It might be thought that Li Chao’s impressive match win this month over Peter Leko would be cause for celebration in China, but Li’s rise up the world rankings – now #14 – is resulting in severe embarrassment for the Chinese Chess Federation.
Normally, Li’s recent impressive performances would result in a guarantee of Olympic selection in 2016 but Li, 26, has been banned from all Chinese teams and tournaments for more than a year.
The details of the black ban are murky but it involves a dispute between Li and the sponsor of one of the powerful Beijing clubs, who then exerted influence to have Li shunned nationally. (Li’s successful coaching school appears to have been largely unaffected.)
Forced to make the best of a bad situation, Li has become a dominant player on the European open circuit and the Bundesliga.
Yet, despite breaking into the top 20 and now knocking on the door of the top 10, invitations to elite tournaments have eluded Li, perhaps because for Chinese players they tend to be routed through the national federation.
The win over Leko, a former World Championship challenger, may change that.
For almost two decades Leko has been an elite player, nicknamed ‘The Equaliser’ for his ability to avoid loss.
Both Leko, 35, and Li have Australian connections: Leko finished second at the Australian Open in 1992, aged 12(!), on his way to becoming the first-ever 14-year-old Grandmaster, while Li took out Canberra’s Doeberl Cup in 2010.
Though Leko has drifted down the rankings, he remains a formidable match player, especially playing in his home town of Szeged.
However, though Li was frequently outplayed strategically, the Chinese GM kept his head and waited for tactical misses by Leko.
The key encounter in the six game contest was the fourth, with Leko (White) winning a pawn but finding that his opponent had set up a deadly pin.
Li (Black) to move and win.
From the diagram Li continued
40…Rf2! 41.Qc1 Rxf3 42.Nb1 Qf6
Patience, serving to illustrate White’s helplessness.
43.Qd2 Rh3 44.Qe2 Rh1!
45.Nd2 Qd4 46.Qe3 Qg4! 47.0–1
A surprising resignation but the threat of 47…Qd1! is unstoppable.
Now Li is asking some awkward questions of both the Chinese Chess Federation and the organisers of top tournaments. Can the ban on Li be continued when it may cost China Olympic gold in 2016? And should the CCF be bypassed and Li invited directly to elite tournaments?