Local chess star Larry Kaufman serves up engaging ‘Options’ in new memoir

Growing up in the DMV, I recall competing in a lot of tournaments with GM Larry Kaufman — and by “with” I mean in the same giant hotel ballroom or church social hall, though Kaufman was likely to be playing on Board 1 or 2, while I was off trying to snare some Class B money out on Board 176.

The Washington-born, Silver Spring, Maryland-raised Kaufman was for a long stretch the region’s best player, as his nine Maryland state titles (and counting) will attest. He went on to make the local scene proud on a much bigger scale, as he recounts in his engaging “Chess Board Options: A Memoir of Players, Games and Engines,” just out from New In Chess (223 pages, $24.95).

Among many other things, Kaufman engaged in memorable battles over the board with an aging Sammy Reshevsky (a loss) and a 12-year-old Hikaru Nakamura (a draw); became the top U.S. player at shogi and taught the Japanese version of chess to such luminaries as Viktor Korchnoi and Joel Benjamin; did (and still does) pioneering work in computer chess programming and data-driven analysis that has changed our understanding of the value of the individual pieces; and even makes a pretty good case for having sleuthed out the real-life player who became “Beth Harmon” in Walter Tevis’ “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Longtime Washington-area players get a shoutout in Kaufman’s memoir, from former world junior champ Mark Diesen and the brothers Eugene and John Meyer to Harry Cohen, Walter Morris and Larry Gilden.

Kaufman, who paid the bills with a stock trader company he named “Chess Options,” seems to be one of those interesting people to whom interesting things are always happening.

Take, for instance, a little-remembered diplomatic detente that made Kaufman and his IM son Ray among the first Americans in decades to compete in Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1999. A mini-thaw in relations had led to a home-and-home series between the Cuban national baseball team and the Baltimore Orioles.

“After the baseball games, the Castro government and the Baltimore mayor wanted to follow up with other friendly competitions … and somehow chess was suggested. Castro was known to like chess — he is on record as having playing world champion Tigran Petrosian one or more games at knight odds during the Olympiad in Cuba.” Who knew?

A straight contest between Cuba’s best and a local Baltimore squad would have been a mismatch, but the Kaufmans were recruited to lead a “Maryland” team to play a team of strong Havana-area junior players. The hosts took the overall match, but Kaufman was able to win his two-game set against future IM Felix Manuel Gomez Fontal in a seesaw Benko Gambit battle.

With a trendy-at-the-time 5. f3, Kaufman as White misses a chance for the advantage (he notes in the book that 10. dxe6 — instead of the game’s 10. Nc3?! — fxe6 11. Nc3 d5 12. Bg5 keeps White’s edge) and comes under a strong attack following a Black exchange sacrifice: 13. Be2 Rxe4! (Black’s best hope to justify the gambit) 14. fxe4 Qh4+, and White’s king has a tough choice to make.

Best, according to Kaufman, was 15. Kf1 Bd4 (Ng3+!? 16. hxg3 Qxh1+ 17. Kf2 Bd4+ 18. Be3 Bxe3+ 19. Kxe3 Qxg2 20. Qg1, with a slight positional pull for White) 16. Qe1 Qf6+ 17. Bf3 axb5 18. Nc2 Bxb2 19. Bxb2 Qxb2 20. Qc1 Qxc1+ 21. Rxc1 Rxa4 22. Kf2, with equality, though Black’s queenside passers do still look imposing.

The game turns on the crucial sequence: 15. Kd2? Qxe4 16. Bd3 Qb4+? (Qxg2+ looks close to winning in lines after 17. Qe2 Qxh1 18. Qe8+ Bf8 19. Qxc8 Nf4, as Black enjoys positional and material superiority in lines like 20. Qg4 Qxh2+ 21. Be2 axb5 22. Nxb5 Na6) 17. Kc2 Nd7 18. Kb1 Ne5 19. Nc2 Qb3? (the last mistake, as the Black queen will be trapped; the game goes on after 19…Qa5 or 19…Qh4) 20. Be2! axb5 (giving up; but even after 20…Nf6 21. Ra3 Qxd5 22. Qxd5 Nxd5 23. Rd1 Be6 24. axb6, White is a clear exchange to the good) 21. Ra3 and the queen is lost.

