Worldchess’s columnist writes about Alexei Shirov, who is known as one of the most dangerous attackers of the last several decades. Usually he is the aggressor, but occasionally his approach backfires, with spectacular results.

The phrase “Fire on Board” is associated with Latvian grandmaster Alexei Shirov, both because of two autobiographical works with that title (very highly recommended, especially the first volume) and – more fundamentally – because of his style. Shirov like no one else the past 25 years has been able to create and survive the wildest complications in game after game, producing masterpieces on a regular basis and enjoying great practical success as well. Shirov was especially close to becoming the World Champion around the turn of the century, and remained in the absolute elite throughout the ‘00s.

His rating has fallen a bit, and he has recently spent more time just south of 2700 rather than comfortably above that threshold. He nevertheless remains a very dangerous opponent for practically anyone, and is always capable of winning games like the following, from the ongoing Hasselbacken Chess Open in Stockholm, Sweden:

Shirov, Alexei (LAT) vs. Akesson, Ralf (SWE)
Hasselbacken Chess Open | Stockholm | Round 3.2 | 03 May 2016 | ECO: C02 | 1-0
1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 c5 4. c3 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bd7 Shirov recently faced
5... Qb6 , the absolute main line, in a rapid game against Hikaru Nakamura.
6. a3 Nh6 7. b4 cxd4 8. Bxh6 gxh6 9. cxd4 Bd7 10. Ra2 Rg8 11. h3 h5 12. g3 h4 13. g4 Be7 14. Be2 f6 15. b5 Nd8 16. Qd3 Rg7 17. Nc3 Nf7 18. O-O h5 19. Na4 Qd8 20. exf6 Bxf6 21. Nc5 hxg4 22. hxg4 b6 23. Nxd7 Qxd7 24. Kh1 Rc8 25. Rc2 Rxc2 26. Qxc2 Nd6 27. Ne5 Bxe5 28. dxe5 Ne4 29. Kg2 Nc5 30. Rh1 Qe7 31. Qc1 Rh7 32. Qe3 Qg7 33. Rc1 Qf8 34. a4 Rf7 35. f3 Rf4 36. Rxc5 bxc5 37. a5 h3+ 38. Kg3 h2 0-1 (38) Shirov,A (2684)-Nakamura,H (2787) Zuerich 2016 (rapid)  )
6. Be2 Nge7 7. O-O Ng6
7... Nf5 8. dxc5 Bxc5 9. Bd3 O-O 10. Bxf5 exf5 11. Qxd5 Bb6 12. Bg5 Qc7 13. Na3 Be6 14. Qd6 Qxd6?! 15. exd6 h6?! 16. Be3 Bxe3 17. fxe3 1-0 (80) Shirov,A (2689)-Huebner,R (2588) Puhajarve 2015 (rapid)  )
7... Rc8 8. Na3 cxd4 9. cxd4 Qb6 10. Nc2 0-1 (33) Shirov,A (2712) -Svane,R (2542) Germany 2015
10... Nf5  )
8. g3 Be7 9. h4 cxd4
9... h6 10. Be3 cxd4 11. cxd4 O-O 12. Nc3 f6 13. Bd3 0-1 (65) Shirov,A (2689)-Shipov,S (2541) Puhajarve 2015 (rapid)  )
10. cxd4 O-O The game is still well within the theory; in fact, it's still within the bounds of Shirov's own tournament experience.
