Is blitz chess good or bad for your game? The Soviet patriarch Mikhail Botvinnik was a notable dissenter, remarking that it only encouraged superficial thinking. But never was there a more diverse clash of styles and personalities than with one of his main rivals Mikhail Tal (1936-1992) – who sensationally de-throned Botvinnik in 1960 – as he thrived on the fast and furious form of the game.
Tal’s reign was alas all too brief, lasting just the one year – but in 1988, and against all the odds of his advancing years, fighting his personal demons and plagued by chronic ill-health, Tal became a world champion for the second time by winning the inaugural World Blitz title in the Canadian city of Saint-John, and ahead of a very strong field led by then World Champion Garry Kasparov.
Indeed, even three weeks before his death, with his health rapidly declining due to the heady cocktail of alcohol abuse, incessant chain-smoking and health-related morphine addiction, there’s the tale of how Tal ‘escaped’ from his critical-care hospital bed just so he could play in the 1992 Moscow blitz tournament, where, despite being unsteady and visibly looking too frail to play, he stunned everyone in the opening round by beating Kasparov!
And on the eve of what would have been Tal’s 85th birthday earlier this week, tagged on to the end of the FIDE Grand Swiss in his hometown of Riga, Latvia, was the latest memorial blitz tournament to be held in his honour – and one that the hard-drinking eighth World Champion surely would have smilingly approved of, being sponsored by a Scottish whisky distillery!
New shooting star Alireza Firouzja opted to skip the Lindores Abbey Blitz, as he was already en route to represent his newly-adopted country France for the first time in the European Team Championship in Slovenia, and despite the teenager’s absence, Fabiano Caruana still could only manage to finish in the runners-up spot once again, even although the top seed and US #1 scored a brace of back-to-back wins over the eventual surprise winner, 19-year-old GM Kirill Shevchenko.
The relatively unknown young Ukrainian underdog proved to be the top-dog, as he fought back from the adversity of a three-game losing streak to go on to clinch the title by a half point ahead of Caruana ($8,000) and GM Arjun Erigaisi ($6,000), as he scored 14/18 to take the $10,000 first prize, the teenager’s biggest ever pay-day.
A visibly shocked Shevchenko admitted during his post-victory interview that he still had to pinch himself that he’d won ahead of such stiff opposition: “It was difficult to play; every single match with very strong opponents. When I lost to Caruana, I got another 2700 grandmaster, that was every round!”
Photo: Kirill Shevchenko, the underdog who turned top-dog! | © Lindores Abbey Blitz
GM Kirill Shevchenko – GM Arjun Erigaisi
Lindores Abbey Blitz, (15)
Sicilian Defence, Grand Prix Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.f4 If ever there was an opening system best-suited for blitz, then look no further than the swashbuckling Grand Prix Attack, named after the year-long, cut-throat notoriously tough Weekend Swiss tournament circuit held across the UK during the 1970s and ’80s, and popularised by winners Dave Rumens and Mark Hebden to take on the Sicilian. 3…g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.Bb5+ Bd7 6.Bc4 Nc6 7.d3 Na5 8.Bd2 e6 9.e5 Nxc4 And not 9…d5 as 10.Bb5 offers White good play with a comfortable position, and threatening to exchange on d7 to expose the Nxd5 tactic attacking the loose a5 knight. 10.dxc4 Bc6 11.Qe2 Ne7 12.0-0-0 d5 13.cxd5 exd5 14.e6!? All standard cut and thrust fair in the Grand Prix Attack, as White looks to open lines early doors to Black’s king. 14…f6 15.g4 Shevchenko isn’t holding back, he’s going all-in! 15…Qb6 16.f5 0-0-0 17.Bf4 gxf5 Better first was 17…Qb4! and Black has the better of it. 18.gxf5 d4 19.Ne4 Qa6? Erigaisi blinks at the wrong moment, wrongly thinking that exchanging queens will make an easy target of White’s f5 pawn, and he suffers for it. He had to take the challenge to White head-on, keep the queens on the board and play 19…Nxf5! 20.Rhe1 Ne3! 21.Bxe3 Bxe4 22.Bf4 f5 23.Ng5 Bh6 with a double-edged position and chances for both sides. 20.Qxa6 bxa6 21.Rhg1 Nxf5 22.Nh4? A big blunder, but in blitz, the bigger the blunder can often turn out to be a game-winner! The correct move(s) to find was 22.Nfd2! Bxe4 23.e7! tough to spot amidst the tactics and complications, but they now all favour White after the likely continuation 23…Rd7 24.Nxe4 Rxe7 25.Nxc5 and all of Black’s pawns rendered a wasteland. 22…Bxe4? In the mad-dash of the blitz time constraints, Erigaisi panics about a non-existent threat from a later Rc7+ and returns the blunder – but he was winning the game and most likely the tournament with it, after the correct sequence of 22…Nxh4! 23.Rxg7 Bxe4 with an extra piece and nothing to fear from 24.Rc7+ Kb8 as there’s no threats from the discovered check. 23.Nxf5 Bxf5 24.Rxg7 [see diagram] Now there is a major threat from the discovered check after Rc7+, as the c5-pawn and …Bf5 falls in quick succession. C’est la vie, as the French would say. 24…Rde8 25.Rc7+ Kd8 26.Rd7+ Kc8 27.Rc7+ Just getting a few more seconds increment on the clock. 27…Kd8 28.Rxc5 Bxe6 29.Rxd4+ Bd7 The king can’t run as 29…Ke7 30.Rc7+ Kf8 31.Bh6+ Kg8 32.Rf4!! forces mate after 32…f5 33.Rf1! Bf7 34.Rxf5 etc. 30.Rc7 Re7 31.Rxa7 1-0