Channeling a champion to his own chess tournament
Cuban world champion great Jose Raul Capablanca had a trademark touch that powered some of his greatest victories – the small jumpsuitthe small tactical flourish designed not to mate a king or win a queen, but to secure the tiniest of positional advantages such as controlling a vital square or exchanging a bad bishop for a good knight.
Rising American star GM Hans Moke Niemann appeared to channel Capablanca into the Cuban great’s memorial tournament, outpacing a quality field by two points at Capablanca’s 55th memorial in Havana last month with an unbeaten 7½-2½ result. Past winners of this legendary annual event include such luminaries as Bent Larsen, Miguel Najdorf and Vassily Ivanchuk, while a young Bobby Fischer, playing by telex from New York, scored a memorable second place behind the former world champion Vasily Smyslov at the 1965 tournament. .
Niemann made the tournament’s namesake particularly proud with a fine victory over Cuban star GM Yuniesky Quesada Perez, in a Jobava London System in which subtle positional touches from Black naturally turn into a winning tactical finish. After an unconventional opening, White retreats twice on a chance to mix things up with 13. Nxg6!? Rg8 (fxg6 14. Bxg6+ Kf8 15. Nf5 with strong compensation), and another five moves later with 18. Nxg6!? (instead of tamed play 18. Ne2) fxg6 19. Bxg6+ Ke7 20. Nxh5 Bh6 21. g4 Qg8, with complicated double-edged combat in store.
Instead, after 22. g4 a5 (White has a beautifully posted central knight to balance Black’s two bishops in a largely blocked position, but Niemann goes on to show that Black’s pressure on the queenside far exceeds White’s kingside trumps) 23. Qe3, Black finds the very Capablanca 23…Bc6! (exploiting the temporary pin on the white knight to redeploy the bishop to a better diagonal) 24. Kd2 Bd7 25. Ke2 b4, seizing the high ground in the coming battle for the only open file on the board.
A queen swap doesn’t solve White’s problems after 29. Nb5?! (a4 Bf8 30. Qg1 seems more difficult) Qxe3+ 30. Kxe3 Bc5+ 31. Kd2 Kdf8!!, a wonderfully subtle and counter-intuitive move – the black king needs a path away from the battle ahead, while Niemann knows he can still muster his strength for the final attack against White’s passive setup. Yet another nice touch is 35. Ke3 Bb6!, hiding the b-file and avoiding simplifying exchanges as Black doubles rooks on the file.
All is well in Black’s world after 41. Re2 Kc7! (having moved aside on e7, the black monarch returns to a solid position to prevent any knight turns and cover the key squares of the b-file) 42. Rd2 Bc6 43. Re2 (see diagram – as with so many great Capablancas 43 Rf2 may have held longer, but White’s passive play probably couldn’t be saved in the long run) R8b3! 44. Bxb3 (44. Kd2 Bxd4 45. cxd4 Rxf3) Bxd4+ 45. cxd4 (or 45. Kxd4 Rxe2 46. Ra2 Rxa2 47. Bxa2 Bxa4 and wins) Rxb3+ 46. Kf2 Rd3, winning the d-pawn and creating a pair of Monsters Central passed pawns.
Black’s king and bishop prevent any counterplay on the b-file and the end comes quickly: 49. Ke3 (Kc2 Rc4 50. Rbc1 d4) Kxa4 50. Kb3 d4+ 51. Kd3 Bd5 52. Kb8 Ra2! (threatening instant mate on d2) 53. Kxd4 c2, and White resigns on 54. Rc1 catches the unfortunate rook on b8.
Class told as GM Fabiano Caruana and WGM Irina Krush took top honors in the first knockout tournament of the 2022 American Cup at the St. Louis Chess Club last month. In the single format, the two winners topped the champions table, then pushed the winners out of the eliminations table in the classic two-game finals.
Young FM Alice Lee caused a stir in the tournament, upsetting a string of higher rated and more experienced female stars. But Krush, who has won every game in St. Louis without even needing a playoff in St. Louis, proved too tough, including in the deciding Cup game last week.
As with the first game, an error in positional judgment by Black (14. b4 g5? stops any hopes of a quick kingside break, leaving Krush free to operate on the other wing) is methodically punished by the whites here, whose relentless push at the queen’s wing becomes fabulous long-term support for her fianchetto bishop.
Lee’s whole game boils down to trying to save the b7-pawn, but White keeps finding ways to build up the pressure: 25. Nxc4 Nce7 26. Qb6! Nc8 (on 26…Ra6 White retains control with 27. Qxa6! bxa6 28. Rxb8+ Kg7 29. Kb6 Qa7 30. Nd6 h5 31. Rab1) 27. Qf6 Qe8 28. a5 Kh7 (Ra6 could now be met by 29 and Black the game collapses.
Lee plays a bit for cheap opportunities, but loses four pawns and a piece after 37. Ra8 Nf4 38. Qe4+ Neg6 39. gxf4 and resigns.
Quesada Perez-Niemann, 55th Capablanca Memorial, Havana, April 2022
1. d4 Nf6 2. Bf4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. e3 Bg7 5. h4 c6 6. Qd2 b5 7. Bd3 Nbd7 8. Nf3 Bb7 9. Ne5 a6 10. Ne2 c5 11. Ng3 h5 12. f3 c4 13. Be2 Nf8 14. c3 Ne6 15. Bd1 Nxf4 16. exf4 Nd7 17. Bc2 e6 18. Ne2 Bh6 19. 0-0-0 Nxe5 20. dxe5 Qb6 21. Nd4 0-0-0 22. g4 a5 23. Qe3 Bc6 24. Kd2 Bd7 25. Kxe3 Bc5+ 31. Kd2 Kdf8 32. g5 Kd8 33. a4 Re7 34. Nd4 Kb8 35. Ke3 Bb6 36. Rhd1 Kb7 37. Ke2 Rhb8 38. Ra1 Bc5 39. Rd2 Kd8 40. Ke2 Rb2 41. Re2 Kc7 42. Rd2 Bc6 43. Re2 R8b3 44. Bxb3 Bxd4+ 45. cxd4 Rxb3+ 46. Kf2 Rd3 47. Rb2 Kxd4 48. Rab1 c3 49. Ke3 Rxa4 50. Kb3 d4+ 51. Kd3 Bd5 52. Kb8 Ra2 53. Kxd4 c2 White resigns.
Krush-Lee, 2022 American Cup Final, St. Louis, April 2022
1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. g3 a6 4. b3 d4 5. e3 c5 6. exd4 cxd4 7. Bg2 Nc6 8. OO Bc5 9. d3 h6 10. Ba3 Bxa3 11. Nxa3 Nge7 12. Nc2 Qd6 13. Qd2 e5 14. b4 g5 15. a4 Ng6 16. c5 Qc7 17. Na3 Be6 18. Qb2 OO 19. Nd2 a5 20. Nb5 Qd7 21. bxa5 Kxa5 22. Nd6 Kb8 23. Kfb1 Ra7 24. N2c4 Bxc4 25. Nxc4 Nce7 26. Qb6 Nc8 27. Qf6 Qe8 28. a5 Kh7 29. a6 Nf8 30. axb7 Rxa1 31. Rxa1 Ne7 32. Nd6 Qd7 33. Qxf7+ Kh8 34. Qf6+ Kg8 35. Qxe5 Nfg6 36. Qxd4 Kh7 37. Ra8 Nf4 38. Qe4+ Neg6 39. gxf4 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]