11. h5 Nh8 12. h6 g6
12... g5 13. Nc3 f5 14. exf6 Bxf6 15. Kg2 Be8 16. Be3 Bg6 17. Bd3 Bh5?? 18. Nxg5! Bxg5 19. Qxh5 Bxe3 20. fxe3 1-0 (20) Shirov,A (2702)-Zhu,C (2461) Kishinev 2014 (rapid)  )
13. Nc3 f6 14. exf6 Bxf6 15. Bf4 Nf7 16. Qd2 g5 Only now has the game whittled down to a single precedent.
17. Be3 Kh8 A new move at last.
17... Nxh6 18. Bxg5 Bxg5 19. Nxg5 Nf5 20. Nf3 Qf6 21. Rad1 Be8 1/2-1/2 (47) Soumya,S (2281) -Drozdovskij,Y (2624) Balaguer 2010  )
18. Kg2 Clearing the way for the rook to protect the h-pawn (or to exploit the h-file in case Black misguidedly chose to capture the pawn).
18... Rg8 Now Black is able to safely grab the pawn.
19. Rh1 Qe7 20. g4 Raf8 21. Rh3 Nd6 22. Bd3 Be8
22... Nf5! forces (or at least strongly urges) White to move the bishop from d3 to protect the d-pawn; taking the knight with the pawn is a bad idea due to ...g4.  )
23. Re1 Qd8
23... Bg6 was better, not fearing any ghosts on the e-file.  )
24. Ne5 Qc7?!
24... Bxe5 25. dxe5 Nc8 26. Bc5 Rf7 27. f3  )
24... Nb4!?  )
25. Rf3?!
25. f3 /+/- was better, playing to accumulate positional pluses. Shirov prefers the more tactical approach, and as it often happens in his games, it works.  )
25... Nxe5
25... Qd8  )
25... Qe7  )
26. dxe5 Bxe5 27. Bxa7!? After the pedestrian
27. Rxf8 Rxf8 28. Bxa7 Nc8 29. Qe3 Nxa7 30. Qxe5+ Qxe5 31. Rxe5 Rf6 32. Rxg5 Rxh6 33. f3 White has an edge thanks to Black's weak(er) pawns.  )
27... Rxf3 28. Rxe5! This is the point of White's idea. Black's king is buried on h8, so if White can make a diagonal check on the a1-h8 diagonal it may well end the game on the spot.
28... Rf4? What could be more natural? Black saves his rook, threatens the g-pawn, and covers d4.
28... Rxd3! was an absolute must.
29. Qxd3 Rg6 Black's king can now move out of the coffin corner, and both the material and the position are equal. Black will continue with ...Kg8 and ...Nf7, while White will bring the bishop and rook back to d4 and e1, respectively.  )
29. Rxe6 Bc6
29... Rxg4+ 30. Kf1! Nc4 31. Qd1! Rh4 32. Be4!! Defense, clearance and interference all in one. The bishop stops the check on h1, opens the path for the queen to come to d4 (should she choose to do so) and blocks the rook on h4's defense against a bishop check on d4. Very impressive for one move!
32... Rf8 33. Qxd5  )
30. Qxf4! The (fatal) problem with Black's 28th move.
30... d4+ 31. Kg1 gxf4 32. Bxd4+ Rg7 33. hxg7+ Kg8 34. Rxd6!
34. Rxd6! Qxd6 35. Bc4+ Bd5 36. Nxd5  )

