It hasn’t been the best week for Israel. President Obama gives a perfectly sensible speech saying publicly what everyone already knows, and the vile right-wing noise-machine presents it as “throwing Israel under the bus.” As Jeffrey Goldberg explains, Netanyahu seems hell-bent on a course that seems so obviously suicidal that you have to wonder what he could possibly be thinking.
Still, there has been one piece of good news for Israel this week. We now have an official challenger for the World Chess Championship, and he is Boris Gelfand, formerly of Belarus, but now an Israeli citizen. He will play a match against defending champion Viswanathan Anand of India, probably next year. Israel has long been a serious chess country, partly because of the large number of Russian Jews who emigrated there after the break-up of the Soviet Union, but Gelfand is the first Israeli to challenge for the world crown. He has been among the world elite since the late eighties, so it’s nice to see him get his shot. That said, Anand would definitely be considered the heavy favorite in the match.
I would also note that this is the second world chess championship in a row where neither player represents a former Soviet republic.
Gelfand prevailed in a series of elimination matches. Our study position today comes from the first round of those matches, from a game between American Gata Kamsky, and Bulgarian Veselin Topalov. Topalov had white in the following position:
It’s white to play and win.
There’s a saying in chess that the threat is stronger than the execution. This game provided two marvelous illustrations of that principle. Anyone playing white would be licking his chops in this position. His queen and knight are standing toe to toe with the exposed black king. He has several ways to win a pawn. He could play 1. Qf8+ Kd7 2. Qxf6, which looks awfully strong. There is also 1. Nc7+ Kf7 2. Nd5, which wins the f6 pawn by other means and certainly looks to be completely winning. This last line is what Topalov played, and who can blame him!
The problem is that black actually does have significant counterplay in the form of 2. … Qe2! White’s bishop on f2 is threatened, and the black equestrian team can quickly reach good squares. As someone who loves animals but dislikes religion, it makes me happy to see black’s knight’s dominating white’s bishops.
So, remembering our adage, white should have played 1. Bd4!1. … Nxd4 white wins with 2. Qd8+ Kf7 3. Qf8 mate. But what else can black do?
As I said, though, Topalov missed this. The line he played should still be winning, but it gives black some strong counterplay. If we now fast forward a few moves we come to this:
White has won two pawns, but he has no more attack and black’s queen and two knights have become very active. The match situation was such that Topalov needed a win. A draw would have sent Kamsky into the next round. It is black’s move, and he seems to have an embarrassment of riches. He can give a scary-looking check by moving one of his knights to f3, he could play Ne2+, or he could just win back one of his pawns with Nxf5. All are attractive options, but all of them lose.
Kamsky instead found the beautiful 1. … Qc2!! Once again, the threat is stronger than the execution. Black keeps all of his threatening knight moves in reserve. But now his queen prevents white from giving a check on the c-file. Black’s queen also now has access to e4, which is important if you are trying to harass a king on g2 or h1. The position is now just a forced draw, since white can no longer avoid perpetual check. (Notice that 2. Bxd4 Nf3+ 3. Kh1 Qh2 mate is unacceptable for white.)
So there you go. There’s another saying in chess, “When you find a good move sit on your hands! Their might be a better one.”