John Henderson
By John Henderson

There’s always an element of sadness in the chess world when we reach the end of any Tata Steel Chess Tournament – but there was an added ting of sadness during this year’s traditional pea-soup closing ceremony of the 81st edition in Wijk aan Zee, with rumours swirling that Vladimir Kramnik – who held the world title from 2000 to 2007; and famously broke the spirit and long reign of Garry Kasparov – was set to announce his imminent retirement from the professional arena following a series of dismal performances.

The news was confirmed on the official Tata Steel Chess Tournament site by Kramnik on Monday, ahead of him taking part in a chess simultaneous (Torentje Schaak) organised by Tata Steel for parliamentarians and journalists in the Dutch parliament building in The Hague: “I already decided to finish my professional chess career a couple of months ago and now, after having played my last tournament, I would like to announce it publicly,” said Kramnik. “The life of a professional chess player was a great journey and I am very thankful to chess for all it has given me. It has sometimes been difficult, sometimes more successful than I could ever imagine, but in any case, it has been a priceless human experience for me,” added the 43-year-old Russian.

Speaking about the decision to end his professional career, Kramnik revealed that in recent months he had lost his motivation to play, and this was borne out by his tragic last-place finish, which included a string of six losses, and saw the Russian unceremoniously crashing out of the top 10. “I have also expressed in interviews before that I would like to try doing something else one day, and since my chess player motivation has dropped significantly in recent months, it feels like the right moment for it.”

For the future, he indicated – like Kasparov – he may still ‘keep his hand in’ by playing occasionally in speed tournaments. Also, he wants to develop ideas to promote chess for kids in schools. “I would like to concentrate on projects which I have been developing during the last months especially in the field of chess for children and education. I will soon provide more detailed information about those.”

The high point in Kramnik’s career arrived at the turn of the millennium when he won the World championship crown by sensationally beating Kasparov in London in 2000 – and doing so by not losing a game, as he frustrated and bamboozled Kasparov by rehabilitating the Berlin Defence, not seen at the elite-level for over a century. And fittingly at the Tata Steel Masters, Kramnik’s last competitive win in a super-tournament proved to be with his trusty Berlin Defence, as he showed flashes of his once powerful brand of chess.

