Martial Gambit: Real-life warriors do battle at the chessboard

Chess, by and large, is a war game played by nonmartial people who would have trouble identifying the business end of an M16 or explaining the difference between an embrasure and a sally port.

Happily, there are some notable exceptions. Today’s column looks at two very different intersections of the military and the chess life.

NATO, as you may have heard, is a powerful military alliance dominated by a single superpower — Germany. Since NATO began organizing a team championship in the 1990s, Germany has captured far more titles than any other nation, and medaled in 24 straight competitions. It was a bit of a shock last year when Team Germany finished off the podium as Greece scored an upset win.

The Germans returned to their winning ways at the recent 33rd NATO Chess Championship in Portoroz, Slovenia, earlier this month, taking home the gold medal. A game U.S. squad grabbed bronze after just being edged out by Greece for the silver medal. German FM Robert Stein took home the individual gold medal for top score on the top board.

U.S. Airman First Class and FM Patrick Aizpurua had a fine tournament as the American squad’s anchor and was atop the leaderboard at 4-0 before an epic clash with Stein in Round 5.

In an Open Catalan, Stein as White grabs the chance for a central break with 14. e4 g6 15. d5!?, and the pressure grows on the Black defense after 18. Nb3 Qb8?! (a somewhat artificial way to address Black’s shortcomings; something like 18 … b6 looks better) 19. Nc5 Rd8 20. Qf4 Bg7 21. Rfe1, already setting up the threat of 22. Re7 Be8 23. Nb5.

Aizpurua spends several moves liberating his queen from her dungeon, giving White more time to prepare another powerful central break: 24. Red2 Qb6 25. d6! cxd6 26. Nf6+!? (Black is reeling, and the simple 26. Nxd6 Rd7 27. Ncb5 Re7 28. Qh4! might have put him over the edge) Bxf6 27. Qxf6 Bc6 27. Rxd6 Rxd6. White is close to winning, with 30. Rd7 Rf8 31. Bd5 Nxd5 32. Nxd5 Qc5 33. Ne7+ one looming threat, but Black refuses to go down quietly.

Thus: 29 … Qc5! 30. Bxc6 bxc6 31. Ne4 (Qe7!, threatening 32. Rxg6+!, looks stronger here) Qc1+ 32. Kg2 Nc2 33. h4 Ne1+ (Black must keep up the pressure before White’s kingside attack crescendos) 34. Kh2 Qc4! 35. Rd8+?! — perhaps frustrated by his opponent’s dogged refusal to fold, White releases the pressure too soon; on 35. Ng5 Rf8 36. Kg1! h6 37. Ne6! Nf3+ 38. Qxf3 fxe6 39. Qe3, Black will struggle to protect all his weaknesses.

Sadly for Black, he lets down his guard just when his hard work should have saved the half-point in a tricky knight-and-pawn ending: 44. Nd6 Kg7?! (already 44 … Nd3! 45. Nxf7+ Kg7 46. Nd8 Nxb2 47. Kg2 Nxa4 48. Nc6 would be an honorable draw) 45. Nb7 Nd3 46. b3 Nc1? — the last mistake as Black can still hold after 46 … Kf6 47. Nxa5 Nb4 48. Kg2 Ke6 49. Kf3 Kd6, and if 50. Nb7+? Kc7 51. Nc5 (Na5 Kb6), the White knight is trapped after 51 … Kc6.

Black’s passed d-pawn looks dangerous, but after 50. a5 Nd4 (d2 51. Ne3 Nd4 52. a6 Nb5 53. Kg2 Nc3 54. a7 and wins) 51. a6 Nb5 52. Kg2, Black’s passer is stopped and his knight immobilized on the queenside. Stein soon collects the advanced d-pawn and in the final position, Black must concede facing lines such as 61 … g5 62. b5 gxh4 63. gxh4 Nf6 64. Kd4 Kc7 65. Ke5 Ne4 66 h5 Nxf2 67. Kxf5 and wins.


Ukrainian GM Igor Kovalenko is fighting a bigger battle these days.

The 34-year-old grandmaster and two-time Latvian national champion has put his career on hold, joining the national army two months after Russia invaded his country last year, He has served as a sapper and “freelance chaplain” in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, site of some of the fiercest battles of the war. reports that Kovalenko was briefly back in Kyiv last week, receiving a medal from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself for “personal bravery demonstrated in defense of the state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for selfless fulfillment of military duty.”

A solid pro ranked 65th in the latest FIDE world rankings, Kovalenko’s skills and resilience at the chessboard were on display in a nice win over young Austrian GM Valentin Dragnev from a 2020 German team Bundesliga match. Play is balanced for much of the early middle game in this Tarrasch QGD before Black finds his pieces suddenly offside on the wrong wing as Kovalenko whips up a kingside attack: 29. Bd3 Na3!? (a little too cute, especially when the Black king could use a little company) 30. Qd2 Kg7 31. Qb2 Nc4 32. Bxc4 Rxc4 33. d5+ Kg8? (see diagram; f6! is almost always a bad — or least unpleasant — move in these positions, but here after 33 … f6! 34. e5 exd5 35. exf6+ Qxf6 36. Nd4 Kh7, Black is still very much in the game) 34. Nxg6+!, White gets a passel of pawns and the Black king is left completely exposed.

But the battle is not over after 34 … fxg6 35. Qxg6+? (not wrong, but 37. Rg3! is crushing; e.g. 33 … Rg7 38. Rxg6 Rxg6 39. Qxg6+ Kf8 40. Rd3 with a dominating attack) Rg7 38. Qe8+ Kh7 39. Qxh5+ Kg8 40. Qe8+ Kh7 41. Rf3 Qd8, and the queen comes to the aid of the defense and White must win the game all over again.

Kovalenko grabs a second chance on 49. Rd3 Rg7?! (Bc8! 50. Rg3 Rg7 51. d6 Bd7 holds the balance) 50. dxe6 Bc6 51. g4, and White’s four pawns for the piece set up a fascinating race in the game’s final sequence.

Dragnev activates his queenside pawns and even wins the race to queen, but his exposed king proves fatal: 62. g6 b2 63. e7! (Qf7+?? Rxf7 64. exf7+ Kf8 65. fxe8=Q+ Qxe8 66. g7+ Kxg7 67. Rxe8 b1=Q and it’s White who is fighting for a draw) Qxf6 64. exf6 Rxe7 65. fxe7 b1=Q 66. Rxe8+ Kg7 67. Rg8+!, finishing with an exclamation point both figuratively and literally. It’s hopeless after 67 … Kxg8 68. e8=Q+ Kg7 69. Qf7+ Kh6 70. Qh7+ and White’s three extra pawns will carry the day; Black resigned.


And a little clean-up in the historical accuracy aisle from last week’s column. I mistakenly had German great Emmanuel Lasker as the “reigning” world champ when his third cousin Edward Lasker was taking on Frank Marshall in their 1923 U.S. title match. Lasker was, of course, the ex-world champ, having lost the crown to Jose Capablanca two years earlier.

Hat tip to reader David Novak for spotting the error.

(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)

Stein-Aizpurua, 33rd NATO Chess Championship, Portoroz, Slovenia, September 2023

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 d5 4. Nf3 Be7 5. Bg2 O-O 6. O-O dxc4 7. Qc2 a6 8. a4 Bd7 9. Qxc4 Bc6 10. Bg5 a5 11. Nc3 Na6 12. Rad1 Nb4 13. Bxf6 Bxf6 14. e4 g6 15. d5 exd5 16. exd5 Bd7 17. Nd4 Re8 18. Nb3 Qb8 19. Nc5 Rd8 20. Qf4 Bg7 21. Rfe1 Be8 22. Re2 Qa7 23. N5e4 Qa6 24. Red2 Qb6 25. d6 cxd6 26. Nf6+ Bxf6 27. Qxf6 Bc6 28. Rxd6 Rxd6 29. Rxd6 Qc5 30. Bxc6 bxc6 31. Ne4 Qc1+ 32. Kg2 Nc2 33. h4 Ne1+ 34. Kh2 Qc4 35. Rd8+ Rxd8 36. Qxd8+ Kg7 37. Qf6+ Kg8 38. Qd8+ Kg7 39. Qf6+ Kg8 40. Nd6 Qd5 41. Qd8+ Kg7 42. Ne8+ Kh6 43. Qxd5 cxd5 44. Nd6 Kg7 45. Nb7 Nd3 46. b3 Nc1 47. Nxa5 d4 48. b4 d3 49. Nc4 Nb3 50. a5 Nd4 51. a6 Nb5 52. Kg2 Kf6 53. Kf3 Ke6 54. Ke3 Kd5 55. Kxd3 f6 56. Ne3+ Kc6 57. Ng4 f5 58. Nf6 Kb6 59. Nxh7 Nd6 60. Nf8 Ne4 61. Ke3 Black resigns.

Kovalenko-Dragnev, Bundesliga, Munich, February 2020

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 d5 3. c4 e6 4. Nc3 c5 5. cxd5 Nxd5 6. e4 Nxc3 7. bxc3 cxd4 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2+ 10. Qxd2 O-O 11. Bc4 Nd7 12. O-O b6 13. Rfe1 Bb7 14. Rad1 Rc8 15. Bb3 Re8 16. h3 Nf6 17. Bc2 h6 18. Bb1 Qc7 19. Re3 Nd7 20. Nh2 Red8 21. Ng4 h5 22. Nh2 Ne5 23. Qe1 Nc4 24. Rc3 b5 25. Qe2 Qb6 26. Nf3 g6 27. Rb3 b4 28. Qe1 a5 29. Bd3 Na3 30. Qd2 Kg7 31. Qb2 Nc4 32. Bxc4 Rxc4 33. d5+ Kg8 34. Qf6 Rd6 35. Ne5 Rc7 36. Nxg6 fxg6 37. Qxg6+ Rg7 38. Qe8+ Kh7 39. Qxh5+ Kg8 40. Qe8+ Kh7 41. Rf3 Qd8 42. Qh5+ Kg8 43. Rf4 Qg5 44. Qe8+ Kh7 45. Rg4 Qh6 46. Rxg7+ Qxg7 47. Qh5+ Qh6 48. Qe5 Rd7 49. Rd3 Rg7 50. dxe6 Bc6 51. g4 Qc1+ 52. Kh2 Be8 53. Rd8 Qc2 54. Qg3 Qc6 55. Qh4+ Kg8 56. Qf6 a4 57. e5 Rb7 58. Qg6+ Kf8 59. Qf6+ Kg8 60. g5 b3 61. axb3 axb3 62. g6 b2 63. e7 Qxf6 64. exf6 Rxe7 65. fxe7 b1=Q 66. Rxe8+ Kg7 67. Rg8+ Kxg8 68. e8=Q+ Kg7 69. Qf7+ Kh6 70. Qh7+ Black resigns.

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

Source: WT