Not a bad game at all, and typical of Shirov. His opponent was an experienced grandmaster as well, and yet the Swedish native was bamboozled as the thicket of complications grew increasingly dense and time ran increasingly short. As noted above, Shirov wins a great many games like this, but occasionally he is the one burned by the fire on board. In Round 5 of the same event, the young American grandmaster Sam Sevian won an incredible game, solving problems that were significantly more complicated than those that had stumped Akesson in the earlier battle.

Shirov, Alexei (LAT) vs. Sevian, Sam (USA)
Hasselbacken Chess Open | Stockholm | Round 5.4 | 04 May 2016 | ECO: C45 | 0-1
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nxc6 bxc6 6. Qe2
6. e5  )
6... Bb4+ A rare move that hasn't done well, but the sample size is small enough that one might retain reasonable doubt about its statistical significance.
6... Bc5  )
7. c3 Be7 8. e5 Nd5 9. Qg4
9. c4 Nb6 10. Nc3 d5 11. exd6 cxd6 12. Qf3 O-O! 13. Bd3 Be6 14. O-O Nxc4 15. Qe4 g6 16. Qxc6?! Ne5 17. Qa6 Bc8 18. Qb5 a6 19. Qd5 Be6 20. Qd4 Bf6 21. Qe3 d5 1-0 (70) Nyzhnyk,I (2628)-Priyadharshan,K (2462) Saint Louis 2015  )
9... Kf8
9... g6 10. c4 Nb4 11. Qd1 O-O 12. a3 Na6 13. Bf4?! 1-0 (29) Ramirez Garcia,J (2293)-Duran Albareda,X (2247) Barcelona 2015
...  Nc5  )
10. Qe4
10. Be2 d6 11. Qe4 1-0 (100) Hernandez Sanchez, J (2299)-Pena,A (2371) Quibdo 2015
11... dxe5 12. O-O Qd6 13. Nd2 f5 14. Qa4 Nb6 15. Qa5  )
10... d6 11. c4 Nb6 12. Qxc6 It was possible to play the more restrained
12. Be2 , hoping for a small advantage after something like
12... d5 13. Qc2 Nxc4 14. Bxc4 dxc4 15. O-O Qd3 16. Qa4 Qg6 17. Kh1 Kg8 18. Be3 /+=  )
12... Rb8!
12... dxe5 was less enterprising. Sevian is happy to surrender the pawn for the sake of speedy development.  )
13. Nc3 Bb7 14. Qb5 Nd7 15. exd6 Bxd6 The tempting
15... Bxg2? only has one flaw, but one is enough:
16. Qa5! Bxh1 17. dxc7 Qe8 18. cxb8=Q Qxb8 19. Be3! Qxb2 20. Rb1 Qa3 21. Qxa3 Bxa3 22. Bh3 Material is equal, but Black's scattered forces don't cohere.  )
16. Qg5 f6 17. Qh5 Qe7+ 18. Be2 The tension has been building, and now the game becomes completely tactical.
18. Be3 was perhaps safer.  )
18... Bxg2! A good idea in principle, not just to grab a pawn but to prevent White from castling. The risk - and it's a big one - is that White will enjoy a terrific attack with Rh1-g1xg7.
19. Rg1 Be4 Forced.
19... Bc6? 20. Rxg7! Kxg7 21. Bh6+ Kg8 22. O-O-O Black is getting crushed here, as he lacks a good answer to the threatened 23.Rg1+.  )
20. c5?! A bit of a mistake, objectively speaking, but a dangerous move for Black to meet. White's idea is to include the light-squared bishop in the attack by giving it the c4 square.
20. Nxe4 Qxe4 21. Be3 Rxb2 22. c5 Be5 23. Rd1 Rb1 the position remains very sharp, and although the position is equal the balance is precarious.  )
20... Nxc5! That precision is required can be seen from lines like the following:
20... Bxc5? 21. Rxg7! Kxg7 22. Bh6+ Kg8 23. O-O-O Qf7 24. Bc4! Qxc4 25. Qg4+! Kf7 26. Qg7+ Ke6 27. Qxd7+ Ke5 28. f4#  )
21. Rxg7! White could choose the calmer
21. Nxe4 Qxe4 22. Be3 , but then his c-pawn would have died in vain.  )
21... Kxg7 22. Bh6+ Kg8 23. O-O-O
23. Bc4+ Bd5+ 24. Kd2 is clever but inadequate. Black can't safely take the bishop on c4, obviously, due to 25.Rg1+ and mate in two more moves, but if he first plays
24... Rxb2+! the bishop on c4 is indeed edible:
25. Kc1 Bxc4! 26. Kxb2 Ne4! 27. Re1 Be5 28. Qg4+ Kf7 29. Qg7+ Ke6 30. Qxe7+ Kxe7 31. Rxe4 Be6 32. f4 Rb8+! 33. Kc2 Bxc3 34. Kxc3 Rb5! Thanks to the threatened ... Rh5 Black will win a second pawn, and although White keeps some chances to save the game due to the opposite-colored bishops, a win is the likelier result.  )
