Once they were Kings. Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, David Bronstein, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Lev Polugaevsky, Leonid Stein, Viktor Kortchnoi, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov – all true titans of the game, who made their names in chess by being past winners of the once prestigious and demanding Soviet Championship crown.
The legendary gladiatorial contest of these championships, spanning from Alekhine’s win in civil-war torn 1920, through to the last in 1991, due to the break-up of the Soviet Union, were regarded as the ultimate in tournament praxis — and they are covered in detail by GM Andrew Soltis in his behemoth tome Soviet Chess 1917-1991 (McFarland & Co, 450 pages)
Soltis, a sub-editor at the New York Post, uses his journalistic background to weave a wonderful and fascinating tale surrounding the history of Soviet chess, from it’s meagre and impoverished beginnings during the Bolshevik Revolution, through the tragic short careers of minor masters during Stalin reign of terror, to its final years when grandmasters rebelled against the USSR Sports Committee's financial rip-offs that led to many of them quitting the motherland for Israel and the US.
While the iconic status of the all-Soviet Championship is no more, nowadays the Russian Championship Superfinal has taken over the mantle, and the 68th edition is drawing to a close in far-off Chita in Siberia, near to the Russian-China border. And with three rounds left to play, there could well be a new name on the trophy, as Evgeny Tomashevsky holds the lead at the top on 5.5/8, a half point ahead of Nikita Vitugov and Sergey Karjakin - and none of the troika have ever won the title.
Evgeny Tomashevsky - Ildar Khairullin
68th Russian Championship Superfinal, (7)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 The first test of this system was came from the first Soviet champion Alekhine when he played the opening's godfather Ernst Grünfeld, Vienna 1922. It had a hiatus for half a century before Soviet Mark Taimanov revived the line; it then received a further boost when Bobby Fischer faced it in a couple of games, notably a razor-sharp encounter against Henrique Mecking at Buenos Aires 1970. 4...Ne4 5.Bh4 Black has instant equality after 5.Nxe4 dxe4 6.e3 c5 5...c5 Fischer played 5...Nxc3 6.bxc3 dxc4 7.e3 Be6! and his novel sharp idea marked a new era in how Black handles this line. 6.cxd5 Nxc3 7.bxc3 Qxd5 This is the less adventurous approach; and it invariably leads to an equal position with many draws. 8.e3 Bg7 9.Nf3 Nc6 10.Be2 cxd4 11.cxd4 0-0 12.0-0 Bf5 13.h3 Rac8 14.Qb3 Qxb3 15.axb3 Generally speaking, when the queens come off in this line, the draw is usually not that far behind. But Tomashevsky takes what little he can from the position, and builds on this. 15...a6 16.g4 Be4 17.Nd2 Bd5 18.Nc4 Rcd8 19.Rac1 Rfe8 20.Rfd1 Nb4 21.Nb6!? The pawn sacrifices works here, because Black ends up with bad minor pieces. 21...Bxb3 22.Rd2 Rd6 If 22...Nc6 23.Rb1! Na5 (23...Be6? 24.d5! Na7 25.Rdd1 Bc8 (25...Bd7 26.d6!) 26.Nxc8 Nxc8 27.Rxb7 and White has a big advantage.) 24.Rdb2 Be6 25.Bg3 Nc6 26.Bf3 and White has good prospects of going on to win. 23.Nc8 Rc6 24.Nxe7+ Rxe7 25.Rb1 White is going to end up with serious play against Black's queenside pawns. 25...Bf6 26.Bxf6 Rxf6 27.Rxb3 Nd5 28.Kg2 Threatening Bf3 28...b5 29.Bf3 Nb6 30.Ra2 Stopping the pawns from getting mobile. 30...Na4 No better was 30...Nc4 31.Bd5 Rc7 32.e4! and White is better with the more active bishop and better pawns. 31.Rc2 Rd6 32.g5 Kg7 33.h4 h6 34.Kg3 hxg5 35.hxg5 f6 36.gxf6+ Rxf6 37.Ra3 White's rooks are the more active, as is his his bishop over the knight, and Black has weak queenside pawns that are extremely difficult to defend. 37...Rd6 38.Bd1! (See Diagram) 38...Ra7 39.Rca2 Nc5 40.Bc2 Ne6 41.Ra5 Nc7 42.Be4 Rb6 43.Kf3 Ne8 Pushing the pawn only makes it vulnerable: 43...b4 44.Bd3 b3 45.Rb2 Rab7 46.Bc4 Rb4 47.Rc5! (threatening Bxb3, as the nkight on c7 will be hanging. 44.Ke2 Re7 45.Kd3 Nc7 46.f3 Rd7 47.Rc2 Ne6 48.Ra1 Kf6 49.Rg1 Rg7 50.Rgc1 Rd6 51.Rc8 Rgd7 52.Rg1! Rg7 53.Kd2 g5 54.Kc3 a5 55.Ra8 Rc7+ 56.Kb2 a4 57.Rh1 Rc4? The game was lost anyway, but Black has now fallen into an unexpected mating net. 58.Rh6+ Ke7 59.Rh7+ Kf6 60.Rg8! 1-0