Alexei Shirov's gambling style fails him in the long run

by Sam Sloan

Prior to the "World Chess Championship" in Las Vegas, Alexei Shirov, originally from Latvia and recently of Spain, had a run of bad luck. Shirov defeated Vladimir Kramnik in a match in which the winner was supposed to have a right to play Garry Kasparov for the World Chess Championship. Only the loser of the match, Kramnik, got money.

Then, the match with Kasparov never took place, for lack of sponsorship.

Then, Shirov's wife left him.
Gambler's Ruin - Alexei Shirov attacked and attacked until he ran out of luck.
Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu of Romania, who was virtually unknown prior to the tournament but who ended the quest by Shirov for the World Chess Championship and reached the semi-finals.

Then, Shirov adopted a new country: Poland. Why would Shirov leave sunny Spain for Poland? Shirov had the best reason a man could have: A woman!

Then, the United States Consular authorities, in their infinite wisdom, refused to give Shirov's new girlfriend, Marta Zielinska, 21, a visa to enter the United States to accompany him to the World Chess Championship in Las Vegas, even though Marta is a woman's International Master and is rated 2356 by FIDE. (A possible reason why she was denied a visa is that she is carrying Shirov's child. US immigration authorities do not like to give visas to pregnant women, for fear of manufacturing US citizens. However, the US Embassy had really almost nothing to worry about, because only one of the players at the World Chess Championship in Las Vegas eventually defected.)

Then, reaching Las Vegas alone, Shirov played the most exciting chess. The best games of the tournament were by Shirov. However, the winning streak by Shirov ended with the well-known problem of gambler's ruin. A gambler wins and wins, but each time increases the stakes he plays for, so when he finally loses just one big hand, he is wiped out and loses everything.

The most fantastic game in the Las Vegas World Chess Championship was Shirov's win against Nigel Short. Shirov sacrificed first a knight, then a queen and then appeared to have almost nothing. True, Short's position was not without problems, but Short is one of the world's top grandmasters and the spectators all assumed that Short would find his way through and Shirov would soon resign.

However, Shirov just kept attacking and attacking, even though he seemed to have nothing. Finally, Short's king was driven to the middle of the board and suddenly, Short resigned for reasons which were not immediately clear.

Here is the game:

[Event "FIDE WCh KO"]
[Site "Las Vegas USA"]
[Date "1999.08.09"]
[Round "4.1"]
[White "Shirov,Alexei"]
[Black "Short,Nigel"]
[Result "1-0"]
[WhiteElo "2734"]
[BlackElo "2675"]
[EventDate "1999.07.31"]
[ECO "C11"] 
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 dxe4 5. Nxe4 Be7 6. Bxf6 gxf6 7. Nf3
Nd7 8. Bc4 c5 9. O-O O-O 10. Re1 Nb6 11. Bf1 cxd4 12. Nxd4 Kh8 13. c3 e5
14. Qh5 Nd5 15. Rad1 exd4 16. Rxd4 f5 17. Ng3 Bc5 18. Rd2 Qb6 19. Qe2 Nf6
20. Qe5 Kg8 21. h3 Re8 22. Qxe8+ Nxe8 23. Rxe8+ Kg7 24. b4 Qc6 25. Rdd8 Bb6
26. Rg8+ Kf6 27. Nh5+ Ke5 28. Rd3 Qh6 29. Be2 Qc1+ 30. Rd1 Qxc3 31. Bf3 Be6
32. Rxa8 Qxb4 33. Re8 Bd4 34. Rd8 Bb6 35. a3 Qa5 36. R8d2 f4 37. Bg4 Bc4
38. Re1+ Be3 39. Rdd1 Bb3 40. Rb1 Bc2 41. Rb4 f5 42. Bf3 Be4 43. fxe3 Bxf3
44. gxf3 Qxa3 45. Nxf4 b6 46. Rd4 1-0

The key points of the game occurred when Short played 20. .... Kg8. This move threatens a queen sacrifice with 21. ..... Bxf2+ 22. Rxf2 Qxf2+ 23. Kxf2 Ng4+ recovering the queen and easily winning, as Black will be a rook for a knight ahead.

In order to keep the game going, Shirov had to sacrifice a queen for a knight and rook, leaving him a queen for a rook behind.

Here, Short made his error. When Shirov played 24. b4, Grandmaster online commentators Christiansen and Seirawan felt that Short should have played 24. .... Bd6, in which case Shirov would have had to make another sacrifice with 25. Rxd6. Instead, Short played 24. .....Qb6, which gave Shirov the opportunity to occupy the back ranks with his two rooks.

