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13 May

The Bronze Horseman

From the end of the Second World War, and indeed for up to a decade before, the old Soviet Union was the world’s chess superpower.  And during this period there was an intense chess rivalry between the two cities of Moscow and then Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) that took on an almost legendary status.  It was the chess equivalent of the Yankees verses the Red Sox, with even ‘friendly’ matches between the two metropolises proving to be often bitter, hard-fought affairs.

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But after the demise of the Soviet Union, funding for such annual chess matches evaporated along with the regime. And as Russia took over the mantle of chess superpower, the subsequent Russian Team Championship was not between Moscow or St Petersburg, as the wealthy teams tended to come from the oil and gas-rich frozen tundra of Siberia. Now the natural order of things has been restored, with the current Russian Team Championship this week in Sochi coming down to the big fight for the title between two powerful teams from Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

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In the end, “The Bronze Horsemen” from St. Petersburg, led by seven-time Russian Champion Peter Svidler, edged out their main rivals Moscow SHSM Legacy Square Capital, led by title-challenger Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniactchi - the deciding factor proving to be a captain’s innings from cricket-mad Svidler, whose crucial top-board win over Karjakin made all the difference for The Bronze Horseman in their narrow 3.5-2.5 victory to clinch the title. 

And for those that may be wondering about the meaning of the team-name for the winner’s, then it is a highly-symbolic one for the city. The Bronze Horseman, is an impressive equestrian statue to the founder of St. Petersburg, Peter the Great, that stands on Senatskaia Square, by the Admiralty and St Isaac’s Cathedral. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great, and was created by the French sculptor Étienne Maurice Falconet.

GM Sergey Karjakin - GM Peter Svidler
Russian Team Championship, (6)
Ruy Lopez, Anti-Marshall
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 8.a4 The Anti-Marshall - a wise move from Anand, as Svidler is one of the world's leading authorities on the Marshall Attack with 8.c3 d5. I'm also reminded of the sage advice Garry Kasparov was given for his 1993 World Championship match with Nigel Short. He asked Efim Geller, the leading Soviet opening theorists of his time, what he should do against the Marshall? Geller said avoid it, play instead the Anti-Marshall. 8...b4 9.d4 d6 10.dxe5 dxe5 11.Nbd2 White can also exchange queens here and head for the ending - but even so, and winning a temp by hitting f7, this should not worry Black: 11.Qxd8 Rxd8 12.Ng5 Rf8 and Black is doing OK here. 11...Bc5 12.a5 Karjakin attempts to fix Black's a-pawn on a6. 12...h6 13.h3 Qd6 Svidler, a lifelong black-defender against Lopez, cuts directly to the chase now by challenging White's Lopez bishop directly with ...Be6. 14.Qe2 Be6 15.Nc4 Qe7 The bishop on e6 indirectly defends the e-pawn. 16.c3 After this move, Magnus Carlsen's challenger seems to lose the thread of the game. Instead, in a previous meeting between these two at the 2014 Russian Ch., Karjakin played 16.Be3 and Svidler equalised after 16…Rab8 17.Red1 Nxe4 18.Ba4 Ng3 19.fxg3 Bxc4 20.Qxc4 Bxe3+ 21.Kh2 Nxa5 22.Qe4 Bb6 Karjakin,S-Svidler,P Kazan 2014. But perhaps fearing an improvement, Karjakin opts instead for what turns out to a strategic mistake. 16...bxc3 17.bxc3 Nh5!? The obvious move looks to be hitting the bishop on b3 with 17...Rab8 but after 18.Bc2 suddenly Black has to worry about the potential weakness of his a-pawn. Black could try the more accurate 17...Rfb8, but now after 18.Bc2, suddenly Black has his rooks in a bit of a mix in the corner of the board. Rather than that, Svidler wisely opts to head directly for f4 to force the exchange Karjakin into exchanging bishop for knight, that gives him a good grip on the dark-squares. 18.g4? For those that think 18.Ba4 looks like a winner, as after exchanging on c6, White will have Nfxe5 and a discovered attack on the knight on h5, things get somewhat complicated after 18...Ng3!? 19.Qc2 Bxc4 20.Bxc6 Rad8 21.Bd5 Bb5 22.c4 Bd7 23.Bb7 Rb8! 24.Bxa6 f5 and Black has easily whipped up a dangerous attack on White's kingside. I imagine it must have been visions of such easy attacks that made Karjakin lash out here with 18.g4?, after which he is in a bad way. He should really have braved it with the better 18.Ba4. 18...Nf4 19.Bxf4 Karjakin simply can't leave the knight on f4, as his position would rapidly collapse. However, now he has a chronic weakness on the dark-squares that Svidler exploits. 19...exf4 20.Ncd2 Rfd8 21.e5 Rab8 22.Rab1 Taking the a-pawn will not only give Black an easy attack, he'll also capture White's a-pawn into the bargain: 22.Bxe6 Qxe6 23.Qxa6 Rb2 24.Rad1 Ra2! and the a-pawn falls with Black's pieces also ready to launch the attack. 22...Nxa5 23.Bc2 Rxb1 24.Rxb1 Bd5 25.Be4 Nc6 26.Bxd5 Rxd5 27.Qe4 Taking on a6 leaves Black with a superior position: 27.Qxa6 Nxe5 28.Rb8+ Kh7 where Black is a pawn to the better, and if White's king now survives, Black will likely also win the weak pawn on c3. Rather than this, Karjakin tries to keep thing's together with his central forces and activating his pieces as best he can, while picking off the pawn on f4 - but long-term, Black's passed a-pawn becomes a decoy as a big threat in the ending. 27...Qe6 28.Nc4 Bf8 29.Qxf4 Rc5 30.Ne3 Rxc3 31.Rb7 Rc5 Karjakin at least has made the best for his pieces - but Svidler easily takes the game down now to an ending where his a-pawn proves to be the decoy winner. 32.Rxc7 Nxe5 33.Rxc5 Nxf3+ 34.Qxf3 Bxc5 35.Nf5 Kh7 36.Qc3 Bf8! (See Diagram) Much better than 36...f6, which leaves the white-squares around Black's king vulnerable for a possible Karjakin escape with a draw. With the bishop on f8, Svidler keeps the integrity of the defence of his king from any potential perpetual checks. 37.Ne3 g6 38.h4 Bg7 And now we see another benefit of Svidler retreating his bishop to safely secure his king - on the g7-a1 diagonal, his bishop also controls the queening square for his a-pawn. 39.Qc5 Be5 40.h5 gxh5 41.gxh5 Kg7 42.Kg2 Bf4 43.Nf5+ Kf6 44.Ng3 Bd6 45.Qd4+ Be5 46.Qc5 Kg5 Remarkably, Svidler's king simply wanders voluntary up the board with no threats. 47.Qa5 Kh4 48.Qa4+ Kg5 49.Qa5 Qc6+ 50.Kh3 Kf6 51.Qd8+ Kg7 52.Nf5+ Kh7 53.Ng3 The Black king is very secure where it is, as Karjakin can't get his queen and knight to combine because of Black's major threat of ...Qh1+. If 53.Qe7 Qh1+ 54.Kg4 Qe4+ quickly wins. Now Svidler gets to successfully use his a-pawn as a decoy to take the attack to Karjakin's king, as his queen and bishop can combine their forces - all of which leaves Svidler with an easily won king and pawn ending. 53...Qf3 54.Qa5 Bd4 55.Qxa6 Bxf2 56.Qd6 Qxg3+ 0-1

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