Russia won double gold at the 2019 European Team Chess Championship in Batumi after a nail-biting final round in the open section saw Kirill Alekseenko give the Russian men victory over Poland. Ukraine would still have taken the top prize if Vassily Ivanchuk hadn’t stumbled into a well-known fortress where his queen was unable to defeat the rook of Ivan Saric. A win for David Howell gave England bronze, while in the women’s section Russia were followed by Georgia and Azerbaijan.
All was well that ended well for top seeds Russia in Batumi. Just as in the 2015 European Team Championship in Reykjavik both the men and the women took home gold medals as the only unbeaten teams. The men scored the same 6 match wins and 3 draws as in 2015, and their victories included a 2.5:1.5 defeat of silver medalists Ukraine.
Here were the final standings at the top (the Netherlands finished 17th):
The women scored 7 match wins and 2 draws (one less win than in 2015), but also beat silver medalists Georgia on the way to winning gold for a 3rd time in a row and an incredible 6th time in the last 7 European Team Championships (Ukraine won in 2013), a run stretching back over a decade.
Going into the penultimate round of the European Team Championship the Russian teams were both in the sole lead and might have hoped for an easy finish to the event, but instead we got real drama. The Russian women led by a full 2 points, but 18-year-old WIM Anna Sargsyan of Armenia beat Valentina Gunina on the way to an incredible 7/8, 2626 rating performance that not only won her the gold medal on board 4 but was the second best performance by any female player after Nana Dzagnidze (2639). It was also quite something to beat Gunina with Black, since Russia’s tactics were clear – 7 games, 7 Whites for Valentina!
Russia were staring defeat in the face while their rivals Georgia beat Ukraine, and the desperation could be seen on top board where Aleksandra Goryachkina played on for over 80 moves in a drawn 4 vs. 4 on one side queen ending against Lilit Mkrtchian. In the end the match came down to whether Kateryna Lagno could win the theoretically drawn but tricky Rook + Bishop vs. Rook ending against Siranush Ghukasyan. The answer was yes, and after a brief exchange of blunders on moves 105 and 107 Kateryna finally won in 112 moves.
She took the gold medal on board 2, and that win meant Russia got a vital draw against Armenia and retained the sole lead going into the final round. They calmly completed the job with a 3.5:0.5 victory over Turkey, so that the awkward fact that Georgia were playing Georgia II in the other key match didn’t provoke any controversy!
In the open event the penultimate and final rounds were both thrillers. Russia took the bold decision to drop the on-fire Daniil Dubov against second seeds England, and up to a point it seemed to be working out perfectly. Nikita Vitiugov beat Luke McShane, while Dubov’s replacement Maxim Matlakov was beating Gawain Jones. He let the win slip, however, and Mickey Adams gave England a draw by beating the otherwise rock solid Dmitry Andreikin in a drawish rook endgame – it tells you how difficult that is that Andreikin still won the gold medal on top board with a 2817 performance (Ferenc Berkes had the best rating performance of 2844, though on board 2 against the weaker opposition faced by the underperforming Hungarian side).
That slip by Russia might not have mattered if Germany could have continued their unbeaten run, that included not just the European Teams in Batumi but the 2018 Olympiad there as well, when they took on Ukraine. Again, it was balanced on a knife-edge. Georg Meier missed a chance to draw on move 31 against Andrei Volokitin, while there was even more drama on the bottom board. On move 33 Vladimir Onischuk, who would also win an individual silver medal for board 4, came up with the inspired 33…Kf7!? instead of capturing the rook on e8 (when White would be slightly better after 34.Rg1):
Objectively this gave 22-year-old Rasmus Svane the chance to win and tie the match with 34.Qe3! (not fearing 34…Rh3+ and some more checks), but, with under a minute on his clock, he played the much more “logical” 34.Re2?! The point of Black’s play soon became apparent with 34…Bg4! and Black was better, though it wasn’t necessary to go down in flames to the brilliant 35.Rf1? (35.Nh2!) 35…Bxf3+ 36.Rxf3 Rxf3 37.Qd2 Rf1+! and it was mate-in-2.