Black fought on for another 14 moves, but resigned facing unstoppable mate.

“Chess Board Options” also has a lot to say about Kaufman’s remarkable last-career renaissance, capped by an unexpected world senior crown in 2008 that gave him the title of grandmaster at the age of 60.

He shared the 2008 title with Romanian GM Mihai Suba and came back to tie for first again in the 2010 world senior event, this time being edged out on tiebreaks. His 2010 rematch with Suba felt like a personal “tiebreaker” for the 2008 honors, and Kaufman managed to claim bragging rights.

White cleanly wins the opening battle in this Queen’s Indian Defense (7…Bc6?! is inferior to either pawn recapture), securing the bishop pair and much more harmonious position after 20. gxf4 N8d7, but Kaufman nearly spoils things with an overhasty central push: 21. e5?! (White has the time and space to prepare this with 21. Bf2! Re8 22. Rfe1 a4 23. Bg3) dxe5 22. fxe5 Nxe5 23. Bxc5 Nxf3+ 24. Bxf3 Re8 25. d6 Rc8 26. Bb7?.

Both players miss a powerful shot for Black here: 26… Re5! 27. Bxc8 Qxc8 28. Rc1 Rxc5! (28…Rg5+ 29. Kf2 Qh3, going for the jugular, may be even stronger), when Suba gets two minor pieces for the rook after 29. Qxc5 Qxc5+ 30. Rxc5 Bd4+ 31. Kg2 Bxc5.

Another Black oversight clears the way for a White win, as the d-pawn survives to tie down the Black forces after 29. Bg3 Nc4? (see diagram; Black threatens an ominous fork, but either 29…h5 or the more modest 29…Nc7 30. Kh1 Be5 keeps it a contest) 30. Qc6! Ne3 31. d7 Nxf1? (a last inaccuracy, as the king recapture unpins White’s bishop on g3) 32. Kxf1 Be5 (Rxg3 33. hxg3 g6 34. Re1 Be7 35. b3, and White should eventually force his way in) 33. Re1 f6 34. Qe6+ Kh8 35. Bc8, and Black resigned in view of the deadly threat of 36. Qe8+.

Kaufman-Gomez Fontal, ‘Baltimore’-Cuba match, Havana, August 1999

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 c5 3. d5 b5 4. cxb5 a6 5. f3 g6 6. e4 d6 7. a4 Bg7 8. Na3 O-O 9. Ne2 e6 10. Nc3 exd5 11. exd5 Nh5 12. Ne4 Re8 13. Be2 Rxe4 14. fxe4 Qh4+ 15. Kd2 Qxe4 16. Bd3 Qb4+ 17. Kc2 Nd7 18. Kb1 Ne5 19. Nc2 Qb3 20. Be2 axb5 21. Ra3 bxa4 22. Rxb3 axb3 23. Ne3 Nf4 24. Bb5 c4 25. Rf1 Bh6 26. Qd4 Ne2 27. Qh4 Bxe3 28. Bxe3 c3 29. Qd8+ Kg7 30. Qf6+ Kg8 31. Bxe2 Ra2 32. Qd8+ Kg7 33. Qf6+ Kg8 34. bxc3 Rxe2 35. Bh6 Black resigns.

Kaufman-Suba, FIDE Senior World Championship, Arco, Italy, November 2010

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. g3 Ba6 5. Qa4 Bb7 6. Bg2 c5 7. dxc5 Bc6 8. Qc2 bxc5 9. O-O Be7 10. Nc3 a6 11. e4 d6 12. Bf4 Nfd7 13. Rad1 e5 14. Be3 O-O 15. Nd5 Bxd5 16. cxd5 a5 17. Nd2 Nb6 18. f4 Bf6 19. Nf3 exf4 20. gxf4 N8d7 21. e5 dxe5 22. fxe5 Nxe5 23. Bxc5 Nxf3+ 24. Bxf3 Re8 25. d6 Rc8 26. Bb7 Rb8 27. Qg2 Re5 28. Bf2 Rg5 29. Bg3 Nc4 30. Qc6 Ne3 31. d7 Nxf1 32. Kxf1 Be5 33. Re1 f6 34. Qe6+ Kh8 35. Bc8 Black resigns.

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

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