Six teams still have a perfect score after three rounds of the European Club Cup, but it’s 9th placed Valerenga Sjakklubb who have been the team to watch so far. In Round 2 Magnus Carlsen worked his magic in a dry position to beat Vladimir Potkin on the way to a surprisingly easy 4.5:1.5 win over a strong Russian team. Then in Round 3 Olympiad stars Nils Grandelius and David Howell gave the Norwegian side a 3:3 draw against 2nd seeds AVE Novy Bor, with Howell taking down Harikrishna in 85 moves despite playing many of his moves with seconds to spare.
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World Champion Magnus Carlsen playing his final games before meeting Fabiano Caruana in London was always going to be the biggest draw of the European Club Cup, but the team’s matches in Rounds 2 and 3 have also been by far the most interesting to watch. While the other top seeds so far have had relatively easy pairings against weaker teams, Valerenga’s slight stumble in Round 1 meant they immediately faced a tricky match in Round 2 against a team of young Russian stars led by the former European Champion Vladimir Potkin:
As you can see, it all worked out perfectly for the Norwegian team in the end, though midway through the round Carlsen fans had some cause for nail-biting:
A 55-minute think by Magnus earlier in the game suggested the Italian opening hadn’t gone ideally against a player who helped Carlsen in his 2014 match against Vishy Anand but was on Team Karjakin for the most recent match in New York. Potkin was up on the clock, seemed to have solved all his problems, and with 23…Qc6 was hinting that his queen and knights would switch to a direct assault on the white king. The Sword of Damocles hanging over Carlsen’s head was that if he lost the game he’d lose his no. 1 spot on the live rating list for the first time in 7 years.
His next move cost him one third of his remaining time, but it was time well-spent: 24.c4! Ndf4 25.Rxe8+ Rxe8 26.Bxf4 Nxf4 27.Ne3:
It only just works – of course after 27…Rxe3?? 28.fxe3 the white queen defends g2 and stops mate – but now it’s Black who has to come up with a plan to meet positional threats such as driving away the f4-knight and putting a white knight on d5, or attacking the backward black b-pawn. Potkin was clearly struggling, and after 27…Rd8 28.Rb1 h5 29.a5 h4 30.Rb6 Qd7 31.Qb2 Nd3 32.Qb1 it was already critical:
Black needed to play actively with 32…Qa4! here, since after 32…Nb4?! 33.Qe4! Qd4 (33…Nc6? 34.a6!) 34.Qxd4 cxd4 35.Rxb4 dxe3 36.fxe3 Magnus was a pawn up in a rook ending.
Potkin's best chance by this stage was to complain about the dress code!
We’ve already seen in other events this year that Carlsen's endgame technique seems to be back at the level it was when he first rose to the top of world chess, and what followed was a fast and flawless conversion.
Evgeny Romanov and Borki Predojevic also won to give Valerenga a comfortable victory, but their reward was an even tougher match against second seeds AVE Novy Bor in Round 3:
Underdogs Valerenga got off to a good start, since after 21.Nxe6? Nxf1! Nils Grandelius was winning the exchange against David Navara:
Navara’s 23-minute think here suggests he was planning 22.Qg4 or 22.Qg6, which would be excellent moves, if not for the crushing 22…Qxe6! 23.Bxe6 Rxc1 and Black emerges with a won position. The Czech no. 1 instead played the sad 22.Re1 and fought on an exchange down, though to his credit he came close to holding a draw. In the end, though, he was one tempo short:
The game ended 78…Rxe8+! 79.Kxe8 Kxh5 White resigns, since the black h-pawn will queen one move before the white a-pawn, and when it does it’ll cover a8.
That win for Grandelius came after an excellent Olympiad for the Swedish no. 1, and boosted his rating still further:
In terms of the team, though, things seemed to be going wrong. Radek Wojtaszek came into his game against Carlsen having lost four games and won one:
Past performance proved no guide, however, and this time he played solidly and drew.
Meanwhile Viktor Laznicka was better early on against Evgeny Romanov’s London System and duly won, while Vidit managed to beat Aryan Tari from a position that turns out to be a tablebase draw. At least one grandmaster thought it was also an easy draw!
That left the fate of the match resting on David Howell’s shoulders.
The Englishman is another player to have had a fine Olympiad, but when he got down to under 10 seconds on his clock, against Indian no. 2 Harikrishna, in a position the computer evaluated with the infamous 0.00, the chances didn’t seem high. Although Howell had more space and the bishop pair he seemed to have weaknesses of his own, though it turned out the kingside pawns weren’t one of them!