Still, it did not look like Shirov had anything. However, Short's king was soon caught in a mating net in the middle of the board.

In this Las Vegas style tournament, featuring two game knock-out matches, just one loss was generally enough to end a player's world championship aspirations. Thus, Short was eliminated. Shirov advanced to play the previously almost unknown Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu of Romania, who entered the tournament ranked number 136 in the world, after qualifying from an interzonal.

Nisipeanu was the Cinderella story of the tournament. Entering with a lowly rating of 2584, Nisipeanu defeated in succession Djuric (2504), Azmaiparashvili of Georgia (2681) (in a sudden death play-off), Leitao (2574) and Ivanchuk (2702). Here is his 14-move play-off win against Ivanchuk (the shortest win of the tournament):

[Event "FIDE WCh KO"]
[Site "Las Vegas USA"]
[Date "1999.08.11"]
[Round "4.4"]
[White "Nisipeanu,Liviu-Dieter"]
[Black "Ivanchuk,Vladimir"]
[Result "1-0"]
[WhiteElo "2584"]
[BlackElo "2702"]
[EventDate "1999.07.31"]
[ECO "C45"] 
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 Bc5 5. Nxc6 Qf6 6. Qd2 dxc6 7. Nc3
Qe7 8. Be2 Nf6 9. O-O Nxe4 10. Nxe4 Qxe4 11. Re1 O-O 12. Bd3 Qd5 13. b4
Bxf2+ 14. Qxf2 1-0 
After this win, everyone was trying to learn how to pronounce the name of "World Chess Champion Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu". Shirov, however, persisted with his gambling style of sacrificing almost everything and hoping for mate.

Here is the game against Nisipeanu, which ended Shirov's run at the World Chess Championship:

[Event "FIDE WCh KO"]
[Site "Las Vegas USA"]
[Date "1999.08.13"]
[Round "5.2"]
[White "Shirov,Alexei"]
[Black "Nisipeanu,Liviu-Dieter"]
[Result "0-1"]
[WhiteElo "2734"]
[BlackElo "2584"]
[EventDate "1999.07.31"]
[ECO "B12"] 
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 Bf5 4. Nc3 e6 5. g4 Bg6 6. Nge2 c5 7. h4 h6 8. f4
Be7 9. Bg2 Bxh4+ 10. Kf1 Be7 11. f5 Bh7 12. Nf4 Qd7 13. Nh5 Bf8 14. dxc5
Nc6 15. Nb5 Bxc5 16. c4 Nxe5 17. Qe2 Nxc4 18. Bxd5 Qxb5 19. Bxc4 Qb6 20.
fxe6 O-O-O 21. exf7 Ne7 22. Qe6+ Kb8 23. Bf4+ Ka8 24. Qxb6 axb6 25. Be5
Rhf8 26. Ke2 Nd5 27. Rhf1 Ne3 28. Bb5 Nxf1 29. Rxf1 Bg6 30. Rf4 Bd6 31.
Bxd6 Rxd6 32. Bc4 b5 33. Bb3 Bd3+ 34. Ke3 g5 35. Rf2 Bc4 36. Bxc4 bxc4 37.
Ke4 Rd7 38. Rf6 Rfxf7 39. Rxh6 Rfe7+ 40. Kf5 Rd5+ 41. Kg6 Re2 0-1

Gambling again, Shirov sacrificed a pawn on move 9. (Some grandmaster commentators thought that this might simply have been a blunder). In this game, after 25. .... Rhf8, most players would have played 26. Bxg7 and a likely though complex draw, because 26.Bxg7 does not win due to 26…Bd3 27. Bd3 Rf7 28. Bf5 Nf5 29. gf Rf5. However, Shirov took more risks by playing 26. Ke2 followed by 27.Rhf1??. The result was an incredibly complex endgame, but Nisipeanu found his way through and won.

After eliminating Shirov, Nisipeanu was himself eliminated by a loss to Alexander Khalifman of Russia. Khalifman then defeated Vladimir Akopian of Armenia to win the first prize of exactly $482,705, after the deductions, which included a 20% fee to FIDE.

The question remains: Is the gambling style of Shirov suitable for this sort of knock-out event, where just one loss can end a player's chances, or is a slower, more positional style such as that of Akopian, who reached the finals primarily by winning long endgames, more appropriate?

Sam Sloan

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