23... Bg6 24. Bc4+ Ne6 White's pieces are wonderfully active, but a rook is a rook!
25. Qh3? White had other interesting options available to him - better ones. In the following lines Black can keep some advantage, but a relatively small one demanding extremely accurate play:
25. Qd5 Bf7 26. Qf5 Bf4+! 27. Bxf4 Ng7 28. Bxf7+ Kxf7! 29. Qd5+ Qe6 30. Qc5 Rbd8 31. Qxc7+ Qe7 32. Qc4+ Ne6  )
25. Qg4 Kf7 26. Re1 Be5 27. f4 Rhd8 28. fxe5 f5 29. Rf1 Ke8 30. Qg2 Nd4 31. Nd5 Qc5 32. Nf6+ Ke7 33. Nd5+ Rxd5 34. Qxd5 Ne2+! 35. Kd1 Qxd5+ 36. Bxd5 Rxb2 /=+  )
25... Kf7 26. Nd5 This looks very strong. If Black plays 26...Qd7, for instance, White has 27.Nxc7!, taking advantage of multiple pins. But Sevian is ready with a blow of his own.
26... Rxb2!! Oddly enough, the antidote to White's attack with Rxg7, aiming to bring the second rook over with Rg1+, is ...Rxb2, intending ...Rb8+ with the remaining rook.
26... Qd7 27. Nxc7! This looks great and works wonders for Shirov's cause. Still, remarkably, Black can prove an advantage even here.
27... Ke7! 28. Nd5+ Kd8 29. Nxf6 Rc8!! 30. Nxd7 Rxc4+ 31. Kd2 Kxd7 32. Ke1  )
27. Kxb2
27. Nxe7? Rc2+ 28. Kb1 Rb8+ 29. Bb3 Rc3+  )
27... Rb8+ 28. Bb3 Be5+ 29. Nc3 Black has handled the middlegame perfectly thus far, but now he makes an understandable error.
29... c5? Intending to break the pin in a more materially gratifying way; namely, with ...c4. It turns out that it was more important for Black to be able to move the knight immediately, however.
29... Ke8! was best, breaking the pin and allowing the knight to hop to g5 or c5 next, and in some cases to d4 or f4.  )
30. f4! This is a problem. Had Black played 29...Ke8 he could play 30...Nxf4 now and all would be well. Instead, the game is again equal.
30... c4 31. fxe5 cxb3 32. a4! Keeping lines closed and giving his king a3 for a flight square.
32... Nc5 33. exf6 Qc7 34. Rd4
34. Rd2 is safer, keeping the second rank guarded against tricks like ...Nxa4+ followed by ...Qc2+, or against ...Qxh2+ in case White's queen leaves the protection of her h-pawn.  )
34... Rd8 35. Rxd8 Qxd8 36. Qe3
36. Qg4  )
36. Qh4  )
36... Qd6 Both sides have played well since Sevian's slip on move 29, and here Shirov could bring the ship safely to the shore with
37. Nb5? Shirov is pushing for the full point, but he should have settled for the draw and breathed a sight of relief that he didn't lose. Despite his time trouble, Sevian finishes Shirov off in style.
37. Qe7+! Qxe7 38. fxe7 Bc2 39. Bg5 Nd3+ 40. Ka3 b2 41. Ka2 a5 is the maximum Black can achieve, and it isn't enough. White can draw in any number of ways, including just shuttling his bishop along the diagonal defending the e-pawn. Note that there won't be any zugzwangs brought about by . ..h6, because the bishop has access to both h4 *and* f6 - Black's king can't take it without allowing the e-pawn's promotion.  )
37... Nd3+! 38. Kb1 Ne5+ Repeating to get closer to the time control; unfortunately for him, he can't quite repeat his way there without allowing a draw. But every little bit helps.
38... Nf2+!  )
39. Kb2 Nd3+ 40. Kb1 Last move of the time control, and only one move wins.
40... Nf2+! And that's it. From here Sevian had time to work everything out, if he hadn't already.
41. Kc1 Qd1+ 42. Kb2 Nd3+ 43. Ka3
43. Kc3 Qc2+ 44. Kd4 Qc5#  )
43... Qa1+ 44. Kxb3 Qb2+ 45. Kc4 Qb4+ 46. Kd5 And here too, only one move wins.
46... Be4+!
46... Be4+! 47. Qxe4 Qc5# is a beautiful finish, made all the more impressive by the fact that a great player and attacker like Alexei Shirov was the victim.  )

Spectacular chess. If Sevian can maintain the ability to calculate at this level while growing in his overall understanding of the game, he will soon be a player to reckon with at the highest stages of world chess.


Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.