36.Kf2! forced the bishop to retreat, since after 36…Bxh3? 37.Kg3 it would be trapped. That was a motif that would return later, but with the black knight instead of the bishop biting off more than it could chew after 61.h4!
61…Nxg4 can’t really be criticised here, since Black had run out of options, but after 62.Kd3! the knight had no way out of the corner, and was eventually forced to give itself up on f4 in exchange for the white knight. The ensuing position was one in which the bishop and outside passed pawn completely dominated the remaining black knight, and on move 85 Harikrishna resigned:
Finally in Round 4 Valerenga are rewarded with an easier pairing, as they take on DJK Aufwaerts Aachen. Young German player Alexander Donchenko is their only 2600+ player, and he faces Black against Magnus Carlsen.
Elsewhere most of the top teams had little trouble in Rounds 2 and 3. Odlar Yurdu could afford to rest Shakhriyar Mamedyarov for both matches and still win 5.5:0.5 and 6:0, with the same story repeated for the likes of Obiettivo Risarcimento Paddova (Wang Hao, Leko, Vallejo, Granda…) and top seeds Alkaloid. Their leader Ding Liren has stretched his unbeaten run to 89 or 90 games (the chess world is struggling to keep count), and they can play Russian Champion Dmitry Andreikin on board 3.
Andreikin is on 3/3, and ended in style in Round 3 (to be fair, his opponent probably saw what was coming but had no good options by that point):
22…Qxh3 (or 22…Qg4) 23.Ne7# is the main problem, but it’s also amusing how the queen and king will be forked if the black queen tries to retreat.
Mednyi Vsadnik (=Bronze Horseman) from St. Petersburg have also made easy work of their matches, but Peter Svidler on top board has had a couple of days to forget in a hurry.
In Round 2 he seemed to be about to pick up a nice win after Serbia’s Aleksandar Indjic went for the brilliant but flawed 34…Bc3?!? (objectively 34…Bd8! was the only defence):
35.bxc3?? loses on the spot to 35…Rfb8, while Bxb2+ is a serious threat. However, after 35.Qg5! Bxb2+ 36.Kb1 (of course not 36.Ka2 Nc3#) it turns out none of Black’s discovered checks are dangerous – so the mating threat on the kingside will win the game. Svidler was down to 3 minutes to his opponent’s 1.5 here, though, and went for another good move which while not instantly winning should still have got the job done: 35.Na4! Both players were literally down to seconds for the madness that followed, and after 35…gxf6 36.bxc3 Rd8 37.Qxf6 Rd7 38.Qxa6? Rdb7! 39.Ka2 Kg7? it was unfortunate for Peter that he still had one more move to make to reach the time control:
40.c4! was the only winning move, but you have to be very sure, with no time on your clock, that e.g. 40…Rb1, with the threat of 41…Nc3+ 42.Nxc3 R7b2#, isn’t winning. In fact there 41.Qa5! is the only move to both save the day and win the game. Instead 40.Qc6 followed, when suddenly White needs to play precisely to save a draw. Alas, Peter didn’t manage, with the final chance surprisingly coming on move 42:
After 42.g4 Nb2! 43.Kxb1 Nxa4+ 44.Qb4 Nxc3+! Black emerged a piece up and went on to win.
Amazingly a similar story played out in Round 3, when as late as move 32 Peter still had a draw in a tricky position against Romain Edouard, but instead he went down in flames after 32.Qf3? Qxh2+ 33.Kf1 f4!
The most crushing response to 34.gxf4 would be 34…Rg8, while if the pawn survives 34…Qh3 or 34…Re3 will be lethal. White resigned.
As we mentioned, though, those disasters did no significant harm to the St. Petersburg team’s chances, and there’s an immediate chance for redemption in Round 4, when Peter has Black against Ding Liren in the big match of the day:
So far we’re neglecting the women’s section, though we’ll follow it much more closely in the final two rounds when it turns into a 4-team knockout. Some of the encounters have been dramatic, however. For instance, in Round 1 Valentina Gunina managed to save a game where her opponent Anastasia Bodnaruk had an evaluation verging on +10 for a dozen moves, before losing to Teodora Injac in Round 2.
In a key clash in Round 2 Ugra surprisingly crushed Kyiv Chess Federation 3.5:0.5, with Zhukova-Pogonina seeing a dramatic turnaround:
To be fair to Natalia, 18…Ng4! was easy to miss, but that was a particularly painful loss since White had such a simple option to get a winning position rather than try and play directly for mate.
Anna Muzychuk's win against 18-year-old Gunay Mammadzada, meanwhile, featured a beautiful finish just when it seemed as though the youngster had managed to withstand the attack:
30.Rf6!! was the beginning of the end for Black.
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