At the chessboard, one bad move among hundreds can bring despair

Chess is a beguiling but demanding taskmaster, brutally punishing even a moment’s inattention.

Non-chessplayers wonder sometimes why the top competitors spend so much time on physical conditioning, when the most arduous work in the game involves lifting a piece or pushing a time clock. But aside from the mental grind, I think it is that sense at the highest levels of the game that just one lapse, one oversight can ruin hours of work or be the difference between first and second place.

It turns out GM Fabiano Caruana played exactly 700 moves in his 11 games and two rapid playoff matches at the recent U.S. Championship tournament at the St. Louis Chess Club. Had two of those 700 moves been different, the American No. 1-rated player would have claimed his second U.S. title and completed one of the most amazing comebacks in the event’s long history.

Bouncing back from two mid-tournament losses, Caruana had GM Sam Shankland on the ropes in the 11th and final round, with a win giving him the title outright. But late in the game he failed to find the winning idea, settled for a draw and had to face GMs Wesley So and Sam Sevian in a playoff.

Against So in the playoff, Caruana was again on the verge of victory when a missed move cost him the game and the title, which So went on to claim for the third time.

So as Black misses strong idea (22. Qb4 Qb6!, hitting e3 and meeting 23. Nxa4? with 23…Rxa4! 24. Qxa4 Ng4, with dangerous threats) and White winds up for a knockout punch with 32. Rxc5 dxc5 33. Nc6+! bxc6 34. bxc6 Bxc6 (a sad necessity; 34…Be8 35. d6+ Kxd6 36. Nc4+) 35. dxc6 Kd8 (see diagram), and Caruana just had to find 36. Rb1! Kc7 37. Nd5+ Kxc6 38. Rb6+ Kd7 39. Rb7+ Kc6 40. Rxf7, and Black’s kingside is collapsing as his pieces are pushed back.

Instead on 36. Nd5?! Nxd5 37. exd5 Ne7! 38. e4? (Rf1 is far more active) Nc8! 39. Rb1 Nd6, and the beautifully placed Black knight immobilizes the proud White center and keeps the White rook from invading.

White’s game is being rolled up even as Caruana lost on time capturing Black’s a-pawn. In the final position, So can just take on c6 or press for even more in lines like 46….Rd2 47. Be4 Rd4 48. Bc2 Nf5+! 49. Kf3 e4+! 50. Kf4 g5+! 51. Kxf5 Rxa4 52. Bxa4 e3, and the two passed pawns overwhelm White’s bishop.


This month’s persistence award has to go to GM Nikita Vitiugov, the 34-year-old St. Petersburg player who just won his first Russian national title in his 15th try since 2006. That’s not surprising — even in a relatively down era for Russian chess, the national title is one of the hardest to win in the world.

Vitiugov’s best game was a takedown of top seed GM Dmitry Andreikin from the White side of a Queen’s Pawn Game.

Vitiugov claims the initiative right from the get-go, offering up an exchange and a pawn for a powerful central push: 10. Ne5 c5?! (Nc6!? 11. Nxc6 bxc6 12. Bf4 looks tougher, though isolated tripled pawns are never fun) 11. d5! exd5 12. exd5 Bf5 13. Nxc4! Nc2 14. Re5 Bg6 15. d5! (Rb1? Nd4 16. Ra1 b5 solves all Black’s problems) Bxd6 (Nxa1 16. dxe7 Qxd1+ 17. Nxd1 Rfe8 18. Bxb7 Rab8 19. Nd6 is very strong) 16. Nxd6 Nxa1 17. Bg5 Nc2 18. Nd5 Qb8 19. Ne4, with tremendous kingside pressure.

Andreikin misses one last chance to right the ship (23…Rd8! 24. Qxf6+ Kg8 25. Ng5 Rd6 allows Black to start organizing a defense), and even returning the exchange does not slow White’s push: 24. Nd6! Rc8 (the threat was 25. Bd5, with unbearable pressure on f7) 26. Nxc8 Qd1+ 27. Bf1 Rxc8 28. Rxb7 a5 29. h4 — White’s edge is only a pawn but his attack is far from spent.

It’s over on 30. Qe5! (centralizing and inducing, through the threat of 31. h5, a fatal kingside weakness) h5 31. Be2 Qf8 32. Bf3 (and not 32…Bxh5? Rc1+ 33. Kh2 Rc5!) Rc5 33. Bd5 Kh7 34. Rd7 Qc8 35. Qe7 Rc1+ 36. Kg2 Qa6 (a hollow threat as White can escape the coming checks) 37. Bxf7 Qf1+ 38. Kf3 Qh1+, and Black resigned ahead of 39. Kf4 Qe4+ (Rc6 40. Bg8+ Kh6 41. Qg7 mate) 40. Qxe4 Bxe4 41. Bd5+ Kg6 42. Bxe4+, winning a piece.

Caruana-So, U.S. Championship, Rapid Playoff, St. Louis, October 2021

1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e5 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. e4 Bb4 5. d3 d6 6. a3 Bc5 7. b4 Bb6 8. Be3 O-O 9. Be2 Bxe3 10. fxe3 Ne7 11. O-O Ng6 12. Qd2 Re8 13. Rae1 a5 14. b5 c6 15. Bd1 h6 16. d4 Qe7 17. Bc2 Bd7 18. d5 cxb5 19. cxb5 Rec8 20. Bd3 a4 21. Qb2 Qd8 22. Qb4 Qa5 23. Qxa5 Rxa5 24. Rc1 Raa8 25. Na2 Ng4 26. Rfe1 Kf8 27. Nb4 Ke8 28. h3 Nf6 29. Nd2 Ke7 30. Nc4 Rc5 31. Nb6 Ra5 32. Rxc5 dxc5 33. Nc6+ bxc6 34. bxc6 Bxc6 35. dxc6 Kd8 36. Nd5 Nxd5 37. exd5 Ne7 38. e4 Nc8 39. Rb1 Nd6 40. Kf2 c4 41. Bc2 f5 42. Ke3 Kc7 43. Rb4 fxe4 44. Bxe4 c3 45. Bc2 Rxd5 46. Rxa4 White forfeits.

Vitiugov-Andreikin, Russian Championship Superfinal, Ufa, Russia, October 2021

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. g3 Bb4+ 5. Nc3 O-O 6. Bg2 dxc4 7. O-O Nc6 8. Re1 Be7 9. e4 Nb4 10. Ne5 c5 11. d5 exd5 12. exd5 Bf5 13. Nxc4 Nc2 14. Re5 Bg6 15. d6 Bxd6 16. Nxd6 Nxa1 17. Bg5 Nc2 18. Nd5 Kh8 19. Ne4 Qb8 20. Bxf6 gxf6 21. Re7 Nb4 22. Nxb4 cxb4 23. Qd4 Qd8 24. Qxf6+ Kg8 25. Nd6 Rc8 26. Nxc8 Qd1+ 27. Bf1 Rxc8 28. Rxb7 a5 29. h4 Qd8 30. Qe5 h5 31. Be2 Qf8 32. Bf3 Rc5 33. Bd5 Kh7 34. Rd7 Qc8 35. Qe7 Rc1+ 36. Kg2 Qa6 37. Bxf7 Qf1+ 38. Kf3 Qh1+ and Black resigns.

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

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