Savoring the mellow joys of positional chess

It is autumn in earnest, Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” and a columnist’s fancy naturally turns to thoughts of positional chess.

It’s no secret most chess players are attracted to the flashy and the spectacular. We’re drawn to the tactically decisive queen sacrifice, the five-move mating combination, the short and sharp over the subdued and subtle.

But as the poet knew, there are quieter pleasures to be gleaned in the patient nurturing of tiny positional advantages, the calm, steady exploitation of a backward pawn or a misplaced knight, the satisfying harvest of a ripe field of small assets that produce the winning endgame.

Take, for instance, the mellow fruitfulness of American GM Fabiano Caruana’s Capablanca-worthy Round 5 win over the fine British GM David Howell at the FIDE Grand Prix Swiss Tournament, now reaching the halfway point in Riga, Latvia.

Caruana chooses a modest line against the super-solid Berlin Ruy Lopez, and claims an edge when Black gives up a good defender and several tempi trying to eliminate White’s bishop pair: 9. Bg3 Nh5?! (Howell will miss this knight) 10. Nbd2 Qf6 11. Bxc6 bxc6 12. d4!? exd4 13. e5!, following the classic strategy of striking in the center if you’re opponent is working on the wing.

After 13…Qg7 14. cxd4 Bb6 15. a4!, the White threat of a4-a5 forces Black to imprison his own bishop on b6, a sidelining that Caruana skillfully exploits for the rest of the game. In true Capablanca fashion, White’s positional edge leads to a petite combination that wins a critical pawn: 20. Re1 (Rxc6? dxe5 solves all of Black’s problems) Rfe8 (c5 21. d5 maintains the bind) 21. exd6 Rxe1+ (cxd6 22. Rxe8+ Rxe8 23. Rxc6 and the Black d-pawn must fall, too) 22. Qxe1 Rxd6 23. Rxc6! (not a hard combination for a top grandmaster to spot, but it was White’s superior positional play that led to the tactical double attack) Rxc6 (Qf6 24. Rxd6 Qxd6 25. b3 Bxd4 26. Qxa5, with a superior endgame) 24. Qe8+ Kh7 25. Qxc6, and, in one last nice touch, 25…Bxd4?? now would fail to 26. Qe4+.

White’s edge is just a pawn, but Caruana’s pressure eventually forces a queen trade and the White knight continues to embarrass Howell’s ill-fated bishop: 28. Qxe6 fxe6 29. Nc4 Kf6 (very neat is 29…Bxd4 30. Nxa5 Bxb2 31. Nb3! and the Black bishop has no good way back to the long diagonal to stop the a-pawn; e.g. 31…Be5 32. a5 c6 33. a6 Bb8 34. Na5 c5 35. Nc6 c4 36. Kf1! and wins) 30. Nxb6 cxb6 31. g4 e5 32. dxe5+ Kxe5 33. g3 Kd4 34. f4!, and Black resigns as White will win on the queenside lines like 34…Ke4 35. f5 Ke5 36. Kf2 h5 37. gxh5 Kxf5 38. g4+! Kf6 39. Ke3.

The stakes are high in Riga: The top two finishers from the Swiss event — and a parallel women’s competition — earn a place in the 2022 Candidates’ Tournament for a shot at a world title match.


With Veterans Day also looming on the November docket, we thought we should check in on the action at one of our favorite tournaments, the annual NATO Chess Championship featuring teams from the U.S. and other countries of the Western military alliance.

Competing against some strong German and East European squads, the U.S. punched above its weight with a very respectable fifth-place finish in the 31st running of the championship held in Blankenberge, Belgium last month. Poland edged Greece to top honors but Air Force Capt. Jason Loving — along with Air Force 1st Lt. Eigen Wang a stalwart of the U.S. team — scored a fine upset victory over Polish master Mateusz Sypien in their personal top-board encounter, with a positional piece sacrifice that led to an overwhelming attack.

Loving as Black wins the opening battle in this Closed Sicilian, as after 13. c4 Qc7 the White bishops have been neutralized and the knight on d1 is a problem child complicating Sypien’s development plans. When White castles kingside, Loving does not hesitate to strike: 17. Qe2 0-0-0 18. a3?! (see diagram; the stronger 18. h4 shuts down the kingside for the moment, but Black can just prepare more methodically for the break with moves like …Kb8 and …Rdg8 while White has next to no counterplay) h4! 19. g4 (the attacking lines also open up on 19. Nxh4 Nxh4 20. gxh4 Bxf4) Bxf4!, a devastating way to open the kingside files for a killer attack.

Black’s initiative does not let up for a second in the ensuing play: 24. Kf1 Be3! 25. Nxe3 dxe3 26. Bh4 (Qxe3 Nd4 27. Bh4 R3g4 28. Nxd4 cxd4 29. Qh3 Rxg2 30. Rxg2 Bxg2+ 31. Qxg2 Rxg2 32. Kxg2 Qxe5, and White’s forces are no match for the marauding Black queen) exf2 27. Bxg3 Rxg3 28. Qxf2 Rg4, and now Loving is up a pawn and is still on the attack.

It’s over when the Black queen gets in on the fun: 32. Nxg2 Qh8! 33. b4 Qh3 34. bxc5 bxc5 35. Kg1 f4, and there’s nothing to be done about the killer threat of 36…f3; Sypien resigned.

Caruana-Howell, FIDE Grand Prix Swiss 2021, Riga, Latvia, October 2021

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 Bc5 5. c3 O-O 6. O-O d6 7. Bg5 h6 8. Bh4 g5 9. Bg3 Nh5 10. Nbd2 Qf6 11. Bxc6 bxc6 12. d4 exd4 13. e5 Qg7 14. cxd4 Bb6 15. a4 a5 16. Nc4 Be6 17. Rc1 Nxg3 18. hxg3 Bxc4 19. Rxc4 Rad8 20. Re1 Rfe8 21. exd6 Rxe1+ 22. Qxe1 Rxd6 23. Rxc6 Rxc6 24. Qe8+ Kh7 25. Qxc6 Qg6 26. Qd7 Kg7 27. Ne5 Qe6 28. Qxe6 fxe6 29. Nc4 Kf6 30. Nxb6 cxb6 31. g4 e5 32. dxe5+ Kxe5 33. g3 Kd4 34. f4 Black resigns.

Sypien-Loving, 31st NATO Chess Championship, Blankenberge, Belgium, October 2021

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. g3 g6 4. Bg2 Bg7 5. d3 e6 6. Be3 Nd4 7. Qd2 Ne7 8. Nd1 b6 9. c3 Ndc6 10. f4 d5 11. e5 d4 12. Bf2 Bb7 13. c4 Qc7 14. Nf3 h5 15. O-O Nf5 16. h3 Bh6 17. Qe2 O-O-O 18. a3 h4 19. g4 Bxf4 20. gxf5 gxf5 21. Bxh4 Rdg8 22. Bf6 Rxh3 23. Rf2 Rhg3 24. Kf1 Be3 25. Nxe3 dxe3 26. Bh4 exf2 27. Bxg3 Rxg3 28. Qxf2 Rg4 29. Re1 Qd8 30. Rd1 Nd4 31. Ne1 Bxg2+ 32. Nxg2 Qh8 33. b4 Qh3 34. bxc5 bxc5 35. Kg1 f4 White resigns.

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

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