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John Henderson
By John Henderson

New FIDE president, Arkady Dvorkovich, officially got the opening ceremony for the FIDE World Team Championship underway today at the International Financial Centre of Astana, Kazakhstan, with the first round of the 10-team all-play-all kicking off on Tuesday, 5 March. It was widely expected that chess powerhouses China, Russia and the US would be the ones duking it out for the medals – but the pre-tournament odds were dramatically and unexpectedly slashed just a few weeks ago.

It’s now set to become a two-dog fight between China, who won the Olympiad in 2018, and top seeds Russia, with their past history and strength-in-depth, after the US team – which won Olympiad gold in 2016 and silver in 2018 – was hit by an ‘unexpected close calendar clash’ with the upcoming US Championship(s) in the Saint Louis Chess Club, that starts 18 March. It all sadly means that the US will be without the normally reliable A team of Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Shankland (who months beforehand, had accepted an invitation also to play in the Prague Masters, which runs 6-16 March), to name but a few, and instead had to send to Astana what effectively was the ‘benchwarmers’ of the B team.

US Teams:
Open: GM Dariusz Swiercz, GM Alexander Onischuk, GM Sam Sevian, GM Aleksandr Lenderman, GM Zviad Izoria; Captain: IM John Donaldson.

Women’s: WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, WGM Katerina Nemcova, FM Carissa Yip, WGM Sabine-Francesca Foiser, WCM Rochelle Wu; Captain: GM Melikset Khachiyan.

The reason for the weakened US team is that FIDE was in a state of flux following the presidential elections last October, and the new regime entered into a rushed six-week timeline with the Kazakh organisers – to nobody’s surprise, really – opted for dates that clashed close to the starting dates to the US Championship, which had been set a full year in advance, and any switch of dates for that would have both proved very difficult to reschedule back into the very busy Saint Louis calendar and also, schedule-wise, for several of the top US players, especially with a new season of the Grand Chess Tour also on the horizon soon.

And with the support, professionalism and generous sponsorship shown over the years from Rex Sinquefield and the Saint Louis Chess Club team that has dramatically raised the standard of the professional game in the US, it can come as no surprise to anyone that the leading players have, in turn, showed their loyalty by opting instead the preference of arriving on time to do battle for the two venerable US Championship titles.

Caruana is the big pre-tournament favourite to win the US Championship this year.  And the defeated world championship contender and world #2, who was in majestic form recently to win his Champions Showdown match against Pentala Harikrishna in Saint Louis recently, was back in action again at last weekend’s Bundesliga in Germany – only this time, he came unstuck against another equally formidable defeated world championship contender!

In what proved to be a bad omen for the weekend for the star-studded defending champion’s Baden-Baden, Schachfreunde Deizisau’s top board, Peter Leko – who lost the 2004 title match on speed tiebreak to Vladimir Kramnik – stole the show with flashes of his former self, as the Hungarian inflicted on the American #1 his first classical defeat of 2019.

Photo: Despite narrowly losing to Baden-Baden, Schachfreunde Deizisau’s top two boards, Leko and former US champion Gata Kamsky, went from benchwarmers to giant-killers by beating top 10 players Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave | © Maria Emelianova/chess.com

