Chess column

This week’s game is between an up-and-coming Russian player, Ivan Popov and the great, veteran grandmaster Yuri Balashov. In his day, Balashov was a world championship contender and was the 11th highest player in the world with an adjusted rating of 2715. He also served as a second to Boris Spassky for his “Revenge Match of the 20th Century” against Bobby Fischer in 1992. Now, Balshov is 63 and his rating is a modest, 2442. Ivan Popov is only 22 with a rating of 2605.

  Their game’s opening was the English, which gained its name from great English player and unofficial world champion Howard Staunton, who first used it in his 1843 match vs. Saint-Amant. It has always been sort of a mystery to many chess players. The English is essentially a Sicilian with colors reversed. But while the Sicilian is an aggressive, fighting defense, the English, with an extra move, is a quiet and very positional opening. In any case, Balashov plays well until time pressure, and possibly age, brings about his downfall with 36. cxb5??.


 a)     The main alternative here is 3.Nd5.

b)     The main alternative here is 5.Nf3.

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c)     Black’s position here looks quite satisfactory. The pressure on e4 and c4 makes it hard for White to develop properly without exchanging his bishop for Black’s knight on f6, in which case the removal of this bishop takes away a key element of White’s compensation for his doubled pawns.

d)     Although this takes space, it is also risky as it makes the c4 pawn permanently weak.

e)     White’s knight is his best-placed piece so Black sensibly wants to exchange it (so long as the c4 pawn is not undoubled in so doing).


f)       Black does not want to allow the knight to plant itself strongly on f5.

g)     This is a typical strategy in such positions: by exchanging the pawn on c4, Black gets better access to the weak squares around it. Still, while Black clearly has the initiative here there is no reason White’s position should fall apart in only five more moves.

h)     This looks like a conscious decision to complicate in (what I assume was) White’s time pressure.

i)       This loses by force. Correct was 36.fxe4 Bxe4+ 37.Bxe4 Ra2 38.Qe2 (38.Qc2 is also possible but looks less accurate, and 38.Qf2? Rxf2+ 39.Kxf2 f5 40.Bd5 f4 loses material) 38…Rxe2+ (38…Qxe3? 39.Qxa2 Qxe1 40.Qc2 bxc4 41.Bd5 looks good for White) 39.Rxe2 with unclear play, e.g. 39…bxc4 40.b5!? with the idea of 40…Qc5 41.Bc6 and 42.Nd5.

Balashov – Popov

Moscow Championship 2012

English Opening

Balashov Popov

Balashov Popov

White Black

White Black

1. c4 e5

21. Rac1 Kg7

2. Nc3 Bb4!?

22. Qf1 Qe8

3. g3 (a) Nf6

23. Qf2 h5

4. Bg2 O-O

24. h4 axb4

5. e4 (b) Bxc3

25. axb4 Bb7

6. dxc3 d6

26. Qd2 Ra2

7. Qe2 a5

27. Rc2 Rxc2

8. Nf3 Na6

28. Qxc2 Ra3

9. O-O Nc5

29. Bf1 Qa8

10. Ne1 b6

30. Bd3 Ra2

11. Nc2 Ba6 (c)

31. Qb3 Qa7

12. Bg5 h6

32. Re1 Bc6

13. Bxf6 Qxf6

33. Bb1 Ra3

14. Ne3 Qe6

34. Qb2 b5!? (g)

15. b4!? (d) Nd7

35. Kg2?! Nxe4!!? (h)

16. Rfd1 Rfd8

36. cxb5?? (i) Nxc3!

17. Nd5 Ra7

37. bxc6 Nxb1

18. a3 Nf6! (e)

38. Nc2 (j) Rd3!

19. Ne3 g6! (f)

39. Re2 (k) Nc3 0-1

20. f3 Rda8!


Annotations by grandmaster Patrick Wolff, a two-time US champion.
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