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Chess title match offers window on the state of the game

November 6, 2018

One can always hope, but don’t look for nail-biting, scintillating chess when world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and American challenger Fabiano Caruana sit down Nov. 9 for the first game of their 12-game match in London.

The stakes are too high, the players so evenly match, the cost of an oversight so great that title matches tend to produce cautious, low-risk chess, with the players probing for small advantages and hoping for a blunder. Draws are once again expected to far outnumber the decisive games.

What world championship matches do deliver, however, are illuminating snapshots of the state of the game from the swashbuckling brawls of the 19th century Romantic era, to the scientific sparring of the post-World War I Hypermodern Era, to the eclectic, rule-bending approach of the modern game.

In the first world title match played on U.S. soil, Austria’s Wilhelm Steinitz turned back German-Polish rival Johannes Zukertort 10-5-5, in part because his systematic, defensive style overcame the challenger’s attempts to mix it up. But the champion sealed the deal with a 19-move miniature that beat Zukertort at his own game.

This Vienna Gambit line (3. f4) is now named after the Austrian and he handles to complications to perfection. After 10. hxg3 Qg4 11. Qe1+, believe it or now, theory holds the position dynamically equal. But Black fails to address his big weakness a vulnerable king and pays a drastic price.

Thus: 11...Be7 12. Bd3 (not 12. Rh4 Nxc2!) Nf5? (now was the time for 12...Kf8 13. Bf4 Bf5 14. Qf2 Bf6, with equality) 13. Nf3 Bd7 14. Bf4 f6 (c6? 15. Ne5 already traps the Black queen) 15. Ne4, when 15...Kd8 16. Nh4 Nd4 17. Nf2 Qh5 18. Qa5 Rc8 19. Ng6 Qf3+ 20. Kf1 leaves White significantly better.

But that would have been better than the game’s 15...Ngh6? (see diagram), when Steinitz finished the game and the match with 16. Bxh6 Nxh6 17. Rxh6! gxh6 18. Nxf6+ (with the king still on e8, White pins and wins) Kf8 19. Nxg4, and Zukertort resigned.

Just four decades later, the stylistic differences were vast in the 1927 match in which Franco-Russian master Alexander Alekhinedethroned Cuban great Jose Raul Capablanca in a massive upset in Argentina. For one thing, after Alekhine’s Game 1 win on the black side of a French Defense, the next 33 games featured 1. d4, all but one a Queen’s Gambit Declined.

Closed games and positional maneuvering were the order of the day, with Alekhine stunning the chess world by holding his own with the great Capablanca. Perhaps his best win was Game 21, when Black after 18. Bf3 Rc4! 19. Ne4 Qc8 20. Rxc4?! (Alekhine recommended 20. Qb1! Rd8 21. Nd2 Rxc1 22. Rxc1 Qa8 23. Bc7, forcing some helpful exchanges) Nxc4 21. Rc1 Qa8, uses the powerfully posted knight on c4 to dominate the rest of the game.

Black nurses that tiny edge to the finish line on 25. a4 (trying to ease the pressure but making the b4-pawn a weakness) Bf6 26. Nf3 (Rd1 bxa4 27. Qxa4 Nb2) Bb2! 27. Re1 (Rb1 Na3! 28. Qxb2 Qb3! 30. Qf1 bxa4 31. h3 a3 and wins) Rd8 28. axb5 axb5 29. h3 e5 30. Rb1 e4! 31. Nd4 (Ne1 Qd2 32. Qc2 Qxc2 33. Nxc2 Rd2 34. Ne1 Na3) Bxd4 32. Rd1? (exd4 Qxd4 concedes the pawn but keeps the game going) Nxe3!, and White resigned facing 33. Qxd5 Rxd5 34. fxe3 Bxe3+ 35. Kf1 Rxd1+.

Steinitz-Zukertort, World Championship Match, Game 20, New Orleans, March 1886

1. e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 exf4 4.d4 d5 5.exd5 Qh4+ 6.Ke2 Qe7+ 7.Kf2 Qh4+ 8.g3 fxg3+ 9.Kg2 Nxd4 10.hxg3 Qg4 11.Qe1+ Be7 12.Bd3 Nf5 13.Nf3 Bd7 14.Bf4 f6 15.Ne4 Ngh6 16.Bxh6 Nxh6 17.Rxh6 gxh6 18.Nxf6+ Kf8 19.Nxg4 Black resigns.

Capablanca-Alekhine, World Championship Match, Game 21, Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 1927

1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Nbd7 5. e3 Be7 6. Nf3 O-O 7. Rc1 a6 8. a3 h6 9. Bh4 dxc4 10. Bxc4 b5 11. Be2 Bb7 12. O-O c5 13. dxc5 Nxc5 14. Nd4 Rc8 15. b4 Ncd7 16. Bg3 Nb6 17. Qb3 Nfd5 18. Bf3 Rc4 19. Ne4 Qc8 20. Rxc4 Nxc4 21. Rc1 Qa8 22. Nc3 Rc8 23. Nxd5 Bxd5 24. Bxd5 Qxd5 25. a4 Bf6 26. Nf3 Bb2 27. Re1 Rd8 28. axb5 axb5 29. h3 e5 30. Rb1 e4 31. Nd4 Bxd4 32. Rd1 Nxe3 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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