Once they were regarded as the Kings of Chess. Alekhine, Botvinnik, Keres, Bronstein, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Polugaevsky, Stein, Kortchnoi, Karpov and Kasparov – all true titans of the game, and all of them made their name by being past winners of the once prestigious Soviet Championship crown, a tournament that was regarded at one time as being the most demanding in the world.
The legendary gladiatorial contest of these championships from the Golden Age of Soviet Chess have a wonderful backstory, 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, and are all chronicled in great detail by GM Andrew Soltis in his enjoyably readable though weighty tome, Soviet Chess 1917-1991 (McFarland & Co, 450 pages).
Soltis is a former US champion and a sub-editor at the New York Post, and he uses his journalistic background to weave a wonderful tale surrounding the history of the Soviet championships, from it’s meagre and impoverished beginnings during the Bolshevik Revolution (when the players even threatened to go on strike for a better bread ration), through the tragic short careers of minor masters during Stalin reign of terror, to the 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 69th edition is now underway in Novosibirsk. However, in another landmark for the decline of Russian chess, for the first time since Elo Ratings were introduced in the early 1970s, there’s no player in this year’s superfinal ranked in the world’s top 10.
Vladimir Kramnik is missing; also missing is Sergey Karjakin, who is now deep in training for his World Championship Match with Magnus Carlsen in Manhattan next month; and missing also is Ian Nepomanniachtchi, the recent Tal Memorial victor. Yet even with the three top players absent, there’s still a formidable line-up in Novosibirsk that includes a mix of seasoned veterans and the addition of some new young Russian blood.
The pre-tournament favorite is the seven-time champion Peter Svidler - and St Petersburg’s finest got off to a good start in his quest of beating his own record of an eighth Russian title.
1-4. Grigoryl Oparin, Alexander Riazantsev, Peter Svidler, Vladimir Fedoseev 2.5/4; 5-9. Alexander Grischuk, Dmitry Jakovenko, Evgeny Tomashevsky, Aleksey Goganov, Dmitry Kokarev 2; 10-11. Nikita Vitugov, Dmitry Bocharov 1.5; 12. Ernesto Inarkiev 1.
GM Peter Svidler - GM Ernesto Inarkiev
69th Russian Ch. Superfinal, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Berlin Defence
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3!? If you are looking for dynamic play, then this is now the way to play, as it avoids the so-called "Berlin endgame" and the early exchange of queens after 4.0-0 Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 that's notoriously tough for White to breakdown. Instead, Svidler aims for a sort of Giuoco Piano set-up with simple but sound development. 4...Bc5 5.c3 d5 6.exd5 Qxd5 7.Bc4 Qd6 8.Qe2 0-0 9.Nbd2 a5 Played not so much to preserve his dark-squared bishop, but mainly to stop White expanding on the queenside with b4 and a4. 10.Ng5 Qe7 11.Nde4 Bd6 12.a4 Svidler has emerged from the opening with a little advantage with his better-placed pieces. 12...h6 13.h4! A common attacking motif; the idea being that if Black takes the knight, then White will have a mating attack down the h-file. 13...Nd8 As we said, the knight is taboo: 13...hxg5? 14.hxg5 Ng4 15.Qf3! and faced with the simple plan of 16.Qg3-h4 and a quick mate down the h-file, Black's only try is 15...Nd4 16.cxd4 exd4 17.Rh4! winning, as 17...Ne5 18.Qh5 returns to the h-file mating plan. 14.Qf3 Another excellent follow-up from Svidler, as it prevents Inarkiev regrouping with 14...Ne6. 