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Ding Liren, Ian Nepomniachtchi struggle in first outing after grueling chess title bout

New world champion GM Ding Liren of China and challenger GM Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia were back in action barely more than a week after their grueling, four-week match last month — and it showed.

As we noted here last week, the two returned to the board remarkably quickly, part of the 10-grandmaster field at the Superbet Chess Classic in Bucharest that concluded Monday. It was not a success: Ding finished eighth at 4-5 and Nepo was ninth at 3½-5½, as American GM Fabiano Caruana claimed first with an undefeated 5½-3½ result.

Rising French GM Alireza Firouzja managed to inflict the first loss on the new champ, in a Round 5 game that reflected the wear and tear a title match can inflict. In a complex Ruy Lopez Berlin line, Ding as Black misses a couple of chances to change the course of the game and goes down to defeat.

Black’s kingside is looking a little iffy after 19. Kg2 h4 20. Qe2 g6?! 21. Nd2! Nc5 22. Nf3, when 22…Nce4?! 23. g4! Nd6 24. Nxe5 is better for White. But Firouzja gets into trouble with the hasty 24. Ng5?! (Qc2 is met by 24…Qc5!, but 24. Ba2! preserves White’s positional trumps) Nd6! (Nxg5? 25. Bxg5 Rd6 26. Rf1 is very pleasant for White) 25. Ba2 Re8 26. h4 Kg7 27. Rf1 Rad8 28. Bd2 e4!, and Firouzja is hard-pressed to justify the loss of a pawn.

But Black mixes up his knights and allows his opponent back in the game on 30. Rad1 Nfe4? (Nde4! was the way to go; e.g. 31. Nxf7 Rxd1! — a counterintuitive, file-surrendering move, but the e-pawn is more valuable here — 32. Rxd1 Nf2 33. Re1 Qe4+ 34. Qf3 Nd3, and Black is winning in lines like 35. Re2 Nxf4+ 36. gxf4 Nh5! 37. Qxe4 Rxe4 38. Ng5 Rxa4) 31. Bxd6! Nxd6 32. Bxf7! Nxf7 (Rf8 33. Ne6+) 33. Rxf7+ Qxf7 34. Nxf7 Rxd1 35. Qxd1 Kxf7, and now it is Black fighting for the draw.

One clear sign we weren’t getting peak Ding comes immediately on 36. Qe2 (see diagram) Ke7?? (nerves, fatigue and time pressure probably kicked in here; the e-pawn is Black’s only hope of keeping the queen honest, so the Black king should stay on the kingside; on 36…Kg7 37. g4 Re5, Black still has decent hopes of drawing) 37. Kf1 Rf8+ (Kf7 38. Ke1 Kg7 39. Qb5 Re7 40. Ke2, and now the White queen is free to go marauding) 38. Ke1 Rf2 39. Qg4 Kf6 (Rxb2 40. Qxg6 Bc5 41. Qe4+ Kd7 42. h5 and the kingside pawns are off to the races) 40. Qg5+ Kf7 41. Qd5+ Kf6 42. g4, and the pawns will not be denied.

Black finally manages to oust the blockading White king, but it proves too late: 50. Kd3 Rd2+ 51. Kc4 Rg2 (e2 52. g7 Bf2 53. g8=Q e1=Q 54. Qg5+ Kf3 55. Qeh5+ Ke4 56. Qe5 mate) 52. Qf7+, and the champ resigned facing 52…Kg4 (Ke4 53. Qd5+ Kf4 54. Qxg2) 53. g7 Kxh4 (or 53…e2 54. g8=Q+ Kh3 55. Qf3+ with mate to come) 54. Qf6+ Kh5 55. Qf3+ and wins.

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He was world junior championship runner-up (just behind a promising young Russian named Anatoly Karpov), a fine tournament player who qualified for the 1979-1980 world championship candidates cycle, and a key member of the famed Hungarian 1978 Olympiad team that broke the Soviet Union’s long stranglehold on the gold medal.

But GM Andras Adorjan, who died earlier this month at the age of 73, will likely best be remembered for one contrarian declaration: “Black is OK!” Perhaps no strong player in history was as bullish on the prospects of the second player, a thesis the Hungarian GM and opening theorist explored in a stream of cult classics, including “Black is OK!”; “Black is Still OK!”; “Black is Back”; and “Black is OK Forever!”

Black was more than OK in one of Adorjan’s best wins, a victory over the fine English GM John Nunn at a 1975 tournament in London. Black takes some early risks in the Pirc Defense, but his daring play seizes the initiative and leads to an entertaining sacrificial attack.
White’s 8. e5 Nh5!? (already an enterprising approach, as 8…Nd7 was the move conventional alternative) 9. Bxa6!? busts up the Black queenside, but Nunn will sorely miss his light-squared bishop. Black continues to play aggressively with 10. g4 cxd4! (Ng3? 11. Rg1 cxd4 12. Qxd4 Bb7 13. Rxg3 wins a piece) 11. Qxd4 (Nxd4? Nxf4! 12. Bxf4 Bb7 13. Rf1 dxe5 is fine for Black) Bb7 12. Kf2 Nxf4!? 13. Bxf4 (Black gets two pawns for the piece and good counterplay on 13. Qxf4 dxe5 14. Qa4 Qc8) g5!? — the computer engines frown on this move but it proves hard to refute over the board.

