It’s graduation season and a fitting time to celebrate the teachers.
Alexander Nikitin, who died June 5 in Moscow at the age of 87, was a promising Soviet junior player and a respectably strong IM in a country that turned out respectably strong IMs by the hundreds.
But Nikitin earned more than just a footnote in the history of the game when, almost by chance, he hooked up in 1973 with a promising 10-year-old from Azerbaijan at a junior tournament. The coach-pupil relationship with young Garry Kasparov would last until 1990, the year Kasparov won his fifth and final world championship match against his great rival Anatoly Karpov.
The two parted ways amicably, and Kasparov — not always the most generous of credit-sharers — wrote on Twitter when his teacher’s death was announced: “He had my back at every step of my climb up the chess Olympus. As much as knowledge, he taught me to take chess, and myself, seriously.”
Other notable Nikitin students include former French No. 1 GM Etienne Bacrot and Russian GM Dmitry Jakovenko, the 2012 European individual champion who ranked as high as fifth on the FIDE world ratings.
Although his profession as a radio engineer kept him from a full-time chess career, Nikitin claimed some notable scalps over the years, none more impressive than his 1966 win over former world champion Mikhail Tal. Tal, among the game’s greatest attackers, eschews for once the trademark Sicilian Najdorf exchange sacrifice (14…Rxc3!? 15. bxc4 Nxe4 is almost begging to be played, with dynamic chances for both sides), and after 14…Nb6?! 15. Bxf6 Bxf6 16. Rf3! (the rook will do yeoman’s work along the third rank in the ensuing play) Na4 17. Nxa4 bxa4 18. Kh1 Qb6 19. Rb1 Bg5 20. Rd3, Black’s two bishops aren’t doing much while White has some pleasant central pressure and a strong bishop on a2.
Nikitin deftly repels Black’s efforts to sharpen the play, and it turns out White has some good targets when the center opens up: 24. Re1 d5?! (trying to justify the material deficit, but 24…Rb8 might have been more prudent) 25. Qb3! Qf2 26. Rge3 d4 27. R3e2 Qf4 28. Qxb7 d3 — the point of Black’s mini-combination, as now 29. Re3? d2 is better for Black. But White has other ideas.
Thus: 29. Bxf7+! Kh8 (Rxf7 30. Qxc8+ Rf8 31. Qc4+ Kh8 32. Qxd3) 30. Bd5 dxe2 31. Qxa6 g6 32. Qxe2, and White heads for an ending with three healthy queenside passed pawns for the exchange, a safer king and no good way for Tal to complicate matters again.
White gives back one pawn to get his b-pawn rolling, supported by the dominating bishop on d5. After 47. Qd2 Rd6 48. Qf2! (threatening mate on the move) Kg7 49. Qf7+ Kh6 50. b7 Rg6 (it’s highly unlikely White would have fallen for the stalemate trap 50….Rxd5 51. cxd5 Qe2+ 52. Kh3 Qg4+ 54. Kxg4??) 51. Qf8+ Rg7 52. b8=Q, and Black resigned from a hopeless position.
Jack Collins was not exactly a coach, but he earned fame for taking a young Bobby Fischer and other strong New York City masters under his wing in the mid-1950s in his New York City apartment, singlehandedly creating the strongest private chess salon in the history of the American game.
Like Nikitin, Collins (who died in 2001) was a fine player in his own right, a New York state and Marshall Chess Club champion. You can see some of Fischer’s laser-like chessboard logic in Collins’ 1952 win over Anthony Santasiere, one of the strongest American masters of the early postwar period.
In an Albin Counter Gambit, Black has to work to recover the pawn, and Collins as White uses that to achieve a clear positional superiority on 16. Bf4! Rxe2 17. Bxc6 bxc6 18. Qxc6 Bd6 (Bf8 19. Rxd4 Rb8 20. Rd7! Rbxb2 21. Rxc7 Qe6 22. Rf1, and White retains his edge) 19. Rxd4 Rxb2 20. Rad1 — material is again equal, but Black’s forces are badly placed and he has some back-rank issues.
On 20…h6? (Rb6 was better here) 21. c5! (direct and purposeful, very much in the Bobby mode) Bxf4 22. Rxf4 Qe8 23. Qxe8+ Rxe8 24. Rd7, White wins a pawn and grabs the seventh rank. White’s pressure will soon force an active Black rook into passive defense on f8.
