Long live France! Alireza Firouzja, the latest chess star to receive a Gallic welcome
Bastille Day in France, which we mark this week, celebrates the last days of a notorious royalist prison in 1789 whose inmates were trying to escape.
Which for chess players is more than a little ironic, as France has been a place to get away from it all ever since.
Aspiring Iranian superstar GM Alireza Firouzja, the world’s highest-rated junior player and one of the potential candidates for the world championship title in a few years, revealed last week that he will now play under the French flag, in largely because of the political restrictions (including a ban on playing against Israelis at international events) he faced in Iran.
Firouzja’s decision is just the latest reminder that France, like the United States, has been a haven and welcoming home for wandering (or on the run) chess masters over the centuries. At least two Russian-born world champions, Alexander Alekhine and Boris Spassky, spent the latter halves of their careers in France. Other expatriates who have contributed to France’s rich chess heritage over the years include Lionel Kieseritzky (Estonia), Ossip Bernstein (Ukraine), Savielly Tartakower (Poland) and Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (Russia).
One of France’s greatest adopted sons was the dashing Franco-Belarusian grandmaster David Janowsky. Best known today for a lopsided world title loss to Emanuel Lasker and his outsized fondness for the pair of bishops, Janowsky ranked among the best players in the world in the early decades of the 20th century. His positional, tactical and technical skills were on full display in a fine victory over Russian master Semyon Alapin in 1905.
On the white side of a Queen’s Gambit Accepted, Janowsky makes the somewhat surprising decision to opt for tension-releasing exchanges with 14. Ne5!? (e4 c5 15. e5 Nh5 16. Bxe7 Qxe7 17. Ne4 c4 is only equal) Nxe5 15. dxe5 Nd5 16. Bxe7 Nxc3 17. Rxc3 Qxe7 18. Rcd3 Rfd8. Black enjoys a queenside pawn majority, a decent bishop and a strong challenge on the d-file, but with 19. Rd6!, White’s idea becomes clearer.
Alapin can either allow the cheeky rook to stay and yield the open d queue, or, with play 19…Rxd6!? (c5 20. Bc2 c4 21. b3) 20. exd6 Qd7 21. e4 c5 (e5 22. Qd2 Kd8 23. Qb4 Qe8 24. Qc5 puts a severe cramp on Black’s position) 22. e5, allows a passed pawn protected who must be constantly watched for the rest of the game.
With his opponent reduced to maintaining the blockade on the d-pawn, white is free to go for the jugular on the kingside, which Janowsky does with Gallic panache.
So: 28. f4 Ra7 29. f5 Bd7?! (Rd7, not cutting the rook, could be slightly better, but White would proceed much as they do in the game) 30. f6 g6 31. Qg3 Kh7 32. h4!; chess made [email protected]! — Black has no response to the assault on his fragile pawn cover.
Alapin does his best to cover, but it’s essentially white’s three pieces to black’s two on the kingside, and the defense just can’t hold. White’s g-pawn joins the group and Janowsky finishes a near-perfect game with final finesse: 39. g4 Kh8 40. hxg6 fxg6 41. Rxh6+ (winning a decisive pawn, but Janowsky has a faster ending in mind) Kh7 42 .Rxh7+ Kxh7 43. Qg5 Qf7 44. Qh5+ Kg8 45. Bxg6! Qxg6 46. Qxg6+ Bxg6 47. d7 and the d-pawn that dominated the middle game will decide the endgame; alapin resigned
For non-chess players, Spassky fell off the map after his epic loss to Bobby Fischer in their 1972 match (that ill-advised return match in Serbia in 1992 excepted). Spassky also clashed with Soviet chess authorities for ceding the crown the country had held since the 1940s and was quickly eclipsed by young stars such as Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
But Spassky remained an active and formidable opponent on the international stage, even after moving to France in 1976 and taking French citizenship two years later.
The ex-champion gave evidence of his skills in a fine victory over American general manager (and longtime Washington Post columnist) Lubomir Kavalek of the solid Montreal Tournament of Stars in 1979. In an old Indian defense, White appears to have only the smallest of spatial advantages when Spassky abruptly ends positional boxing with a surprise speculative coin bag.
Black may have underestimated the danger in what looks like a closed position: 28. Rg1 Rhf8?! (Bxb5 29. cxb5 Rcg8 would have been more difficult) 29. g5 h5 (see diagram) 30. Nf5+!! gxf5 31. exf5 — White creates a pawn steamroller supported by almost all of his army. There’s no instant victory, but even hardware-ripping computer programs approve of Spassky’s idea.