Adorjan’s daring pays immediate dividends: 14. Nxg5? (Bxg5 was the right way to accept the offer) f6! (allowing a nasty fork but posing problems for White as well) 15. Ne6 (Qc4+ d5; on 15. exf6 Bxf6 16. Qb4 Bxg5 17. Qxb7 Rxf4+ 18. Kg2 e6, and Black is better) fxe5 16. Qc4 (fun would have been 16. Nxd8 exd4, and all three of White’s minor pieces are hanging, a bishop is pinned and Nunn’s rook is attacked as well) Qb6+ 17. Ke2 Rac8! 18. Qd3? (effectively losing, as Black’s attack will be unrelenting; White had to try 18. Qb3 and hope to survive grim lines such as 18. exf4 19. Nxf8+ Kxf8 20. Qxb6 axb6 21. Rhe1 Bxc3 22. bxc3 Rxc3 23. Kd2 Rxh3 24. Reb1 b5) exf4 19. Nxf8 Rxf8 20. Nd5 Qxb2 (also good was 20…Qc5 21. Nxe7+ Kh8 22. Rhe1 Bg2 23. Nf5 f3+ 24. Kd2 Bf6 and the Black bishops will rake the battlefield) 21. Nxe7+ Kh8, and the exposed White king and the deadly Black bishops prove decisive.

Material considerations go out the window as Adorjan hunts down his quarry: 24. Reb1 Qe5! 25. Nf5 (Rxb7 Qxa1+ 26. Kg2 Qg1 mate) Be4! 26. Qxd6 Qc3 (with the threat of 27…Qxh3+ 28. Kxf2 Qf3+ 29. Ke1 Bc3+ with mate in a few moves) 27. Qg3 Qc4+ 28. Kxf2 Bd4+ 29. Ke1 Bxf5 30. gxf5 Re8+, and White resigned, not needing to see 31. Kd1 Qe2+ 32. Kc1 Be3+ 33. Kb2 Qb5+ 34. Kc3 Rc8+ 35. Qc7 Rxc7 mate.

(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)

Firouzja-Ding, Superbet Chess Classic, Bucharest, Romania, May 2023

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Bc5 5. c3 O-O 6. O-O d5 7. Nbd2 dxe4 8. dxe4 a5 9. Qc2 Qe7 10. a4 Nb8 11. h3 Rd8 12. Be2 Nbd7 13. Re1 Nf8 14. Nb3 Bb6 15. Nfd2 Be6 16. Nc4 Bxc4 17. Bxc4 Ne6 18. g3 h5 19. Kg2 h4 20. Qe2 g6 21. Nd2 Nc5 22. Nf3 hxg3 23. fxg3 Ncxe4 24. Ng5 Nd6 25. Ba2 Re8 26. h4 Kg7 27. Rf1 Rad8 28. Bd2 e4 29. Bf4 e3 30. Rad1 Nfe4 31. Bxd6 Nxd6 32. Bxf7 Nxf7 33. Rxf7+ Qxf7 34. Nxf7 Rxd1 35. Qxd1 Kxf7 36. Qe2 Ke7 37. Kf1 Rf8+ 38. Ke1 Rf2 39. Qg4 Kf6 40. Qg5+ Kf7 41. Qd5+ Kf6 42. g4 Rxb2 43. g5+ Ke7 44. Qe5+ Kd7 45. Qg7+ Kd6 46. Qxg6+ Ke5 47. Qe8+ Kf4 48. g6 Rb1+ 49. Ke2 Rb2+ 50. Kd3 Rd2+ 51. Kc4 Rg2 52. Qf7+ Black resigns.

Nunn-Adorjan, London 1975, London, England, August 1975

1. e4 g6 2. d4 Bg7 3. Nc3 d6 4. f4 Nf6 5. Nf3 O-O 6. Be3 Na6 7. h3 c5 8. e5 Nh5 9. Bxa6 bxa6 10. g4 cxd4 11. Qxd4 Bb7 12. Kf2 Nxf4 13. Bxf4 g5 14. Nxg5 f6 15. Ne6 fxe5 16. Qc4 Qb6+ 17. Ke2 Rac8 18. Qd3 exf4 19. Nxf8 Rxf8 20. Nd5 Qxb2 21. Nxe7+ Kh8 22. Rhe1 f3 23. Kf1 f2 24. Reb1 Qe5 25. Nf5 Be4 26. Qxd6 Qc3 27. Qg3 Qc4+ 28. Kxf2 Bd4+ 29. Ke1 Bxf5 30. gxf5 Re8+ White resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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