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John Henderson
By John Henderson

“Dreams are strangely familiar places,” says Julie Harris’s narrator in the delightful 1986 film Nutcracker: The Motion Picture. “They are not all make-believe, but only homely inside of yourself, like the inner lining of your favourite coat…” And indeed, it was this popular dreamy, slightly darker version for the big screen, filmed in Seattle and performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet, that is hailed as being responsible for its stage revival as a true bonafide holiday classic, with numerous productions now playing out to packed-out houses worldwide.

Lev Ivanov’s 1892 ballet – loosely based on a darker, 1816 fairytale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King – with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous, sugar-spun music has become a Christmas institution for a very good reason. The sublime musical score, stunning sets, mischievous mice, royalty, magic animals, and dolls coming to life…it allows us to wallow in pure Christmas joy as an adolescent young girl is transported from a Christmas party into a magical dream world, the Kingdom of the Sweets.

Every city has a different version, whether classical, blues, burlesque or jazzed up, with some more darker than others, but all offer up a magical dream of Christmas past. A dream of presents and parties and flickering firelight. Of deep winter, dark nights and ancient magical beliefs. A dream that few of us have ever known as a reality, but which remains a strangely familiar place.

And even in Tchaikovsky’s homeland of Russia, the chess world is getting in on this holiday tradition, with the annual Nutcracker Match of the Generations taking place in the Botvinnik Central Chess Club in Moscow from 17-22 December. It consists of two Scheveningen matches: Kings vs. Princes and Boys vs. Girls. In the main marquee event, veterans Boris Gelfand, Peter Leko, Nigel Short and Evgeniy Najer take on newer-generation Russian stars David Paravyan, Alexey Sarana, Andrey Esipenko and Semyon Lomasov.

But the Nutcracker is, above all, about a young person’s dreams coming true. And this Nutcracker production proved to be a dream come true for 18-year-old Alexey Sarana, who continues to impress in what’s already been a big standout year, as he top-scored for the Princes in the classical session, beating Najer and Gelfand, to give his young stars team a 17-15 lead over the experienced Kings going into the final weekend of rapid play.

America’s Foundation for Chess/First Move would like to wish all readers a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!  The First Move Chess column will return in the new year, on Friday, 4 January 2019 with details of the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in St Petersburg, Russia, as Magnus Carlsen attempts to once again win the ‘triple crown’.

GM Alexey Sarana – GM Boris Gelfand
Nutcracker Classical, (3)
Semi-Slav Defence
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c6 5.Bg5 h6 6.Bh4 dxc4 7.e4 g5 Playing against a top junior, who no doubt has engine-crunched arguably the sharpest opening line known in chess, namely the Botvinnik System, after 7…b5 8.e5 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.exf6 Bb7 12.g3, veteran Gelfand instead opts for a safer sideline – but there is no such thing as ‘safer sideline’ with juniors these days! 8.Bg3 b5 9.h4 g4 10.Ne5 Nbd7 11.Nxc6 Qb6 If you think this all looks scary, then I suggest you try investigating further the mainline Botvinnik System! Here, though, the former world title-challenger has everything under control, and the position is not nearly as dangerous as it looks. 12.d5 Bb7 13.a4 To take anything from the game, White has to strive to open as many lines as possible – the more lines opened, the more chance he has for his pieces to come to life, much like those fabled wooden soldiers in the Nutcracker dream world. 13…a6 14.Be2 Bxc6 15.dxc6 Qxc6 16.axb5 axb5 17.Rxa8+ Qxa8 18.0-0 White can’t be too hasty here. If 18.Nxb5?! Qa5+! 19.Nc3 Nxe4 20.0-0 Nxg3 21.fxg3 Bg7 and Black has much the better of it. 18…Nxe4 19.Nxe4 Qxe4 20.Bxg4 Gelfand is a pawn up, but danger lurks as his king, for now, is stuck in the middle of the board. 20…Bg7?! This is the critical moment in the game, and Gelfand begins to crack under the pressures. The position is as double-edged as it can be, and Gelfand had to ‘mix it’ with 20…Ne5! 21.Bxe6! Nd3 (The bishop is taboo. If 21…fxe6 22.Re1 Qg4 23.Bxe5 Qxd1 24.Rxd1 Rg8 25.g3 the endgame prospects don’t look good for Black with all his pawns weak and vulnerable.) 22.Bg4 Bg7 23.Bd6! Bf8 24.Bf3 Qe6 25.Bc7 Bb4 26.Be2 Qf5 27.b3 0-0 28.bxc4 bxc4 29.Qa4 Rc8! and the position should be equal. 21.Bf3! Qd4? A double blunder seals Gelfand’s fate. His only hope was 21…Qd3 22.Qa1 Ne5 23.Bxe5 Bxe5 24.Rd1 Qb3 25.Qa8+ Ke7 26.Qb7+ Kf6 27.Rd7 Rf8 28.Bh5 but even here, the Black king looks more than just a little vulnerable. 22.Bc6! [see diagram] Effectively winning, as the Black king is left stranded in the danger zone and caught in a tactical trap that wins a whole piece. 22…Ke7 23.Qxd4 Bxd4 24.Bxd7 Rg8 A spirited attempt to complicate things from Gelfand, as after 24…Kxd7 25.Rd1 Black is totally lost. 25.Bh2 b4 26.Bb5 Bxb2 27.Bxc4 Rg4 28.Bb3 Rxh4 29.Rd1 Bc3 If Gelfand can somehow try to swap the kingside pawns, he stands an outside chance of saving the game – but Sarana moves in swiftly with a series of very accurate moves to win the game. 30.Bd6+ Kf6 31.Bc5 Rh5 32.Be3 Kg7 33.Rd7 Sarana has quickly established his pieces on their most optimum squares now. 33…Re5 34.g3 h5 35.Rc7 Forcing more weakening moves from Gelfand, as Sarana threatens Rxc3 and the winning pin of Bd4. 35…Kg6 36.Bc2+ f5 37.Kg2 Ra5 38.Bb3 1-0 Gelfand resigns, as White will now easily pick-off some of the weak Black pawns, one likely scenario being: 38…e5 39.Rc6+ Kh7 40.Bc2 e4 41.Rh6+ Kg7 42.Rxh5 Ra2 43.Bb3 Ra5 44.g4! breaking down the remaining pawns for an elementary win.

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