‘Every day is different’, people like to say about their jobs. For the world’s best chess players, that’s only partly true. The game will be different, but the day will look much the same, and so will the international hotel room. In fact, professional players love a routine: they keep their energy for the game, not on deciding where to eat.
That monastic focus can’t be taken for granted, especially when you’ve already achieved the highest goals. When Vladimir Kramnik, the former world champion who defeated Garry Kasparov in London in 2000, announced his retirement from chess last year, he put it down to a drop in motivation. The results of his games had stopped mattering quite so much to him.
I’m glad that Kramnik hasn’t forsaken the game altogether. He threw his hat in the ring at the World Blitz Championships, held in Moscow in the days after Christmas, where games were played with three minutes each, plus an increment of two seconds per move. Remarkably, Kramnik got the bronze medal, despite declaring before the tournament that a top 3 finish would be a completely unrealistic goal. That was no false modesty, coming from a rusty 16th seed. But speed chess, where intuition and instinct trump stamina and memory, often brings out the best in older players.
Kramnik demonstrated his magnificent judgment in the game below, against Firouzja — a young player tipped as a future challenger to Carlsen. Kramnik’s exchange sacrifice 29 Rxe6!! leaves Black’s kingside riddled with weaknesses. The position may be tenable in theory, but defending it is a thankless task in a blitz game. One pawn drops, and then another, and Kramnik is soon winning.
First place was taken by Magnus Carlsen, who won a playoff against Hikaru Nakamura. In Moscow, Carlsen also won the Rapid World Championship, and now has the ‘Triple Crown’ with simultaneous titles in Classical, Rapid and Blitz. Kramnik praised the champion’s remarkable motivation. Before the same event in 2018, Carlsen was asked which of his titles was the most important. ‘The next one!’
Vladimir Kramnik–Alireza Firouzja
King Salman World Blitz Championship, Moscow, December 2019
1 c4 Nf6 2 Nf3 g6 3 b3 d6 4 Bb2 e5 5 g3 Bg7 6 Bg2 O-O 7 O-O c5 8 d3 Nc6 9 Nc3 h6 10 a3 Be6 11 b4 cxb4 12 axb4 Nxb4 13 Ba3 a5 14 Rb1 d5 15 Bxb4 axb4 16 Rxb4 dxc4 17 dxc4 Qa5 18 Qb3 Nd7 19 Rb5 Qa3 20 Qxa3 Rxa3 21 Nd5 Ra2 22 e3 Rc2 23 Rxb7 Rxc4 24 Nd2 Rc2 25 Ne4 Bxd5 26 Rxd7 Be6 27 Rd6 Rb8 28 h4 Bf8 (see diagram) 29 Rxe6!! fxe6 30 Rd1 Rc7 31 Ra1 Kf7 32 Ra5 Rd8 33 Bh3 33 Rxe5 Rd5! would force a pair of rooks off the board, and Black would be out of danger 33…Bg7 34 Ra6 Re7 35 Nd6+ Kf8 36 Kg2 Rb8 37 Ne4 Kg8 38 Bxe6+ Kh7 39 Bd5 Rd7 40 Be6 Rc7 41 Nd6 Rf8 42 Ne4 Rb8 43 g4 Rb4 44 h5! A key move, making inroads on the light squares. 44 … gxh5 44…Rxe4 45 hxg6+ Kxg6 46 Bf5+ Kg5 47 Rg6+ Kh4 48 Bxe4 leaves Black struggling 45 Bf5+ Kg8 46 gxh5 Kf7 47 Bg6+ Ke7 48 Ng3 Kd7 49 Nf5 Kc8 50 Ra8+ Kb7 51 Rg8 Bf6 52 Nxh6 Rh4 53 Nf5 Rg4+ 54 Kf3 Rg5 55 Nd6+ Kc6 56 Ne4 Black resigns