nb4 10.Ne5 A typical Catalan outpost for the knight; here hitting the c4-pawn and stopping Black from playing the annoying …Nd3. 10…c5 Black has to contest White’s central control. 11.d5 exd5 12.exd5 Bf5 Sharp and dynamic play is the Catalan calling card, where things can become double-edged in double quick time! 13.Nxc4 Nc2 14.Re5! Both players have come to the board ready for a bruising street-fight! 14…Bg6 15.d6 Bxd6 16.Nxd6 Nxa1 17.Bg5 Nc2 Black has to be careful here, as 17…h6?! 18.Bh4! and it is just too dangerous to try 18…Bc2 (Objectively the best try is 18…Kh8 but the engine soon finds the tactical solution with 19.Nce4! Nc2 20.Rd5!! Nd4 21.Bxf6 gxf6 22.Nxc5 and much like in the game, Black has a wreck of a position left to defend.) 19.Qd2 g5 as White has 20.Rxg5+! hxg5 21.Qxg5+ Bg6 22.Qd2! and the strategic queen retreat is winning, as there’s no way to stop the crushing Nd5; for example: 22…Kg7 23.Nd5 Qxd6 24.Bxf6+ Qxf6 25.Nxf6 Kxf6 26.Qc3+! Ke6 27.Qe1+ Kf6 28.Qxa1 Kg7 29.Bxb7 Rab8 30.b3+ f6 31.Ba6 and White should easily convert his material and positional advantage. 18.Nd5 Kh8 By resourceful means, the tournament top seed is just hanging on – but one little slip-up, and he’s doomed. 19.Ne4 Qb8! 20.Bxf6 gxf6 21.Re7 Nb4 Ideally, Andreikin would like to be able to play 21…Nd4 but after 22.Nxc5 Nf5 23.Rc7 Black’s position is a wreck, and White will soon be cashing in with more material gain. 22.Nxb4 cxb4 23.Qd4 Qd8?! Admittedly, Andreikin was walking a tightrope, but he begins to wobble at the critical moment. The only way to survive was 23…Rd8! 24.Qxf6+ Kg8 25.h4 Rd1+ 26.Kh2 Rd5! 27.Qf3 Kf8 And White will have to go for the ‘bail-out’ now with 28.Qf6 Kg8 29.Qf3 Kf8 30.Qf6 Kg8 31.Qf3 and a repetition. 24.Qxf6+ Kg8 25.Nd6! A move that wouldn’t have been available had Black opted for the better 23…Rd8 – and now Andreikin is left having to defend a miserable position. 25…Rc8 Black looks to return material to stop the hurt, especially as 25…Rb8? walks into 26.Be4! Qb6 27.Bxg6 hxg6 28.Rxf7 Rxf7 29.Qxf7+ Kh8 30.Qxg6 Rf8 31.Nf7+ Rxf7 32.Qxf7 and a winning Q+P ending two pawns up and White with the more secure king. And if 25…Qb6 26.Bd5! and f7 falls, and Black’s king soon with it. 26.Nxc8 Qd1+ 27.Bf1 Rxc8 It could well be that in analysing all the complications earlier, Andreikin may have thought that he had a saving resource here with 27…Bd3, only to realise too late that White has the stunning rejoinder 28.Re1!! Qxe1 29.Ne7+ Qxe7 30.Qxe7 winning. 28.Rxb7 Due to the back-rank mating threats, and having to defend f7, Black can’t generate any activity to potential save the game. 28…a5 29.h4! Qd8 A little better was 29…Re8 30.Rc7 but the same issues remain, that Black can’t do anything constructive with his rook nor bishop, and is basically sitting in Death’s Waiting Room – so rather than that, Andreikin desperately tries to offer the exchange of queens to try and hold the R+B ending. 30.Qe5! [see diagram] Vitiugov rightly spurns the trade of queens, keeping full control of the position by restricting Black ever getting his rook/bishop active by threatening h5, and with Rb8 looming large if the rook moves from the back-rank. 30…h5 31.Be2 Now we see why keeping the queen on d1 was best, as White’s bishop comes into the game. 31…Qf8 32.Bf3 Nice! Not only covering the long diagonal for the king to come to g2, but threatening Bd5 to keep the pressure on Black. 32…Rc5 33.Bd5 Kh7 After 33…Rc8 34.Rb5 a4 35.Qf6 more or less forces now 35…Qg7 36.Qxg7+ Kxg7 37.Rxb4 Rc2 38.Be4! Bxe4 39.Rxe4 a3 40.bxa3 Rxa2 41.Ra4 and a technically won R+P ending. 34.Rd7 Qc8 35.Qe7 The pressure on f7 will soon be telling. 35…Rc1+ 36.Kg2 Qa6 37.Bxf7 Qf1+ 38.Kf3 Qh1+ 1-0 And Andreikin resigns before Vitiugov could play 39.Kf4 and no more checks. A crucial win over the top seed that went a long way to helping Vitiugov capture his first Russian Championship Superfinal title!