People who go to Cuba often say it is in a time warp, a casualty of the long US trade and travel embargo imposed on it by President Kennedy following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But in recent times President Obama has heralded in a diplomatic breakthrough that is seeing the re-establishing of normal relations with one of the world’s great chess-playing cultures with a rich history in the game.
One of the “players” of that Missile Crisis, the iconic revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was a big chess fan - and also a fan of Cuba’s famous chess son, José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942), when as a youth he witnessed him playing in Buenos Aires - and also that year of 1962, he initiated (through his government departments: the Cuban National Bank and Minister of Industry) and became the patron behind the first Capablanca Memorial tournament, that was won by Miguel Najdorf.
In 1965 though, the first chess casualty of the trade embargo turned out to be Bobby Fischer, as the the US State Department denied him a visa to play in the Capablanca Memorial. In response, the Cuban government spent $10,000 to allow Fischer instead to play by telex from the Manhattan Chess Club, with his moves in Havana being relayed at the board of his opponents by Capablanca’s son. Despite the inconvenience, Fischer went on to share second place behind the Soviet victor, Vasily Smyslov.
That was then, this is now; and with the embargo being ever-more relaxed, Cuba is beginning to open up more and more for Americans - and maybe soon we’ll see yet another American player take part in this long-standing tribute to Cuba’s famous chess son, who was world champion from 1921 to 1927.
Earlier this week, the 51st edition of the Capablanca Memorial concluded not in Havana but in Varadero, a tourist resort on a peninsula east of the capital. And like a fine Cuban cigar, Vassily Ivanchuk just keeps rolling on to claim a record seventh title, as the 47-year-old elite veteran top-scored with an undefeated 7/10.
Photo © | 51st Capablanca Memorial
GM Vassily Ivanchuk - GM Zoltan Almasi
51st Capablanca Memorial, (2)
1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5 The "Torre Attack", named after the Mexican enigma Carlos Torre - who in the mid-1920s, burst onto the chess scene much like a shooting star, only for his career to end tragically a few years later due to a nervous breakdown - is extremely popular at club-level. 3...h6 4.Bh4 c5 5.c3 d5 Usually 5...b6 and a Queen's Indian set-up is considered to be the popular option here. 6.e3 Nc6 7.Nbd2 cxd4 8.exd4 Be7 9.Bd3 Via the Torre Attack, we've transposed into a sort of Exchange Variation of the Caro-Kann, the difference being that White's dark-squared bishop is on g5/h4 rather than f4. 9...0-0 10.Qe2 Nh5?! Not immediately fatal, but along with Almasi's next move, Black position starts to slide with his pieces lacking in development and being dis-jointed. 11.Bxe7 Qxe7 12.Qe3 Stopping ...Nf4, the only threat Black had with his loose ...Nh5. 12...Rb8?! Black is trying to get in the usual counter-play in such positions with ...b5 and ...b4, but it all proves to be nothing more than wishful thinking, as Ivanchuk reacts energetically to prevent Black playing these moves. In reflection, perhaps Black should have played the immediate 12...Bd7. 13.0-0 Qf6 14.g3 Doubling down on preventing ...Nf4 leaving the knight stranded on h5 looking silly. 14...Bd7 15.Ne5 Qe7 Now 15...Nxe5 is bad: 16.dxe5 Qg5 17.f4 Qg4 18.Be2 Qh3 19.Rf2 g6 20.f5! exf5 21.Qxh6 and White has a big advantage. 16.f4 Nf6 Forced, as g4-g5 and a winning-attack was threatened. 17.Rae1 Just look how harmoniously White's pieces develop in comparison to Black's - and he still hasn't got on with his queenside counter-play. 17...Rfc8 18.g4! With the threat of g5-g6 coming, Almasi has no other option other than to accept the pawn sacrifice - and with it, there's further delay of his queenside counter-play. 18...Nxe5 19.fxe5 Nxg4 20.Qg3 h5 If 20...Qg5 21.Nf3 Qh5 22.h3 wins. 21.Re2 f5 22.exf6 Nxf6 23.Ref2 Ng4 The threat was 24.Rxf6 which can't be met by 23...Rf8 24.Rxf6! Rxf6 25.Rxf6 followed by 25.Qxb8+. However 23...Kh8 was a try, but after 24.Nf3 Be8 25.Ne5 Rc7 26.Qg5 Ne4 27.Rf8+ Kh7 28.Qf4 White has a big advantage. 24.Rf7 Qg5 25.Rxd7 Rf8 If 25...Qxd2 26.Rff7 was very strong and very winning. 26.h4 Qxd2 27.Rxg7+!! (See Diagram) 27...Kh8 Taking full advantage of the fact that 27...Kxg7 28.Qc7+ Kg8 29.Qh7 is mate. 28.Rxg4 hxg4 29.Qe5+ Kg8 30.Qxe6+ Kh8 31.Qe5+ Kg8 32.Qxd5+ 1-0 Since after 32...Kg7 33.Qd7+ mates, as does 32...Kh8 33.Qh5+.