Kasparov’s tailspin

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

In a game between top players, the opening moves signify not only the battleground they have embraced, but also the terrain they have avoided. In his prime, Garry Kasparov’s opponents would often duck the most critical choices, fearing the champion’s formidable advantage in home analysis of complex positions. But those who yielded an inch at the outset faced an uphill struggle of a different sort, and Kasparov won countless games from that psychological vantage point.

Since his retirement in 2005, Kasparov has made sporadic appearances in speed events against the world elite, with respectable results. But his appearance earlier this month at the Grand Chess Tour’s blitz event in Zagreb was disastrous, as he scored just 2.5/18. What went wrong?

His confidence took a knock in the very first game, in which the former world champion chose the Sicilian Najdorf as Black against Dutch no. 2 Jorden van Foreest. During his career, Kasparov wore that opening like a powerful exoskeleton, pummelling his opponents with ease. But Van Foreest is sharp and fearless, and at 22-years-old, too young to have any visceral memory of Kasparov’s dominance.

With the move 6.Bg5, Van Foreest dared Kasparov to enter the deepest forest of the Najdorf. The ‘poisoned-pawn’ variation could arise after 7…Qb6, but Kasparov surely knew that he could not match the Dutchman’s cutting-edge knowledge of that line. Hence his choice of 7…Qc7, but that was a modest concession which soon landed him in trouble. Van Foreest conducted the middlegame simply and directly and won a fine game.

Jorden Van Foreest–Garry Kasparov

Grand Chess Tour Zagreb Blitz, July 2021

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Bg5 e6 7 f4 Qc7 8 Bxf6 gxf6 9 Qf3 b5 10 a3 Nc6 11 Nxc6 Qxc6 12 f5 Qc5 13 Be2 Ra7 14 O-O-O In this variation, White brings heavy pressure to bear on the central light squares. Any move of the e6-pawn invites a knight or rook to occupy the d5-square. Qe5 15 Rhf1 Rc7 16 Kb1 h5 17 h4 Be7 18 Qe3 Qc5 19 Qg3 Kf8 20 fxe6 fxe6 21 Qg6 Qe5 22 Rd3! A powerful rook lift. Bd8 23 Rg3 Rf7 (see diagram) 24 Rg5! Qd4

Black’s position also collapses after 24…f5 25 Bxh5 25 Bxh5 Black resigns

In the third game, 23-year-old Jan-Krzysztof Duda parked his tank on Kasparov’s lawn as well, following exactly the same variation as Van Foreest and winning quickly yet again. Vishy Anand took his chance to pile on in the very next round, so that within a couple of hours Kasparov’s Najdorf Sicilian had been laid waste three times over. Insult was added to injury when two rounds later, a shell-shocked Kasparov resigned against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov after just seven moves of a Queen’s Gambit Accepted.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov–Garry Kasparov

Grand Chess Tour Zagreb Blitz, July 2021

1 d4 d5 2 c4 dxc4 3 e3 e5 4 Nf3 exd4 5 Bxc4 Nf6 With a clear head, Kasparov would surely recall that 5…Bb4+ 6 Bd2 Bxd2+ 7 Qxd2 Nf6 is fine for Black. 6 Qb3!

Suddenly, f7 is attacked and there is no good way to cover it. Qe7 7 O-O! Black resigns

The resignation is hardly premature. White intends e3xd4 and Rf1-e1, while 7…d3 8 Ng5 is devastating.

Of course, Kasparov isn’t as quick as he used to be, and some amount of rust is to be expected given his numerous engagements as an activist, writer, businessman and public figure. Even so, these were the games of a player whose confidence was in a tailspin. Kasparov is set to play again in September, in the Chess960 event in St Louis. Throughout his career, Kasparov has seemed to relish adversity. With redoubled efforts, I expect he will rise to the challenge.

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