Paco vs Pono: A Spanish Death Match Duel

Paco vs Pono: A Spanish Death Match Duel

| 9 | News

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GM Francisco Vallejo Pons, the top-rated Spaniard, will take on former world champion GM Ruslan Ponomariov in Death Match 37 on March 14. But you already knew that! Let's learn more about the players.

First, you might be wondering, is our headline wrong? Nope, "Pono" represents Ukraine but for the last three years has made his home outside of Bilbao, Spain. "Paco" was born in Minorca, safely in Spanish hands despite some British and French "j'adoubes" a few centuries ago.

Perhaps the first battle should be to determine which place has the better vista?

Here's Basque Country, adopted home of Pono:

Getxo, Spain (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user Gorkaazk).

And here's Mediterranean life, which Paco enjoyed in childhood:

Minorca, Spain (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, user Micolor). caught up with both players to see other ways they are similar, and quite a few differences as well. Both players will surely use some of the information below in their between-segment interviews and trash-talking that will occur!

1) A hard hitting question to start out: Whose name is cooler -- "Paco" or "Pono"?

(FV) I have heard Paco too many times already!

Francisco Vallejo Pons (picture courtesy

(RP) Well, I don't know about Paco but Pono, that is, Khal Pono, is a Dothraki warrior in "Game Of Thrones." [Thank you Pono for adding to the Style Guide. We've decided "Dothraki" will be capitalized on all references. -- M.K.]

2) This is the first Death Match with trash-talking between the rounds. Who's the favorite in that arena?

(FV) I guess depends on the language! In Spanish I am favorite! Russian for Pono, and in English is yet to see!

(RP) I don't know about Paco but personally I invested all my wits in chess, so all my other mental skills are undeveloped! I'm not good at trash-talking.

GM Ruslan Ponomariov (picture courtesy Ponomariov)

3) Give us the argument for why Spanish or Ukrainian food/drink is better.

(FV) Spanish food is the best in the world, honestly. Wines are also superb. I like borscht though!

(RP) I don't think any drink can beat Ukrainian vodka! Although I must admit that living in the Basque Country, I have grown fond of the local cuisine.

4) If you could disturb your opponent during the Death Match by playing forcing him to listen to any song on repeat, which one would you choose?

(FV) Hmm, "Happy Birthday" or some Nirvana.

(RP)No Surprises” by Radiohead.

5) You've both played all over the world, but what's the one tournament you've always wanted to play in but haven't?

(FV) World championship final!

(RP) I would love to play more matches with six to eight classical games. Maybe versus Wei Yi or Anish Giri. Two strong characters and mental fight is always competing.

6) Who will be more well known in 50 years -- Rafael Nadal or the Klitschko brothers?

(FV) I guess Rafa 'cause tennis is more popular.

(RP) As a Ukrainian I would say Klitscko brothers, but if you type this question in Google probably Rafael Nadal will be the most popular answer.

Rafael Nadal, the consensus winner of this unscientific poll.

7) Give me the move list of an undiscovered opening that you would not mind being named after you.

(FV) I think I have invented or at least rediscovered a lot of lines! Lowenthal, different Najdorfs with Black with 6.Be3 e5, or Najdorf with 6.Qd3. Or, Queen's Indian with Qc2 and pawn sacrifice on d5. All very interesting. [Note 6. Qd3 against the Najdorf is very rare but almost all games are played by Vallejo, or his junior countryman, GM David Anton, one of the stars of Gibraltar earlier this month -- M.K.]

(RP) Chess Informant Number 105 once dedicated to me the whole chapter with my best games and most important theoretical novelties. I like my ideas in Taimanov Variation 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cd 4.Nd4 Nc6 5.Nc3 Qc7 6.Ndb5!? Or 6.Be3 a6 7.Bd3 Nf6 8.0-0 Ne5 9.Nf3!?...

8) What's the best game of chess you've ever played? 

(FV) I have played many totally correct games, but a victory with Svidler in Monaco, a Najdorf as Black, is beautiful to see.

(RP) I like my positional sacrifice 18...Re3 in my game Ilyushin – Ponomariov, Yerevan, 1997. This game also was very important for me to win the world champion title under 18.

9) Who will be world champion in 10 years?

(FV) If it's not me, I don't care!

(RP) I'm afraid that in 10 years there will be no world champion title and only number one in ranking will matter. I would guess that this person will be from Europe. Europe is the best!

10) Top players are getting more sponsorship these days. What company would you like to be sponsored by if you could choose any?

(FV) Naked Juice, they could pay me in goods!

(RP) Actually, I was contacted last year by a Ukrainian vodka company who were interested in sponsoring me, and I thought it was a cool idea!

Not well-known in the West, Ukraine's Khlebny Dar is the third highest-selling vodka in the world.

11) Let's start the trash-talking right now! Paco please type something in Spanish and Pono in Ukrainian or Russian!

(FV) Pono, te voy a machacar muy fácil! (Pono, I'll crush you easily!)

(RP) Пако, на тобі дулю! (Paco, screw you!)

Let us know whose insult was better, who played the better "favorite game," or who you think will win the chess contest.

The three-hour match will be a "begin the work week" affair for many viewers. It begins Monday, March 14, at 9 a.m. Pacific, 12 p.m. New York, 5 p.m. London and will have the new twist of short interviews in between.

Catch the commentary, games and more trash-talking at

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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