14...Ng4 And not 14...Ne6? 15.Nxf6+ Qxf6 16.Qxf6 gxf6 17.Nxe6 Bxe6 18.Bxe6 fxe6 19.Bxh6 and White has an extra pawn and the better position - and the h-pawn is running. 15.Qe2 Kh8 16.f3 Nf6 17.Nxf6 Qxf6 18.g4 Continuing the attack AND stopping Black playing ...Bf5 to develop his bishop and shore up the defence of the weak white squares around his king. 18...Ne6 19.Qe4 Nxg5 This is forced now. Svidler is winning, but he misses a ruthlessly clinical execution. 20.hxg5 Qe7 21.Bd2? It's hard to be judgemental as Svidler develops a piece and looks to castle queenside to bring his other rook into the attack, but he missed 21.g6! which, admittedly, was the easy part as he has to follow-up accurately in order to brilliantly bludgeon his way through to Black's king, after 21...f5 22.Bxh6!! gxh6 (Of course, if 22...fxe4?? 23.Bg5#) 23.Rxh6+ Kg7 24.Qe3! (The quiet moves in such positions are always the killers in chess - and here, this is the only way to win for certain with a knockout, as the immediate 24.Rh7+? Kxg6 25.gxf5+ Bxf5 26.Rxe7 Bxe4 27.Re6+ Rf6 28.Rxf6+ Kxf6 29.fxe4 leaves White only a pawn up in an endgame where Black retains excellent drawing chances with the opposite colour bishops and the pawns all on the same side of the board.) 24...f4 25.Rh7+ Kf6 26.Qe4 Qe8 27.g7 winning. 21...Be6 22.0-0-0 c6 23.g6 As Eric Morecambe would perhaps say, Svidler is playing all the right moves, but not necessarily in the right order! This comes a couple of moves too late now, and again he misses the big knockout punch with 23.Rxh6+!! gxh6 24.Rh1 f5 25.gxf6 Rxf6 26.g5 Bf5 27.gxf6 Qxf6 28.Qe3 Bf8 29.f4 exf4 30.Qxf4 and Black's in dire straits, as there's no way to simultaneously defend against the multiple threats of Rf1 , Be3-d4 and Qc7. However, although Svidler misses two golden knockout moments, he still has a technically won game. 23...fxg6 24.Qxg6 Rf6 25.Qe4 Qf7 If 25...Bxc4 26.dxc4 there's no way to prevent White playing g5 and breaking through to Black's king. 26.g5 Rf5 27.g6 Yet again, g6 wasn't the best. Instead 27.gxh6 g6 28.Bxe6 Qxe6 29.h7 Qd5 30.Qg4 Rf6 31.Rh3 with an easy win. 27...Qxg6 28.Rdg1 Qf6 29.Rxg7! At least Svidler redeems himself by finishing with a degree of élan! 29...Kxg7 30.Rxh6 Qxh6 31.Bxh6+ Kxh6 32.Qh4+ Kg7 33.Bxe6 Rf6 34.Bc4 Inarkiev's king wandering aimlessly in No Man's Land is going to be his downfall. 34...Re8 35.Kb1 Re7 36.Ka2 First things first, Svidler marches his king to the safety of cover on a2. 36...Rg6 37.d4 Rh6 38.Qe4 exd4 39.Qxd4+ Rf6 Black is doomed here. The alternative was just as bad: 39...Be5 40.Qd8! and Black will also now lose an exchange. 40.Qg4+ Rg6 41.Qf5 Bc7 42.Bd3 Rg3 If 42...Ree6 43.Bc4 Re7 44.Qc8 threatens b7 and also Qg8+ and Qf8+. 43.f4 Rf7 The reality of the position is that, if Black's king were over on a7 or a8 with protection, then the White win would not be so easy. But with Inarkiev's king wandering around in the open, Svidler will easily pick extra material off now. 44.Qh7+ Kf8 45.Qh6+ Rgg7 46.Bc4 Bxf4 47.Qe6! The final blow wins extra material, as the threat of Qc8+ will easily pick off all of Black's queenside pawns. 47...Rc7 48.Qf6+ Rgf7 49.Bxf7 Rxf7 50.Qd8+ Kg7 51.Qxa5 Kf6 52.Qd8+ Ke6 53.Qe8+ Re7 54.Qg6+ Ke5 It's the final act, as Svidler forces Black's king further up the board, as Inarkiev can't even try heading back to attempt a fortress with 54...Kd7 as 55.Qf5+ picks off the bishop. 55.b4 Be3 56.Kb3 Ba7 57.a5 Be3 58.c4 Rd7 59.Qe8+ 1-0