GM Peter Leko – GM Fabiano Caruana
Bundesliga 2018-19, (9)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 a6 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Bg5 Be6 7.e3 Nbd7 8.Bd3 h6 9.Bf4 g5 10.Bg3 Nh5 11.Be5 Nhf6 12.Bg3 Nh5 13.Ne2 Nxg3 14.Nxg3 g4 15.Nd2 h5!? Caruana’s strategy is not without its risks. He has the bishop-pair, and is trying to create space to make them more powerful – but it could all backfire in an ending, as the pawns could well become vulnerable if there is no protection. 16.Qc2 c5 17.dxc5 Nxc5 18.0-0 Qf6 19.Nb3 Nxd3 20.Qxd3 The game is finely poised with both players having their own strategies: Black has the dynamics of the bishops vs the knights, but he also has the weaker pawns for White to target – and I would imagine both players here were happy with this scenario. 20…h4 21.Ne2 Bd6 22.Nbd4 Rc8 23.Rad1 Leko continues to ratchet up the pressure on the isolated d-pawn – and if Caruana does nothing and just sits on the position, then he may well simply lose the d-pawn. Rather than allowing that to happen, Caruana decides to take the risk-level up a notch to further open the game for his bishop-pair. 23…Rc7 24.Qd2 Qe5?! The obvious try was 24…h3 25.g3 0-0!? and ask White to dare if he has enough to build-up the pressure on the d-pawn to win it. Black will be hoping that there isn’t enough with the back-rank threats created by …h3 – but Caruana unwisely thinks he has better by creating a few additional weaknesses in the White camp. 25.f4! Leko shows no fear nor holds back! And with this well-timed move, the game begins to inexorably slip away from Caruana. 25…gxf3 26.Nxf3 Qf5 27.Nfd4 Qe5 28.Nf4 The knights have excellent outposts of d4 & f4 and are more than a match for the bishops – but despite the pawn weakness on e4, crucial now for Leko is that he now has both his rooks primed to attack Caruana’s king. 28…Qe4 29.Rf2 h3 30.g3 Kd7 Caruana tries to run his king to a safe haven over on the queenside – but he’s missed one little problem with this plan that Leko hasn’t! 31.Nf3 Bxf4?! Caruana looks worried that the d5-pawn might fall in the middle of his king run to the queenside. And with that call, if the remaining minor pieces are also traded, then the endgame could simply be lost for Black with the pawn weaknesses. 32.exf4 Kc8 33.Re1 Qf5? For reasons that will soon become clear, Caruana had to try 33…Qa4! 34.b3 Qa3 35.Ng5! Re8 and take his chances with this position. 34.Qd4! Oops! Not only is the rook under attack, but Qa7 catches the Black king before it can get to b8 and safety. 34…Rd8 35.Qa7! d4 36.Nxd4? The frantic time trouble and the lure of an easy pawn snatch prove too much of a temptation for Leko. A pity, as after 36.Ne5! Black is on the verge of having to resign with his king caught, and the game likely ending with 36…Rc2 37.g4! Qh7 38.f5! and the heavy loss of material after 38…d3 39.Nxd3 Rxf2 40.Rc1+! Kd7 41.fxe6+ Ke8 42.Nxf2 and Black can resign. 36…Qd5 37.Nxe6 fxe6 38.a3 Rc6 39.Rfe2 Qb3 40.Qf2 Rd3 41.Qf1 Qb6+ 42.Kh1 Qd4 Caruana has ridden his luck in the time scramble, and escaped with just the loss of a couple of pawns, and is hoping that he can perhaps save the game with his active queen and rooks – but Leko finds a very efficient way to thwart this plan. 43.Qxh3 Rd2 44.Qg4There are no simple solutions here. If 44.Rxd2 Qxd2 45.Rxe6 Rc1+ 46.Re1+ Kc7 47.Qh7+ Kb6 48.Rxc1 Qxc1+ 49.Kg2 Qxb2+ 50.Kh3 Qxa3 51.f5 may still be winning for White, but in any queen and pawn endgame scenario – especially with the White king out in the open – it wouldn’t take much for the game to be saved by a timely perpetual check. Rather than risk this, Leko has seen a safer way to make progress. 44…Qd5+ 45.Kg1 Qd4+ 46.Kf1 Qd3 47.Qg8+ Kc7 48.Qg7+ Kb6 49.Qe5 Rcc2 50.Kf2! The first part of Leko radical solution to his problems. 50…Rxb2 51.Qxb2+! [see diagram] ….and now the final part! With the two rooks vs queen scenario, Leko gives his king lots of protection, and now only needs to usher his kingside pawns up the board. 51…Rxb2 52.Rxb2+ Ka5 53.Re3 Qd4 54.Rbe2 There’s now a veritable fortress created by the rooks and kingside pawns for the White king – and with it, Caruana is now just going through the motions of making some moves leading through the second time control at move 60 before his inevitable resignation. 54…Ka4 55.Kg2 Qd5+ 56.Rf3 b5 57.g4 a5 58.Re5 Qd1 Any checks here are just ‘spite checks’. If 58…Qd2+ 59.Kg3 Qa2 60.h4 Qa1 61.h5 the king can escape the checks with Kg3-h4-g5. 59.Rxe6 b4 Creating a passed b-pawn is Caruana’s last throw of the dice – but Leko has it all covered. 60.axb4 axb4 61.Ree3! 1-0 With the b-pawn stopped dead in its tracks by the rooks uniting, Caruana has no option other than to resign as there’s no way to stop the kingside pawns pushing up the board.

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