Last Sunday, I had the privilege of playing a serious game of chess against Florin Gheorghiu, who celebrated the proudest moment of his career at the 1966 Havana Olympiad (World Chess Team Championship) when he was just 22. In the last round, Romania was paired against the US, and Gheorghiu faced the already legendary Bobby Fischer. Fischer was chasing the gold medal for best individual performance and was neck-and-neck with the current World Champion, Tigran Petrosian. So, when Gheorghiu offered an early draw, Fischer declined, despite being Black and standing slightly worse. He had been having a fantastic tournament and was confident that he could turn it round. But Gheorghiu rose to the occasion and won the game. According to several people present, Fischer was so upset by the result that he cried. (These temperamental geniuses, you know...) On top of everything else, it was the only time he had ever lost to a player younger than himself, and he never did it again.
I played Gheorghiu 47 years after his encounter with Fischer, and less was at stake: after a dreadful season, we are forlornly hoping not to get relegated from the B division of the Swiss National League. All the same, I should have prepared much more carefully for my game, since I knew I was quite likely to be drawn against him. In the event, I spent a large part of the preceding week posting about censorship on Goodreads, and didn't even look at a chessboard. Not, who acts as my second, was scathing about my unprofessional approach. And indeed, things did not go well...CAEG - Echallens, Sep 29 2013FM Manny Rayner - IGM Florin Gheorghiu
1. Nf3 c5
2. c4 g6
3. d4 Bg7
4. e4 Qa5+!?
What on earth was this move? I vaguely remembered having seen it, but couldn't remember if it was supposed to be any good. Grandmasters playing Black against a weaker opponent often pick an unsound, offbeat line in the hope of confusing them; in that case, it's important to be resolute and not wimp out. I thought for nearly 20 minutes and decided to sacrifice a pawn. He wasn't going to scare me!
5. Nc3 Nc6
6. dc? Bc3+!
7. bc Nf6!
Oh shit. I had only considered Qc3+, after which I have quite a lot of compensation, and had completely missed this natural reply. I realized to my horror that I had an almost lost position as White after seven moves. I looked around for some way to limit the damage.
8. Qc2! Ne4!
I can't take the knight, because then Qc3+ wins. But I had already prepared the next two moves:
9. Bd3! Nc5
I've lost a pawn, but at least I'm ahead in development.
He is clearly much better, but he still needs to choose how to exploit his advantage. The alternative he chose looked like one of the less dangerous ones.
12. Ne6 fe
For a moment, I felt almost happy. I have the bishop pair and some attacking chances. If I just have time to play Be3 and Qd2, things won't be too bad. But Gheorghiu had a long think and found a very strong move.
If I exchange the queens, I have a lousy ending which is almost certainly hopeless. Of course I keep them on, but he forces my queen somewhere it doesn't want to go.
14. Qb2 Ne5!
He keeps up the pressure and threatens to win the c4 pawn. I thought for a moment that I could play Qb4. If he exchanges the queens himself, my pawns get straightened out and I'm more or less okay. But instead he plays ... a5! and then I couldn't see what to do. In the end, I decided to seek my chances in a heavy piece middlegame.
15. Be3 Nc4
16. Bc4 Qc4
17. Bc5 Qc5
18. Qb7 Kf7!
19. Qf3+ Qf5!
I had hoped I'd be able to exploit the slightly loose position of his king, but he finds all the best moves and reminds me that he used to be in the world's top 20.
21. Rae1 Rc4!
22. Re3 Rf4!
Blocks the rather pathetic threat of Rf3. Now my position looks more or less lost again.
23. f3 Rc8
24. Rae1 e5
25. Qf2 Rfc4
My c-pawn is feeling horribly uncomfortable.
26. Qd2 Kg7
I have a dream of playing f4 and opening up the center for my rooks, but Gheorghiu contemptuously brushes aside my feeble threats.
On top of everything else, I'm short of time on the clock.
A veritable textbook example of how to increase your advantage. Having tidied his king away, he forces my rook to a passive square and prepares the final assault.
29. Rc1 Qc6
30. Rc2 e4!
He methodically exchanges off his doubled pawn, also reminding my king that it's far from safe on g2.
