‘It does not matter.” — Russian GM Alexander Grischuk
“It’s not an excuse, but in general I don’t feel I’m playing chess here.” — Russian GM Nikita Vitiugov
Playing top-flight chess is hard enough; playing it with the weight of world events on your shoulder is infinitely tougher.
Like some prominent Russian artists, writers and performers, Russia’s chess elite have — with some notable exceptions — been a profile in courage in the days since the country’s forces invaded neighboring Ukraine. A group of nearly three dozen prominent Russian chess stars, including recent world championship challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi and former women’s world champ Alexandra Kosteniuk, put their names to an open letter late last week to President Vladimir Putin condemning the war, sympathizing with the pain of their Ukrainian counterparts and calling for peace.
It was an act of considerable courage at a time when open dissent could cost them professionally and personally, and even put their families in jeopardy. Even as international chess bodies and tournament organizers are banning Russian and Belarusian teams and players, such courage should be noted and celebrated.
One could almost see the heavy cloud of current events hanging over the FIDE Grand Prix tournament now underway in Belgrade, one of three events this spring to determine the last two slots in the candidates tournament for the right to challenge world titleholder Magnus Carlsen. Just one of the five Russian players in the 20-player preliminaries — GM Dmitry Andreikin — advanced to the event’s semifinal and Grischuk, an open critic of the war, has seemed particularly distracted and depressed by current events.
In his game against Andreikin, Grischuk gets off to a promising start before things go downhill. In a Sicilian Paulsen, Grischuk shows some early aggression with 15. Qf3 g6 16. f5!? looking to break open the position for a kingside attack.
Black gives up a central pawn as his queen goes in search of counterplay, and a very tricky position arises after 19. Nxe6 Qa5!? 20. Nd5 Bd8: The pinned White knight is under attack but virtually all of White’s forces are targeting the Black king.
Andreikin comes up with a fine idea, which forces White to mentally shift gears from offense to defense, a tough transition even had Grischuk been in a better frame of mind.
Thus: 21. Bh6 (see diagram) Qxe1!! (and not 21…Bxe6?? 22. Qxe6+! Rxe6 23. Rf8 mate; staying on defense with 21…Nf7 allows 22. Rxf7! Qxe1+ [Kxf7 23. Rf1+ Kg8 24. Qf3, with devastating pressure down the f-file] 23. Rf1 Qh4 24. Qxh4 Bxh4 25. Nec7, and White keeps an edge) 22. Rxe1 Bxe6 23. Qe3 Ng4 24. Qd2 Nxh6 25. Be2 (Qxh6 Bxd5, and the bishop can’t be taken because of the e-file pin) Ng7, and now 26. Qxh6 is met by 26…Bxd5 27. exd5 Rxc2.
As the position settles down, Black’s material edge — rook, bishop and knight for queen and pawn — starts to tell. In the final position after 35. b3 Bd5, the coordinated Black army is about to go on the offensive; a dispirited Grishcuk resigned.
Russian GM Alexander Predke also had a rough time of it in his game against French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, though losing a tense game to one of the world’s top players is not exactly a shock result. In a Najdorf Sicilian, Vachier-Lagrave as Black attempts a provocative early queen sortie with 8. 0-0-0 Qa5!?, and much of the early middle game battle come with his king still trapped in the center.
Amid a fierce battle for the initiative, Black takes a risk with 22. Re3 Qg4 23. Nf3 Bc6!?, removing a key defender of the vital e6-square. The Frenchman after the game gave the amazing variation here 24. Bxe6!? fxe6 25. Rxe6 Nd5! 26. Nxd5 Rxe6 27. Nc7+ Kf7 28. Ne5+! Rexe5 29. Qxg4 Be4, and the computers agree that Black is holding his own in a still-very unclear position.
But Predke backs off with 24. a4 (“a relief to see,” MV-L admitted later) Kf8 25. axb5 axb5 26. g3 b4 27. Na2 Rf5, and now it is clearly Black who is dictating play. With his kingside under pressure and his knight out of play, White lashes out with a sharp idea that very nearly works: 29. Rxe2 Bf3! 30. Rxe6?! (worth a shot, as other options are also unpleasant; e.g., 30. Nxf3?! Rxf3 31. Rg2 Rg6 32. Rd3 [Rdg1 Bd5] Rf1+ 33. Nc1 Nh5 with a bind) Bxd1 31. Rxe7 Bxc2+! (Kxe7?? 32. Nxf5+ Ke8 33. Nxh6 gxh6 34. Nxb4), the winning move, since White can’t decline the sacrifice as the bishop also covers the f5-square.
There followed 32. Kxc2 (Bxc2 Rf1+ 33. Nc1 Kxe7) Rc5+ (escaping the knight’s attack with check) 33. Kd3 Kxe7 34. Nxb4 Nd7 35. Nd5+ Kf8 36. Nf5 Rg6 — White’s minor pieces are annoying, but the heavy artillery that comes with winning two exchanges is too much.
White plays on a bit before one last little trick forces resignation: 43. Bc4 Rxg3 44. Ndc2 Rg4+!, and after 45. Nxg4 Rxc4+ 46. Nd4 Nc6, White will soon be a full rook down. Predke gave up.
Andreikin, after edging American GM Sam Shankland with a last-round victory in his group, advanced to the semifinals in Belgrade along with Vachier-Lagrave, Dutch GM Anish Giri and GM Richard Rapport of Hungary.
Grischuk-Andreikin, FIDE Grand Prix 2, Group A, Belgrade, March 2022
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 Nf6 7. a3 d6 8. f4 Qc7 9. Bd3 Be7 10. O-O O-O 11. Kh1 Re8 12. Qf3 Bd7 13. Rae1 Rac8 14. Qg3 Nh5 15. Qf3 g6 16. f5 Ne5 17. Qh3 Qd8 18. fxe6 fxe6 19. Nxe6 Qa5 20. Nd5 Bd8 21. Bh6 Qxe1 22. Rxe1 Bxe6 23. Qe3 Ng4 24. Qd2 Nxh6 25. Be2 Ng7 26. Rf1 Nf7 27. Nf6+ Bxf6 28. Rxf6 Rc5 29. h3 Nh5 30. Bxh5 Rxh5 31. Qf2 Re5 32. Qb6 Re7 33. Rf4 g5 34. Rf2 Rxe4 35. b3 Bd5 White resigns.
Predke-Vachier-Lagrave, FIDE Grand Prix 2, Group D, Belgrade, March 2022
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. Qf3 Be7 8. O-O-O Qa5 9. h4 Bd7 10. Bc4 Nc6 11. Bb3 h6 12. Be3 Ne5 13. Qe2 Rc8 14. Kb1 b5 15. f4 Neg4 16. e5 dxe5 17. fxe5 Nxe5 18. Bxh6 Rxh6 19. Qxe5 Qc7 20. Qe2 Qf4 21. Rh3 Rc5 22. Re3 Qg4 23. Nf3 Bc6 24. a4 Kf8 25. axb5 axb5 26. g3 b4 27. Na2 Rf5 28. Nd4 Qxe2 29. Rxe2 Bf3 30. Rxe6 Bxd1 31. Rxe7 Bxc2+ 32. Kxc2 Rc5+ 33. Kd3 Kxe7 34. Nxb4 Nd7 35. Nd5+ Kf8 36. Nf5 Rg6 37. Nde3 Rb6 38. Nd4 Ne5+ 39. Ke4 Nc6 40. Bd5 Ne7 41. b3 Rg6 42. b4 Rc3 43. Bc4 Rxg3 44. Ndc2 Rg4+ White resigns.
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