That meant Ukraine were suddenly not just tied with Russia but the favourites to win gold, since the first tiebreak wasn’t direct encounter but the somewhat infamous “Olympiad Sonneborn-Berger”, which was likely to favour Ukraine if the teams both won their matches. Neither found that easy, with some more bold opening play from Daniil Dubov fizzling out into a draw…
…just as did the games on the top two boards, but suddenly Kirill Alekseenko, who had experienced a tough tournament after his 3rd place on the Isle of Man, became the hero. He sacrificed a pawn against Kacper Piorun, and although it would only have been a draw against best play 32…Re4? wasn't best play (32…Qe6! was an only move):
33.Ng4! h5 34.Qf6+! Kh7 35.Qf8! and after 35…hxg4 36.Rf7+ Qxf7 37.Qxf7+ Black’s scattered pawns and uncoordinated rook and bishop were no match for White’s queen. The same material balance would ultimately decide the fate of the gold medals.
On paper the Ukrainian team had a much easier task as they were facing 15th seeds Croatia not 3rd seeds Poland, but while Poland underperformed Croatia repeated their achievements in the 2017 European Team Championship. Back then they were seeded 14th and finished 4th, while this time they were seeded 15th and finished 5th! In the match against Ukraine absolutely any result was possible, but after multiple mutual blunders wins were traded on the bottom two boards.
That meant that Vassily Ivanchuk could win the European Team Championship for Ukraine if he could finish off what was looking like a brilliant win over Ivan Saric. In an interview with Evgeny Surov for Chess-News.ru Vassily later regretted his choice in the following position:
First of all, of course, the pawn move 46.f5 was totally impractical. The most practical move was to go 46.a4, since the bishop is dark-squared! You need to get the pawn out of the potential blow, making use of the fact that Black is threatening nothing. And then almost everything could be played by hand. The move f5 didn’t let the win slip, but it already became complicated, and then what happened happened.
After 46.f5 gxf5+ it looks as though 47.Qxf5! would still have given White victory, but after 47.Kxf5? Bc5! it's too late to play 48.a4 and avoid Bxa3, since 48…Rf2+ and 49…d2 would force White to take a draw. Nevertheless, Vassily confessed that he was still convinced the queen vs. rook position that arose in the game was winning for him:
It wasn’t exactly that he knew too little, but too much! He thought he’d looked at the position before:
I was sure that I was winning, because I’d once analysed the “queen + g-pawn vs. rook + f-pawn” ending and I recalled the evaluation that it was won for me. But in that case the king was standing on d7!! I recalled it afterwards… But here the rook didn’t allow the king to d7. I already understood my mistake, but in general, as an elite player, you do of course have to know such positions.
If the king was on d7 in the diagram above White is winning, with 62.Qf6! the quickest and most picturesque approach (White wins the pawn ending after an exchange). But in the game it was a dead draw, as Ivan went on to prove. Russia took gold and Ukraine had to be content with a silver medal that was still impressive, since they’d started as 8th seeds. Vassily summed up:
It’s annoying when something like that happens not only in a team tournament but in an individual one as well, but that’s the game. It seems Lasker said that the most difficult thing in chess is to win a won position. It turns out he was right!
Russia had won gold by the slenderest of margins, despite most of the team coming straight from the Isle of Man.
It’s famously tough to pick the Russian men’s team due to their incredible strength in depth. Let’s take the selfie from Russia’s double gold in the 2015 European Team Championship:
From the women’s team Goryachkina, Gunina and Lagno all played back then and were also in the team in Batumi. But for the men none of Svidler, Grischuk, Tomashevsky, Nepomniachtchi or Jakovenko were in action in the 2019 event, although that would still be a formidable team. You don’t need to go back so far, however, since Russia also won the World Team Championship this year with Karjakin, Nepomniachtchi, Grischuk, Andreikin and Artemiev, i.e. only Andreikin played in both events. The tough schedule has partly forced the changes, but it also does no harm to experiment, particularly with youth.
In Batumi 22-year-old Kirill Alekseenko didn’t spoil the reputation he’s built with his fantastic World Cup and FIDE Grand Swiss performances, 23-year-old Daniil Dubov won gold on board 4 with a phenomenal 2804 performance (even if you pity the team captain who waits to see what he’ll do next in the opening!) and 21-year-old Vladislav Artemiev was compared to Chuck Norris by Grischuk for the way he played in the World Team Championship. The future looks bright for the Russian team!
You wouldn’t say the same about the future of England, as there are few obvious young apprentices, but the English chess team hasn’t performed this well on an international stage since winning silver medals in the 1984, 1986 and 1988 Olympiads and bronze in 1990.
Mickey Adams, Luke McShane and Gawain Jones all performed at above a 2700 level, while David Howell ground out the crucial win over Germany's Daniel Fridman in the final round. His team captain was delighted:
As was David himself:
You might say that finishing 3rd as 2nd seeds was nothing special, but the competition was fierce. Armenia again performed above their ratings to finish 4th, while teams such as Azerbaijan can never be written off, even if they were missing Teimour Radjabov (Shakhriyar Mamedyarov drew all 7 games on the top board as they finished 6th).