Photo: Big Vlad calls it a day | © Alina l’Almi / Tata Steel Chess


GM Vladimir Fedoseev – GM Vladimir Kramnik
81st Tata Steel Masters, (12)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 The Berlin Defence, the opening that Kramnik brought back after a hiatus of over a century 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.Re1 The so-called “Berlin Wall” Endgame with 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 proved to be Kasparov’s psychological downfall in London – not that he lost any games playing against it, it was just that he became so frustrated in the match because he just couldn’t break it down. 5…Nd6 6.Nxe5 Be7 7.Bf1 Nxe5 8.Rxe5 0-0 9.d4 Bf6 10.Re2 This is a little wrinkle favoured by Magnus Carlsen, in a line where White normally plays Re1 – it does leave, however, an easy way for Black to move his knight to allow for …d5 and developing his light-squared bishop. 10…Nc4 11.b3 Nb6 12.c3 d5 13.Re1 Re8 14.Rxe8+ Qxe8 15.a4 Be6 16.Na3 The simplest developing move now, with the idea of Bd3, Bf4 and Nc2. 16…Nc8 17.Bf4 Qd7 18.Bd3 c6 19.Nc2 Ne7 20.Qd2 Bf5 21.Nb4 Ng6 There really isn’t anything in the position – but it soon becomes clear that Kramnik has the better “feel” for the position, and comes up with a logical plan. 22.Bg3 Re8 23.a5 Nothing wrong with this move per se, as it attempts to restrict Black’s queenside pawns. If all the pieces stay on the board, then fine – but should the pieces start to be traded, then the a-pawn could well become a sitting target. 23…h5 24.h3 h4 25.Bh2 Bxd3 26.Nxd3 Qf5! With little or no effort, Kramnik just puts his pieces on sensible squares, the point being that now 27.Re1 gets hit with 27…Rxe1 28.Nxe1 Qb1+, and suddenly it all becomes a little awkward for White. And it is almost as if Fedoseev – much like Kasparov – gets frustrated into believing he has to react more aggressively than he should. 27.a6?! The only problem with pawns in chess is that you can’t move them backwards! While right now it looks like an aggressive little move, long-term that a6-pawn will just become a big sitting target – and Kramnik is the sort of player who will not rush into trying to win it, he’ll happily bide his time getting his pieces onto good squares and leaving that pawn as a major headache for Fedoseev. 27…b6 28.Bd6 Bg5 29.Qd1 Qe4 30.Ra2 Qe6 It takes just a few accurate and simple moves for Kramnik to control the board with his better-developed pieces. 31.Bc7 c5! Fedoseev can’t capture twice on c5, as …Qc6 will win a piece. 32.Qg4 Qe7 With Kramnik, the story is always keeping his pieces together and working as a cohesive unit – but he missed the better option of 32…Qe4! 33.Qxe4 dxe4 34.Ne1 cxd4 35.cxd4 Ne7! and with the knight coming to the wonderful octopus-like d5 outpost, Black will be following up with …f5-f4 etc and a winning position. 33.dxc5 bxc5 34.Ba5? There’s a subtle difference, but more accurate was the sequence 34.Ra1! Bd2 35.Ba5 Ne5 36.Nxe5 Qxe5 37.Qd7! Bf4 38.Rf1 and White is still in the game, thanks to the weakness of the a7-pawn coupled with the vulnerability of the hanging pawns on c5 and d5. 34…Ne5 35.Nxe5 Qxe5 36.Ra1 Re6! Not only hitting the weak a6-pawn, but also stopping the White queen infiltrating to d7. And with it, effectively removing any hope Fedoseev might have had of being able to save this position. 37.Rd1 Bd2?! The lack of time somewhat spoils an almost flawless Kramnik win. In his pomp, I’m sure that big bad Vlad would have found the very Kramnikian winning retreating of 37…Be7! and suddenly there’s just no answer to 38…Bd6 winning. 38.Qxh4 Rxa6 39.g3?? The time scramble errors are mutual, but really Fedoseev has no excuses for that well-known advice given to us all early in learning the game, and which applies equally at all levels: “Never miss a check…” – and here, this makes all the difference between saving and losing the game. After 39.Qd8+! Kh7 40.Bc7 Qe4 41.Bd6! it is easy to see this game fizzling out to a draw after 41…Qe2 42.Rb1 d4 43.cxd4 Qe4 44.Rd1 cxd4 45.Qe7! Qxe7 46.Bxe7 Bc3 47.Bc5! Ra5 48.b4 Rb5 49.Bxa7 Rxb4 etc. 39…f6 40.Bc7 The clock plays it part yet again, as the difficult-to-find resource of 40.Qa4! would have been enough to keep White in the game. 40…Qxc7 41.Rxd2 Ra1+ 42.Kg2 Qe5! The back-rank weakness allows for the simple threat of …Qe1-h1 mating. And with it, Fedoseev’s king is now a dead man walking. 43.Qf4 Qe1 44.Kf3 Qh1+ 45.Kg4 Re1! 46.Qd6 Qe4+ 47.Qf4 Qh1 48.f3 With Fedoseev’s king walking dazed in no man’s land, Kramnik is just composing himself before moving in for the kill. If White had repeated with 48.Qd6 Kramnik, with a lot of time now on his clock, would surely have found 48…Re5 49.f4 d4!! 50.fxe5 Qe4+ 51.Kh5 Qf5+ 52.Kh4 Qg5# 48…Re5 49.h4 a5 50.Rd3 Kf7 51.Qd2 Kg6 52.Re3 Rg5+! [see diagram] The rook is taboo, as taking it will quickly lead to mate after …Qh5+. 53.Kf4 Rf5+ 54.Kg4 Rg5+ 55.Kf4 Qh3! 56.g4 Again the rook is off-limits, with now 56.hxg5 Qf5# – and faced with this scenario, White can only “escape” by allowing a hopelessly lost ending. 56…Qxh4 57.Qc2+ Kf7 58.Re2 g6 59.Qd1 Re5! 60.Rxe5 Qh2+ It’s all over bar the shouting, but the more clinical kill was 60…fxe5+! 61.Ke3 (There’s no mate this time, but instead White loses his queen after 61.Kxe5 Qf6+ 62.Kxd5 Qd8+ 63.Ke5 Qxd1 etc.) 61…d4+ 62.cxd4 cxd4+ 63.Ke2 (If 63.Ke4 Qf2 64.Qd3 Qe1+ 65.Kd5 Qc3 wins easily.) 63…Qh2+ 64.Kd3 Qb2 and White can resign. 61.Ke3 Qxe5+ 62.Kd3 d4 63.Qd2 dxc3 64.Qxc3 Qxc3+ 65.Kxc3 It’s now a king and pawn endgame – and for that, all you need to do is a quick body count and you see that Kramnik has an extra pawn. 65…Ke6 66.Kc4 Kd6 67.f4 Kc6 68.f5 gxf5 69.gxf5 Kd6 0-1 Fedoseev resigns, giving Kramnik full respect that he will know how to convert the ending – but while this is respect shown between elite-level players, at club level this ending should certainly be played on just a little further as there’s one last pitfall to avoid after 70.Kb5 Kd5! (This is where you have to take a little care by making sure the queenside pawns come off the board first, as 70…Ke5?? only draws after 71.Kxa5 Kxf5 72.Kb6 Kg4 73.Kxc5 f5 74.b4 f4 and both pawns queen with a draw.) 71.Kxa5 c4! with the queenside pawns gone, the Black king has the opposition to force home the f-pawn after 72.Kb4 cxb3 73.Kxb3 Ke5 74.Kc2 Kxf5 75.Kd3 Kf4 76.Ke2 Kg3 77.Kf1 Kf3 etc.


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