CHESS Lubomir Kavalek

By Lubomir Kavalek
Monday, February 12, 2007

In the iconoclastic work "My System," published in 1925, Aaron Nimzovich presents his encounter with Semyon Alapin as a wonderful example of bad pawn snatching. This brilliant game, played nearly a century ago, must have made a lasting impression on Hikaru Nakamura. The former U.S. champion sacrificed the same pawn as Nimzovich to defeat the Russian grandmaster Vladimir Epishin in Gibraltar this month. The victory was Nakamura's best achievement at the Gibtelecom Masters and helped him to a shared second place.

Fatal Greed

Snatching pawns is a risky business, especially in the opening. Valuable time is lost and not much is done for the development of other pieces. Nimzovich punished Alapin for his greed with powerful attacking fury. But where and when was this friendly game played? According to some sources it was in Alapin's birth city of Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1912; others cite Nimzovich's birth city of Riga, Latvia, in 1913. It is also possible that the game was part of their postmortem during the tournament in St. Petersburg in 1914.


1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.exd5 Nxd5 5.Nf3 c5 (The variation was tested at the 1914 St. Petersburg tournament, where Alapin played 5...Nxc3 6.bxc3 Be7 against Nimzovich and lost in 39 moves. Nimzovich as black played 5...b6 and beat Alekhine in 75 moves.) 6.Nxd5 Qxd5 (Exposing the queen, black rejects 6...exd5 7.Bb5+! Bd7 8.Bxd7+ Nxd7 9.0-0 with white's advantage either after 9...Be7 10.dxc5 Nxc5 11.Be3; or after 9...c4 10.Re1+ Be7 11.Qe2 and black has a hard time to castle.) 7.Be3 (Combining development and attack, white threatens 8.dxc5.) 7...cxd4 8.Nxd4 a6!? (A waste of time since the phantom threat 9.Nb5 is better defended by 8...Nc6 9.Nb5 Qe5 with a good game.) 9.Be2! Qxg2? (Stealing the pawn will soon be fatal.) 10.Bf3 Qg6 11.Qd2 e5 (Chasing the knight from the square d4 gives black a chance to catch up with development, e.g. 12. Nb3 Nc6, but Nimzovich does not oblige.)

12.0-0-0! (A splendid knight sacrifice, mobilizing all the white forces for a devastating attack.) 12...exd4 13.Bxd4 (White's advantage in development is now too great.) 13...Nc6 14.Bf6!! (A fabulous execution of the final assault. The threat 15.Qd8+ forces black to capture the bishop.) 14...Qxf6 15.Rhe1+ Be7 (15...Be6 is met by 16.Qd7 mate.) 16.Bxc6+ Kf8 (After 16...bxc6 17.Qd8 mates. And trying to control the back rank with16...Bd7 17.Qxd7+ Kf8 runs into 18.Qd8+! Rxd8 19.Rxd8+ Bxd8 20.Re8 mate.) 17.Qd8+! Bxd8 18.Re8 mate.

Striking Similarity

Nakamura could have prepared his pawn sacrifice in the Paulsen Sicilian before the game. He only needed to find Epishin's game, played in 2005, in a database. The Russian grabbed the pawn, but unlike Alapin, who fell under a vicious mating attack, Epishin had problems with his exposed queen.


1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Bc5 6.Nb3 Be7 7.Be3 d5?! 8.exd5 Qxd5 (Finding out that Epishin played this before, Nakamura could have prepared his aggressive response beforehand.)

9.Nc3! (In the spirit of Nimzovich! Black is already far behind in development -- a common problem with the Paulsen Sicilian -- even without taking the pawn.) 9...Qxg2? (Like Alapin, Epishin grabs the pawn and gets into trouble.) 10.Be4 Qh3 11.Qd4! (Developing with tempo.) 11...Nf6 (After 11...Bf6 12.Qa4+ Bd7 13.Qb4 black can't defend the queenside.) 12.0-0-0 (White finished his development and his pieces radiate a lot of energy. Black has to worry not only about his queen, but also about his king.) 12...Nbd7?! (Missing the last chance to simplify 12...Nxe4 13.Nxe4 [or 13.Qxe4] 13...0-0 with a playable game.) 13.Rhg1 g6? (Loses, but black was in a bad shape anyway. Hiding the king with 13...0-0 gives white a powerful attack after 14.Rg3 Qh4 15.Rdg1, for example 15...g6 16.Bxg6! Qxd4 17.Bxh7+! Kh8 18.Bxd4 and white should win.)

14.Rg3 Qh5 15.Bg5! (Tightening the noose around the black queen.) 15...h6 16.Bf3! (Forcing the queen to take another pawn.) 16...Qxh2 (Giving up the queen 16...Qxg5+ 17.Rxg5 hxg5 is not enough after 18.Ne4.) 17.Be3! (Threatening 18.Rh1, winning the queen. The immediate 17.Rh1 Qxh1+ 18.Bxh1 hxg5 gives black unnecessary play.) 17...e5 18.Qa4 e4 19.Nxe4 (19.Rh1 Qxg3 20.fxg3 exf3 is not as clear) 19...Nxe4 20.Bxe4 (Threatening 21.Bxb7! Bxb7 22.Qxd7+ winning.) 20...Qh4 ( After 20...Qh5 comes 21.Bxb7!) 21.Nc5! (Winning material.) 21...b5 22.Qd4 (Everything is hanging.) 22...Bf6 23.Qd5 Nxc5 (After 23...Ra7 white goes back to 24.Rh1 and wins.) 24.Bxc5 (And white mates soon.) Black resigned.

Rubinstein Revisited

An enlarged edition of "The Life and Games of Akiva Rubinstein, Vol. 1: Uncrowned King" by John Donaldson and Nikolay Minev, was recently issued by Russell Enterprises. The authors added 80 pages to the excellent older edition, shedding new light on one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

Solution to today's three-mover by F. Rdukh (White: Kh6,Qg1,Rc6,Bd7,Nb2,Nc5, Pd6; Black: Ke5,Ra6,Na4,Na5,P:c7,e7,f4): 1.Bf5! Nxc6 2.Nc4+ Kd5 3.Be6 mate; or 1...Rxc6 2.Nd7+ Kd5 3.Qd1 mate; or 1...Nxb2 2.Nd7+ Kd5 3.Qc5 mate; or 1...Kd5 2.Be4+ Ke5 3.Qg7 mate.

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