It doesn’t feel expected for England to do well, but…
They also finished 5th in the 2018 Olympiad after starting as 9th seeds.
There were plenty of youngsters on display in Batumi, including France’s 12-year-old Marc Maurizzi, but it was pleasing to see the veterans of the game still have it. We’ve already talked plenty about 50-year-old Vassily Ivanchuk and 47-year-old Mickey Adams (now back in the 2700 club), but another 47-year-old, Alexei Shirov, continued his fine form from the Isle of Man as he won gold on board 3 with a 2781 rating performance – despite a one-move piece blunder in Round 7.
He finished in true fire-on-board style against Sweden’s Jonathan Westerberg in Round 9:
14.g3!!, threatening Bh3+, may give up a rook, but after 14…Qxh1 15.Qd6+ the black king was in deep trouble and never escaped.
Perhaps the most remarkable veteran’s performance, however, came from 56-year-old Pia Cramling, who won individual silver on board 1 after scoring 8/9 for a 2621 rating performance:
Talk about setting a good example for her daughter Anna, who was also on the team!
Only Jorden van Foreest performed above his expected level for the Netherlands, scoring 4 wins and 3 draws before a last-round loss as the Netherlands crashed 3.5:0.5 to Georgia. That meant the 9th seeds ended in 17th place, despite a fine start in which two brilliant wins for Anish Giri made anything look possible for the Dutch team. In the end those were his only wins, but you couldn’t fault the Dutch no. 1’s team spirit. Magnus Carlsen had quipped when Dutch Captain Jan Gustafsson asked if he should let Anish play only with the white pieces to increase his chances of qualifying for the Candidates:
As the saying goes – the needs of the Giri outweigh the needs of the many!
In the end Giri played all the rounds, with Black five times and White four, and though he didn’t lose a game he came incredibly close. Playing Black against Baadur Jobava is not how you want to spend an early final round, particularly if you have some history together that might motivate your dangerous opponent. Sure enough, Jobava built up a totally winning position until he made two mistakes at the very end. The first was 39.Qh6:
Computers tells us e.g. 39.Nf3! would have been close to game over, while in the position above Giri was able to put up a fight with 39…Rf6!! Capturing on f6 actually loses, which must have come as a shock to Baadur, but after acknowledging the mistake with the retreat 40.Qf4! White would still be better and have an extra 30 minutes to work out the details. Instead he made the second mistake of the game and agreed to a draw...
That meant Anish emerged from a somewhat disappointing team
event with only a mild 7 point rating loss, more or less ensuring he’ll qualify
for the 2020 Candidates Tournament by rating:
From the Dutch point of view the women went some way to restoring honour, since they started as 14th seeds but finished 5th. Poland couldn’t say the same. The women began as 4th seeds but finished 12th, while the men did the same despite starting as 3rd seeds. Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Radek Wojtaszek didn’t lose a game on the top two boards, but the Olympiad miracle wasn’t repeated on the lower boards, where all of the players performed below expectations rather than above them as they had in 2018.
The 2019 European Team Chess Championship seems to have been a well-organised event. The players were happy with the hotels and venue, and everything ran smoothly, while spectators could watch good quality video of the players. One thing marred the tournament, however, as it has many previous events organised by the ECU and sometimes FIDE – the 15-minute “anti-cheating” delay. That meant that moves were only transmitted on the internet 15 minutes after they happened in the venue, ostensibly to make it harder for players to get computer assistance (either themselves or via a helper) during the games.
The problem? The video from the venue wasn’t delayed, so we constantly had the live commentary or video spoiling the results of the games, with the regular situation that a winner was interviewed while a game was still in progress for those watching online. The obvious solution is to delay the broadcast of the video 15 minutes as well (which can and has been done in the past), though that’s only a partial solution. It doesn’t stop the problem of journalists or players at the venue tweeting or otherwise sharing the results before the moves are shown – once again spoiling the event for spectators. The only good solution is not to use a delay as an anti-cheating measure for any tournament when you hope people will watch online. At present the cure is worse than the alleged disease.
It would be great if delays could be outlawed in time for the 2019 European Club Cup, which starts in just a week’s time in Montenegro. Many of the same players will be in action for that 7-round event, though one difference is that European Clubs can have players from all around the world, with the likes of Harikrishna, Vidit and Dominguez all playing.
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