08 Feb

Blast from the Past

Which player on the elite circuit got on more of his colleagues’ nerves than any other?  No, not Bobby Fischer but rather Henrique Mecking, a player seen as potentially one of the American’s up-and-coming rivals for the world crown.  Nine out of ten grandmasters would instantly have nominated Mecking, the one-time Brazilian enfant terrible, who retired ludicrously early from active competition some years ago due to illness.

After 28.Qxa2!

In today’s world, Mecking would have been identified as being “OCD”, as over and over again, he would have restlessly adjusted half the pieces until each occupied the exact geometric centre of its square.  It didn’t stop him that the rules forbade this when his opponent’s clock is running. And nor did he confine his compulsive adjustments to the pieces.  He was known to reach over to the other side of the table and line up his opponent’s pen to make it perpendicular to the chessboard edge and equidistant from the score sheet margins.

Much like Fischer, Mecking was an outstanding prodigy, and by 16 he had already twice won his national championship and made his first appearance in an Interzonal.  Heralded in his homeland as the ‘Pele’ of chess, Mecking became one of the outstanding prospects of the 1970s, though twice suffered a major set-back in his quest to become world champion by losing very tough Candidate matches to leading Soviets Viktor Korchnoi and Lev Polugaevsky.

Those defeats most likely got to him, as he become yet another enigma in chess by disappearing in 1979 after withdrawing from the Riga Interzonal with a mysterious illness.  Mecking convinced himself he was terminally ill, and his life was only saved by divine intervention - so he gave up chess for religion and trained for the priesthood over the next twelve years, and a once promising chess career was sadly cut short.  

Eventually, Mecking was successfully diagnosed with “myasthenia” - a weakness of the muscles.  Since then, the blast from the past has only made very sporadic returns to the chessboard, his most recent being in late January in the 3rd Floripa Open in Brazil which saw Axel Bachmann and Alexei Shirov top-scoring on 8.5/10 to tie for first place.

Blast-from-the-past, Henrique Mecking!

But one of the most interesting games of the whole tournament proved to be the first-ever meeting between Mecking and Shirov - a wonderful encounter from two very dynamic players from the Fischer and Kasparov generations that ended in a spirited draw.

GM Henrique Mecking - GM Alexei Shirov
3rd Floripa Open, (7)
Neo-Grünfeld Defence
1.Nf3 d5 2.g3 g6 3.Bg2 Bg7 4.d4 Nf6 5.0-0 0-0 6.c4 c6 7.cxd5 cxd5 8.Nc3 Ne4 9.Qb3 Nc6 10.Be3 Na5 11.Qb4 Nxc3 Alternatively, if you are looking for an easy day at the office, often seen here in this Neo-Grünfeld line is the short "GM draw" with 11...Nc6 12.Qb3 Na5 etc and a repetition. 12.Qxc3 Bf5 13.Rfc1 Qb6 Another "peaceful" continuation is 13...Rc8 14.Qb4 Nc4 15.Bf4 Qb6 16.Qxb6 Nxb6 17.b3 with a draw in the offing following a multiple exchange of rooks on the c-file, leaving a symmetrical ending of minor pieces and pawn structures. But Shirov want's to keep some tension in the position by not exchanging queens. 14.b3 Rfc8 15.Qd2 Nc6 16.Ne5 Nb4 17.g4! A good and timely move from Mecking, as it cuts across Shirov's plan of activating his pieces, forcing his reply. 17...Be6 18.h3 a5 Shirov want's to get in a5-a4 to leave Mecking with a long-term endgame weakness on the queenside - but Mecking is quick to get in his counter-punch that ultimately undermines Shirov's d5 pawn. 19.f4 f6 20.a3! Rc2! Now all the "fun" starts, as Shirov tries to set the 'board on fire' rather than settling for a tepid position and an easy draw. 21.Nd7!? Enterprisingly undermining d5! If Mecking can capitalise on this, he stands a good chance. Instead, he could have opted for the easy life with 21.Rxc2 Nxc2 22.Qxc2 fxe5 23.fxe5 Bxe5 24.Qd3 with nothing much in the position. However, his option now takes the game in a very interesting direction. 21...Rxc1+ 22.Rxc1 Bxd7 23.axb4 e6 Shirov had to protect d5 at all costs. 24.bxa5 Rxa5 25.f5! Yet again undermining d5. 25...Qxb3 Shirov is in a dilemma: If 25...exf5 26.b4! Rb5 27.Rc5! Rxb4 28.gxf5 Bxf5 29.Bxd5+ Kh8 30.Qa2 and we're entering the realms of awkwardness for Black with his back-rank issues, as White has successfully activated all his pieces. 26.Rc7! The rook on the seventh is very strong - well worth a pawn in this position. 26...Ra1+ 27.Kf2 Ra2 28.Qxa2! Dynamic play from Mecking, who is quick to spot that his pieces are far stronger than his queen. 28...Qxa2 29.Rxd7 gxf5 30.gxf5 Qc2 31.fxe6 Qf5+ 32.Kg1?! This is the obvious reaction here, as it attempts to find a safe haven for the White king from queen checks - but possibly more problematic for Shirov would have been 32.Kg3!? as now after 32...Bf8 33.Bxd5 Be7 34.Bf3!, in certain critical positions the king on g3 helps support White playing Bf4 and Bg4 to push home the passed pawns. It's hard to see how Shirov would have answered this. 32...Bf8 33.Bxd5 Be7! If it wasn't for this saving move, Shirov would have been hopelessly lost here. It is still difficult, but now he has good chances to salvage a draw. 34.Bg2?! Mecking was likely in a little habiual time-trouble here, as arguably he missed his last chance here with the stronger 34.Bf3! White can threaten later Bg4 and also has a safe bolt-hole for his king on f2. 34...Kf8 Of course, not 34...Qxe6?? 35.Bd5! winning the queen. 35.d5 Qe5! This guarantees the draw, as it stops the passed pawns in their track, threatens the bishop on e3, and also sets up possibilities of ...Qxe2 and multiple perpetual check possibilities. 36.Kf2 f5! Resourceful as ever, Shirov threatens f4 and - more importantly - opening up the possibility of his bishop coming into the attack on Mecking's king. 37.Bh6+ Ke8 38.Bf3 Qh2+ 39.Ke3 With Mecking's king now wandering in the wilderness, it can't find a safe haven to avoid the perpetual check threats from Shirov's queen. 39...Qg1+ 40.Kd3 Qb1+ 41.Kd4 Qb2+ 42.Kd3 Qb3+ 43.Kd4 Qb4+ 44.Kd3 Qb3+ 45.Kd4 Qb2+ ½-½

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