Black's got any number of ways to wrap it up. He picks the safest one, exchanging off to a winning rook ending.
32. Qf3 Qf3+
33. Kf3 Kf7
He's got all the time in the world to get things ready.
At least I centralize my king and try to help my miserable c-pawn. It can't hurt.
35. Kd3 Ke8
Now he's just going to shuffle his king to d7, and then d6, play e5 and d4, and that will be it. There's nothing I can do.
Or is there? To my great surprise, I saw that I'd been given a chance. I had to take it right now.
The rook jumps to the weak square left by Black's last move. Now if he plays ... Kd7, I move my other rook to the e-file, threatening his e-pawn, and it's no longer clear what's going on. My rooks are suddenly alive again. He thought a bit and decided to push his d-pawn immediately.
If he plays ... dc, I have time to take his e-pawn with check before blockading his pawn with my king - and again, who knows what's happening? He decides to keep a safe extra pawn.
I was very happy to kill this ambitious foot-soldier.
39. Kd5 Rc7
40. Kd4 Rc1
I had made the time control, and my position looked better than it had since the early opening. I instinctively felt that I could hold this. Things have swung around 180 degrees: now he's the passive one. But I needed to play very accurately. After a long think, I retreated my king again.
41. Kd3 Rd1+?!
I was pleased to have him force my king back to safety on the king-side. It was feeling unhappy in the center, and maybe he missed a chance somewhere around here.
42. Ke3 Rd5
43. Kf2 Ra5
44. Kg2 Kf7
I could see the trick he was planning, and after another long think I let him do it. As it turned out, I had now more or less calculated to the end of the game, but I wasn't sure I'd got it right. My uncertainty was justified; I had missed a couple of finesses, but luckily they didn't matter. The important thing is that this kind of ending is structurally almost impossible to win for Black, for reasons that "every Russian schoolboy knows".
45. h4 Ra2
46. Re7+ Re7
47. Ra2 Ke6
He just can't activate his rook. My rook is in front of the potentially dangerous a-pawn: not ideal in general, but good here when it's so far back. He does the only thing he can, running his king over to support the pawn.
48. Kf3 Kd5
49. Kf4 Kc4
I want to be as far back as possible so that I can check his king and force it to a bad square.
50 ... Kb3
51. Rb1+ Ka2
52. Rb5 Ka3
Now his king is stuck on the a-file in front of his pawn. I'm going to leave it there and get on with the next part of my plan, advancing the king-side pawns.
53. g4 Ka4
54. Rb8 a5
55. h5 gh
56. gh Re6!
He is alert and gives me as many chances as possible to go wrong.
57. Kf5 Rc6
My king is cut off from his h-pawn, but he can't keep it cut off if he wants to make progress.
58. Rb7 h6
59. Rb8 Ka3
60. Rb7 a4
61. Rb8 Ka2
62. Rb7 a3
63. Rb8 Ka1
64. Rb7 a2
All I've been able to do was wait while he laboriously trundled his pawn down the board, but I was almost sure that waiting would be enough. He can't untangle himself.
65. Rb8 Rc2
This is the only thing he can try to get his king out of the box. Now I have just enough time to take his h-pawn.
When thinking about this position about 10 moves earlier, I had been planning Kg6?? here, which would have been a catastrophic blunder. Luckily, I spotted it a few moves later, and by the time we actually got there I knew what to do.
66 ... Rb2
I take his h-pawn, and now I have a passed pawn too. He's getting a queen first, but then his king is too far away to stop me getting one of my own.
67 ... Rb5+
68. Kg4 Kb1
69. Ra6 a1=Q
70. Ra1+ Ka1
His king is as badly placed as can be, and my pawn serenely moves up the board, supported by my king.
71. h6 Kb2
72. h7 Rb8
73. Kg5 Kc3
74. Kg6 Kd4
75. Kg7 Ke5
76. h8=Q Rh8
He evidently didn't want to offer me a draw, it was too annoying.
I felt kind of bad for him, considering that he'd completely outplayed me, but also proud of finding my saving chance and managing to exploit it. This is the kind of game that can make you think chess is a worthwhile thing to do.