White’s technique is impeccable, as 31. Ra7 Rc8 (Rxa3 32. c7 Rc3 33. Rd8 Rc2 34. Rxf8+ Kxf8 35. Ra8+ wins) 32. Rxf6 R3xc6 33. Rxc6 Rxc6 34. Rxa5 leads to a rook ending with White two pawns to the good. After 43. Kf1 Kf7 44. a7! (perfectly timed, as the Black king now blocks his own rook from defending the g-pawn) Ra1+ 45. Kg2 Rxa7 46. Rb4 Kf6 47. Rxg4, the connected passed pawns are a book win; Santasiere resigned.
Call today’s diagram a little bit of grandmasterly Schadenfreude. In a key game from the just-concluded 10th Norway Chess Tournament, Azeri GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov has just played 21…Ne7-g6 in a relatively equal position.
Indian great and former world champ Viswanathan Anand — one of the greatest pure calculators in the history of the game, mind you — uncorked 22. Qb5??, wrote down the move, realized what he had done, and resigned even before his opponent returned from a mid-move stroll.
The reason, which Anand knew Mamedyarov wouldn’t miss: 22…Qxf3+! wins on the spot, as 23. Kxf3 Nh4 is mate. Happens to the best of us once in a while …
Nikitin-Tal, Kidlovsk, Russia, August 1966
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bc4 e6 7. a3 Be7 8. O-O O-O 9. Ba2 b5 10. f4 Nbd7 11. f5 e5 12. Nde2 Bb7 13. Ng3 Rc8 14. Bg5 Nb6 15. Bxf6 Bxf6 16. Rf3 Na4 17. Nxa4 bxa4 18. Kh1 Qb6 19. Rb1 Bg5 20. Rd3 Qf2 21. c3 Bf4 22. Qxa4 Bxg3 23. Rxg3 Qf4 24. Re1 d5 25. Qb3 Qf2 26. Rge3 d4 27. R3e2 Qf4 28. Qxb7 d3 29. Bxf7+ Kh8 30. Bd5 dxe2 31. Qxa6 g6 32. Qxe2 gxf5 33. g3 Qh6 34. exf5 Rxf5 35. Rf1 Rxf1+ 36. Qxf1 Qd6 37. c4 Rf8 38. Qe2 Qf6 39. Kg2 e4 40. Bxe4 Re8 41. Qc2 Qe5 42. Bf3 Rd8 43. b4 Qe3 44. Bd5 Qxa3 45. b5 Qa1 46. b6 Qe5 47. Qd2 Rd6 48. Qf2 Kg7 49. Qf7+ Kh6 50. b7 Rg6 51. Qf8+ Rg7 52. b8=Q Black resigns.
Collins-Santasiere, New York, 1952
1. d4 d5 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 d4 4. Nf3 Nc6 5. Nbd2 Bg4 6. h3 Bxf3 7. Nxf3 Bc5 8. a3 a5 9. g3 Nge7 10. Bg2 O-O 11. O-O Ng6 12. Qa4 Qc8 13. Rd1 Re8 14. Bd2 Ngxe5 15. Nxe5 Rxe5 16. Bf4 Rxe2 17. Bxc6 bxc6 18. Qxc6 Bd6 19. Rxd4 Rxb2 20. Rad1 h6 21. c5 Bxf4 22. Rxf4 Qe8 23. Qxe8+ Rxe8 24. Rd7 f6 25. Rxc7 Re1+ 26. Kg2 Rc1 27. Rg4 g5 28. Rd4 Rb8 29. Rd6 Rf8 30. c6 Rc3 31. Ra7 Rc8 32. Rxf6 R3xc6 33. Rxc6 Rxc6 34. Rxa5 Kg7 35. Rf5 Kg6 36. Rf3 Rc1 37. Rb3 h5 38. Rb6+ Kg7 39. a4 Rc4 40. a5 Ra4 41. a6 g4 42. hxg4 hxg4 43. Kf1 Kf7 44. a7 Ra1+ 45. Kg2 Rxa7 46. Rb4 Kf6 47. Rxg4 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at email@example.com.