Kavalek wisely decides not to keep the ill-gotten gains. After 32. Rhg2 e4! (good idea — Black must activate his pieces if he hopes to defend) 33. fxe4 Qe5! 34. g6 fxg6 35. fxg6 Rf4 (Nf6 36. g7+) 36. gxh7 Bg4, White may have two pawns up front, but the pawn on h7 will soon be lost and Black has real pressure in the center in as compensation.
But Spassky neutralized Black’s counterattack perfectly with an exchange of queens, and a single pawn was enough to ensure victory. White progresses steadily to 45. b4 axb4 46. axb4 Kg7 47. c5 bxc5 48. bxc5 Ng6 49. Kh2 Kf8 50. Ba4 Kf6 51. Kb3 Kf3 52. Kc4 Ke7 53. Kb2!, when 53…Nxh4 allows 54. Kb7 Kd8 55. d6 cxd6 56. cxd6 Bc8 57. Kb8!, with the deadly threat of 58. d7. In final position, after 58. Kd5 Ke8, Kavalek resigned without needing to see lines such as 59. Nb5 Kd8 60. Ra2 Kf7 61. Rf2+ Ke8 62. Rf6, and Black’s defense collapsed.
Janowsky-Alapin, Barmen, Germany, August 1905
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Be7 4. Nf3 Nf6 5. Bg5 h6 6. Bh4 dxc4 7. e3 a6 8. Bxc4 b5 9. Bb3 Nbd7 10. Qe2 c6 11. OO OO 12. Rac1 Bb7 13. Rfd1 Rc8 14. Ne5 Nxe5 15. dxe5 Nd5 16. Bxe7 Nxc3 17. Rxc3 Qxe7 18. Rcd3 Rfd8 19. Rd6 Kxd6 20. exd6 Qd7 21. e4 c5 22. e5 c4 23. Bc2 Qc6 24. f3 Qc6+ Qd8 Kd7 27. h3 Bc6 28. f4 Ra7 29. f5 Bd7 30. f6 g6 31. Qg3 Kh7 32. h4 Qc8 33. h5 Qg8 34. Rd4 Be8 35. Rh4 Qf8 36. Rg4 Qg8 37. Qe3 Kd7 38. Kh4 Qf8 39 .g4 Kh8 40. hxg6 fxg6 41. Rxh6+ Kh7 42. Rxh7+ Kxh7 43. Qg5 Qf7 44. Qh5+ Kg8 45. Bxg6 Qxg6 46. Qxg6+ Bxg6 47. d7 Black resigns.
Spassky-Kavalek, Montreal, April 1979
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 d6 3. Nc3 Nbd7 4. e4 e5 5. d5 Be7 6. Nf3 OO 7. Be2 Nc5 8. Qc2 a5 9. Be3 b6 10. h3 h6 11. OOO Ch7 12. g4 Ng5 13. Nd2 Nh7 14. Nf3 Ng5 15. Ne1 Nh7 16. Ng2 Bg5 17. h4 Bxe3+ 18. Nxe3 g6 19. Rdf1 Bd7 20. Kb1 Qe7 21. f3 Kg7 22. Rf2 Nf6 23. Qd2 Rae8 24. Bd1 Nh7 25. Bc2 Kb8 26. Nb5 Rbc8 27. Rfh2 Rh8 28. Rg1 Rhf8 29. g5 h5 30. Nf5+ gxf5 31. exf5 Kh8 32. Rhg2 e4 33. fxe4 Qe5 34. g6 fxg6 35. fxg6 Rf4 36. gxh7 Bg4 37. a3 Rcf8 38. Qd4 K8f7 39. Qxe5+ dxe5 40. Nc3 Kxh7 41. Ka2 Nd7 42. Rd2 Rf2 43. Rg2 Rxg2 44. Rxg2 Nf8 45. b4 axb4 46. axb4 Kg7 47. c5 bxc5 48. bxc5 Ng6 49. Kh2 Ba4 51 Kf8 49. Kh2 Ba4 51 Kf8 49. Kb3 Kf3 52. Kc4 Kf7 53. Kb2 Kf7 54. d6+ cxd6 55. cxd6+ Kf8 56. Kd2 Bd7 57. Bxd7 Kxd7 58. Kd5 Re8 and Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected]