Below you will find a selection of memorable games from critical moments in Mark’s chess career.
Each game includes an introduction with brief notes in which he outlines his chess philosophy, strategic choices or psychological approach. To play through the games, click on the chess notation and a playable board will pop up!
Game 1: I.Glek – M.Quinn, Dublin 2019
Many years ago I was present at a lecture in Dublin by Grandmaster David Bronstein. One eager junior asked the World Championship finalist the best way to improve his game. Bronstein’s response was immediate and unequivocal. He advised the Junior to give up chess for six months, to study no chess whatsoever, then return to the game with a fresh perspective and a hunger for battle. I had plenty of opportunity to ponder Bronstein’s words this January during the first three rounds of the Philip Hogarty Memorial GM Group. The event marked my first high-level event since the Italian Team Championships in the summer of 2015. The first three games did not go according to plan, as I got blown off the board in three consecutive games by GM Daniel Fernandez, FM Conor O’Donnell and IM David Fitzsimons. Needless to say, it was with some trepidation that I turned up on day 3 to face GM Igor Glek with the black pieces in round 4. I had another Russian GM, Maksimenko, in the afternoon so if I didn’t want to suffer the indignity of a complete whitewash, I would have to dig deep. Luckily for me, Glek was in the mood for an open Sicilian. I took my chance to diverge from theory at an early stage with a speculative h5 that led to a complex middlegame where Black had good chances. When White overplays his hand with 26. c5 missing 27…. Bb3! followed by 28…a5! he is forced to sacrifice his queen for a rook and bishop by 31) Qxc8. Otherwise, Black plays 30…a4 with a clamp on the queenside and a huge positional advantage. Glek’s impromptu Queen sacrifice causes some temporary disruption in the Black camp, but it isn’t enough to prevent the Black Queen from breaking through White’s defences after which Black calls it a day. I breathed a huge sigh of relief as the slide of consecutive defeats came to an end. After an interesting draw against GM Maksimenko in the afternoon, I finished the day on 1.5/2. What a difference a day makes!
The Anti-Sicilian 3. Bb5 has established itself as a major opening in its own right in recent years. When preparing for this all-play-all, with my free time at a minimum, I decided to avoid the whole system by playing 2….e6 and offering a Sicilian Taimanov or Kan. Sensing that Gary had some sharp preparation up his sleeve, at the last minute, I switched to the Sicilian Scheveningen. Gary promptly wheeled out the Keres Attack, a highly dangerous weapon which I hadn’t faced since the 1990s! The Keres is not for the faint-hearted and certainly not for the ill-prepared. I donned my best poker-face and acted like this was precisely the variation I expected on the board. Fortunately, my double-bluff worked. Fearing that I might have booked up on the latest theory in the main line, Gary chose a quieter positional approach bypassing the dangerous mainline. White should probably have played 9.Be3 followed by 10)f4 instead of castling so as to discourage ….g5. A classic instance of knowing the rules and more pertinently when to break them. This would have led to a highly double-edged middlegame where Black needs to tread very carefully. In the game, Black’s knights gain control of the centre giving the second player a clear edge. Regrettably, all my hard work went by-the-by when I missed a clear winning chance during time trouble after straying with 42….hg4 allowing 43. Ktb5 when white is back in the game. Alternatively, 42….Rc8 followed by 43….h4+ and 44….Rxc2+ would have left White in big trouble. A highly enjoyable game concluded in a well-deserved draw for both sides. The Sicilian Scheveningen is well-worth including in one’s Sicilian repertoire if you want a tense, double-edged encounter, but you will need to make sure you stay on top of latest developments, just in case your opponent calls your bluff!
The Smyslov variation doesn’t appear too often at a high level these days. The general school of thought is that Black can equalise without too much difficulty, but the variation can prove tricky for the second player if they are not careful. With three GM norms to his credit, my opponent IM Sam Collins is effectively Ireland’s first home-grown Grandmaster. I usually get to play Sam once a year in the Armstrong Cup when Kilkenny take on Gonzaga. The games usually go down to the wire. We missed our annual Armstrong clash this year but the Philip Hogarty Memorial provided an opportunity for our annual joust. The opening turned out very favourably for White but Sam’s tactical resourcefulness in the middlegame led me to err with 30. bxc4 allowing Black to escape with a perpetual. 30. Qf5+ followed by 31. bxc4 was the way to go when in spite of a flurry of checks from Black’s queen, the white monarch marches straight up the d-file to victory. Even for an experienced International Master, winning a won position against a Grandmaster is not straightforward. The same can be said for Grandmasters in waiting.
In the run-up to the Italian Team Championships at Civitanova Marche in 2015, rumours began circulating that Fabiano Caruana, the world’s number 2 ranked player, was about to abandon Italy and declare for America. Caruana was scheduled to play for Padua who had assembled a tremendous line-up including GMs Bacrot, Nakamura, Vocaturo, Dvirny and Godena. The situation regarding Caruana remained unclear as my team, Marostica, was drawn against Padua in the opening round. Ironically, Padua’s two strongest players IM Federico Manca and IM Carlo Rossi were on the Marostica team, adding a peculiar intensity to the encounter. In spite of being massively outrated, our team gave Padua and their sponsor quite a scare. Bacrot had to put up an incredible defence to prevail against Federico Manca on board 1. Carlo Rossi had a typically chaotic game against IM Mogranzini on board 4 playing a highly provocative opening that led to huge complications. Gerd Schacher, a very strong player who spent a year in Ireland on Erasmus never quite got out of the opening against GM Dvirny. Many Irish players will remember Gerd who scored 11/11 in the Armstrong Cup for UCD back in 1999/2000. Caruana never materialised at Civitanova and did indeed declare for America a few days later. That meant my opponent on board 2 on the day, Daniele Vocaturo, was in effect the Italian No.1 as he pushed his King’s pawn two squares forward to commence proceedings. In the end, Marostica went down to Padua’s star-studded team 3-1 but needless to say I was delighted with the following game.
I was probably around thirteen or fourteen years old when I discovered the English Opening and abandoned 1.e4 in spite of Bobby Fischer’s declaration that the latter is ‘Best by test’. At the time, the English opening was far less theoretical and much less researched than 1.d4 or 1.e4 and there was huge scope for experimentation. This switch in repertoire may or may not have been a mistake. I suppose I will never know, but in early 2013 I decided it was time to reintroduce 1.e4 into my repertoire. While positional play and semi-open games had served me well, well enough that is, to obtain the IM title, it was time to go back to the source and to the tactical battles and sacrificial play that got me hooked on chess in the first place. No better place than the closed GM group at Bunratty to spin the wheel of fortune. IM Alex Lopez is one of the most tactically-gifted Irish players I have ever had the good fortune to play against. IM Brian Kelly who retired from chess some years ago is similarly gifted although their playing styles differ. Brian’s tactical nous was enhanced by his tremendous ability for deep and accurate calculation. Mindful of the pitfalls of making generalisations, Alex has always seemed more willing than Brian to enter into dubious or risky positions to secure the full point. To exemplify the point, in the following game, Alex once again puts into practice (see below our game from Dun Laoghaire in 2012) the axiom that the only way to refute a pawn sacrifice is to take it. Once again, White gets considerable compensation but this time Black skilfully weathers the storm to emerge into a favourable endgame. I might have defended better were time not a factor but Alex ran out a deserved winner in what was a highly enjoyable game exploring unchartered theoretical waters.
The Ruy Lopez or Spanish Torture 3.Bb5 has been around since the 16th century and remarkably there is still no fear of computer engines puzzling out the intricacies of this grand-old manoeuvring variation anytime soon. Black has a rich array of opening set-ups to choose from so I decided to narrow the possibilities against my Scottish opponent at an early stage playing the highly respectable 5.d3. Sometimes, it can be hard to resist the temptation to follow one’s natural instincts in chess. With 15….Nc6 Steve seeks to return his knight to the centre of the board so as to focus his attention on the centre. In these types of middlegame positions, however, the ugliness of the knight ‘s position on the rim of the board is mitigated by the vital role it plays in restricting white’s light-squared bishop. With the Black knight on a5, white can’t make progress on the queenside. When the knight returns to c6 however, 16.a4 followed by 18. Bb3 sees Black lose the struggle for the centre as White gains control of d5. Black counterplay is swiftly suppressed and White cruises towards a winning endgame.
There aren’t many genuine opening gambits debated at the top level these days. Regrettably, the advent of computer engines has rendered many of the romantic, swashbuckling lines I played as a kid obsolete. There are a few exceptions however, none more so than the Moscow Gambit, which is alive and well and as dangerous as ever if the recent game Grischuk-Ding Liren (Berlin, 2018) is anything to go by. A lot of Grandmasters avoid lines such as the Meran and the Moscow variations preferring instead the exchange Slav and an easy life in the hope of a slight edge , the thinking quite possibly being that ‘life is too short to keep up to speed with developments in such a sharp line.’ My own philosophy regarding the Moscow gambit is that the positions are much easier for White to play and that once you are au fait with the main themes and tactical motifs in the variation, you stand a good chance of creating problems for the second player. Gambit lines may not make life easy, but they certainly make it more interesting. The following game against Alex Lopez is a case in point as I had no idea he would play the Slav and had to trust my instincts in the opening, Alex, like Korchnoi, is one of those players who is often willing to grab a pawn and hold on to it till the bitter end. Accepting a second pawn with 16…Bxa3 in this case proves a bridge too far, however, as Black falls even further behind in development. The dangers posed by Black ‘s advance of his pawn to b2 prove illusory once white makes his break in the centre. The simple plan of 23. e4 followed by 24. Re1 forces Black to jettison some of his stolen booty by 24….f4 . When White takes back with 25. gxf4 it is only a matter of time before white’s pawns smash through the centre with devastating effect. I expect the Moscow Gambit will remain rich territory for experimentation and exponents of derring-do for many years to come!
The Maroczy Bind variation is one of the toughest tests of the Sicilian Accelerated Dragon. It is one of those ‘Plan Openings’ where positional understanding and practical experience often counts more than an acquaintance with the latest ‘theory’. At the time this game was played, I had already switched to more flexible Sicilian defences, so I wasn’t at all pleased to find myself ‘move-ordered’ into a 6.Ktc2 Maroczy by the German Grandmaster via the English Opening. Previous experience taught me that Black needs to generate as much counter-play as quickly as possible to avoid the classic ‘Maroczy Squeeze’. There is no point in contesting the centre where White dominates hence the plan Ktfd7 followed by a5, a4 and Qa5 leading to interesting play. Black is often pushed to the limit in Maroczy Middlegames and this game proves no exception as White is very close to a winning position for much of the middle game. White’s ratching up of the pressure forces Black to make a number of uncompromising choices. First up, an exchange sacrifice with 27…..Rxa4 to retain a dynamic imbalance. This is followed five moves later by the opportunistic and ostensibly obligatory queen sacrifice 32…..Qxb3 followed by 33…..Ktc5 which somewhat remarkably leads to a double-edged game. After 55. …g5 Black establishes a blockade and is in no real danger. Sometimes no matter how great the will to win, you’re better off calling a spade a spade and offering a truce. It can be especially difficult to let go if you feel you have missed a win along the way. It is dangerous to try to force more out of a position than is reasonable to expect as things can quickly go awry. After several hours tense play, it is easy to miss a tactical shot which is precisely what White blunders into when he allows the spectacular final rook sacrifice 65…. Re3+ after which White cannot avoid losing his queen to a deadly night fork. It’s not often you get to sacrifice a rook, a queen and then another rook to win a game, but the game of chess never ceases to surprise.
My first encounter with GM Igor Efimov was in the summer of 1997 at a n Open tournament in Catanzaro in the boot of Southern Italy. On that occasion, Efimov proved more than a match for me and went on to win the Open. Several years later, we played in Montecatini, when I had black in a Slav. When Igor over-pressed he blundered a piece and on paper, at least, I could claim parity in our encounters. An extremely creative and tricky player, Efimov’s games are always worth a look. I was playing particularly well when our paths crossed again at the European Club Cup in Kemer, Turkey when Kilkenny took on Montecarlo. Efimov played the unusual and somewhat underrated 4.Bd2 against my Nimzo. A highly interesting middlegame arose after 16….c4 where Black’s knights run rings around White’s Bishop pair. Amateur players often ask professionals or titled players how far in advance they can see. I would like to claim I saw the crushing tactical shot 30….Rxe4!! when I played 25….Kte5 tempting Igor to sacrifice his knight, but I honestly can’t remember. Maybe…
Any aficionado of the Sicilian Defence in the 1990s and 2000s will know that GM Joseph Gallagher is a major expert on the subject. An extremely aggressive and uncompromising attacking player, Gallagher is also an extremely well-respected author. Gallagher’s excellent introduction to the King’s Gambit (1993) has only recently been surpassed by John Shaw’s exhaustive tome (2013). Gallagher also published a highly influential book on ‘Beating the Anti-Sicilians’ in 1994 which I had used as a cornerstone to build my anti-Sicilian weapons. As 1…e5 and 1…c5 were my two main replies to 1.e4 when I found myself facing Joe, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. What was it to be? A swashbuckling King’s Gambit or razor-sharp Sicilian. At the board I decided to take a punt on the latter and waited with baited breath. Gallagher played 3.Bb5 and surprised me with 6. Qa4 which may have been a novelty. I had certainly never seen it before and fell into deep thought. The disruptive idea of 6…Qc7 followed by 7….Ktg4 created enough practical problems to distract White and Black emerged from the opening with a good game, which ultimately ended favourably for the second player.
An old Palazzo belonging to the Municipality of Bergamo, Citta Alta, in Northern Italy provided a spectacular location for the Open where the following game was played. After making their move, players could stroll out of the playing hall onto a balcony overlooking the main square of the old medieval city and watch life go by. The inspirational surroundings gave rise to my best effort in this tournament against the Italian IM Paolo Vezzosi. The game is a classic instance of a principle understood by all experienced chess players, namely that ‘Sometimes, you have to give a little to get a lot’. Often when you have an advantage against an experienced opponent who is defending valiantly, there comes a moment when you simply have to bite the bullet and destabilise the position if you want to press home your advantage. The positional Knight sacrifice 26. Ktaxc5 is born from this contention, as was the choice to play 30.b4, trusting that white’s advancing pawn centre would ultimately overwhelm Black’s defensive resources.