Levon Aronian had a bittersweet day at the European Team Championship as he defeated Shakhriyar Mamedyarov to return to world no. 2 but could only watch as Teimour Radjabov and Rauf Mamedov won the match for Azerbaijan. The Azeri team is now 3rd only a point behind leaders Hungary and Russia, who overcame Croatia and Poland respectively. In the women’s section Russia dropped their first point but keep ahead of the pack after narrowly avoiding a match loss to Poland.
It was a dramatic day at the European Team Championship and you can replay all the games using the selector below – click on a game to open it with computer analysis, or hover over a player’s name to see all his or her results:
For a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the tournament on Crete check out Fiona Steil-Antoni’s first vlog, which should go viral if only for the cat!
Let’s start our look at the chess with the leaders:
Croatia’s stay as surprise sole leaders lasted only a round, as Hungary defeated them by a crushing 3.5:0.5 scoreline. The Hungarian team has been hugely impressive, with none of their five players losing a game and all performing comfortably above 2700.
Peter Leko had been a rock on top board with four draws against top players, but in Round 6 he also showed he can strike. Ivan Saric had just exchanged off queens and might have hoped the worst was over, but he was in for an unpleasant surprise:
25.Ba7! White isn’t just getting the bishop out of the firing line but after 25…Ra8 (a move that cost Ivan 34 minutes) 26.b6! is threatening to play a5-a6 and then queen the b-pawn. Ivan felt drastic measures were called for, but after the sacrifice 26…Nxb6!? Leko went on to convert his extra piece. Zoltan Almasi and Ferenc Berkes scored wins on the lower boards as Hungary took the lead in style.
They’re joined by Russia, the team they beat in Round 4, and while Ian Nepomniachtchi had lost back then he made up for it by beating Jan-Krzysztof Duda in the only decisive game of their match against Poland. It was a tough task for his 19-year-old opponent, who was given Black for a 5th time in 6 games, and against a player he’d lost to with Black in the World Team Championship. Duda seemed to make things difficult for himself as well, though, playing the French Defence for the first time in six years.
In the latest episode of The Perpetual Chess Podcast IM John Watson is asked about the future of the French Defence at the top level, which leads John to go on to explain why the Sicilian, Pirc and French have all declined as 1.e4 e5 openings have grown in popularity. Part of that explanation relates to space (check out the full answer here):
Space is just as important as it's ever been, but I think it's almost universally acknowledged now not that having space is necessarily better - as I say there's the Pirc and the French and all these other things - but that it's easier, and that it requires less preparation. I think it's more a matter of comfort and safety, safety more than anything. You don't want to risk a loss at all, really. With Black you're supposed to draw and with White you're supposed to somehow play for an edge.
Ian Nepomniachtchi illustrated that point on Friday by seizing so much space that he almost pushed his opponent off the board, with Duda meekly giving up an exchange, though it did little to lessen the pressure:
43.b5! axb5 44.a6! saw Nepo move into the final stages of converting his space advantage into a win, and although Duda might have put up some more resistance it’s likely he was doomed in any case.
Russia had returned to doing just enough, since the games on the other three boards were drawn.
Most of the attention in Round 6, however, was focused on Armenia-Azerbaijan, a clash between two countries that although holding civil relations on the chessboard are technically still at war. It was an even bigger event than usual, since Levon Aronian and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov have both had excellent years and are fighting for the world no. 2 spot. Shak had snatched it with his win in Round 5, but Levon knew he could recover it if he could beat his opponent.
Normally in such high pressure situations you might expect the players to play cautiously, but we saw anything but, with Mamedyarov electrifying the encounter with 16…b5!?
In hindsight that was probably taking too much risk in what was already a good position, since Levon accepted the exchange sacrifice, consolidated and then suddenly whipped up a mating attack. The final move was 44.h4!
White is simply threatening to deliver mate with g4-g5 and, with no good response, Mamedyarov resigned.
Levon Aronian was asked if he’d be willing to give an interview, but he felt too concerned about the position on the other boards – as it turned out, with good reason. Gabriel Sargissian, so often the saviour of the team, was held to a draw by Arkadiy Naiditsch, while the Armenians with the black pieces were both defending rook endings a pawn down. Sergei Movsesian didn’t survive much longer against Teimour Radjabov, who levelled the match with a win in 52 moves.
That left only Mamedov-Melkumyan, that developed into a thriller. At first it looked as though Mamedov was going to win as convincingly as Radjabov, but he missed a trick around move 58:
Perhaps only the tension of the situation, and the lack of time on the clock, could explain why Mamedov didn’t push back the black king here with 58.Ra7+!, but instead played 58.h6+ first. That might still have been winning, but a few moves later it was a draw, and all Hrant Melkumyan had to do was hold on. That was easier said than done, though, and a mistake came on move 86 in a position where we know the incontrovertible truth thanks to our tablebase friends:
Melkumyan had three drawing rook moves, but chose a fourth, 86…Ra7?, and after 87.Rd7! there was no longer any way to stop Rg7+ and pushing the h-pawn. When that had happened on move 92, Hrant resigned, and Azerbaijan had won the match 2.5:1.5. Despite having lost to Italy in Round 1 the Azeris are now only a point behind Hungary and Russia in joint 3rd, while Armenia themselves are still in contention, a further point back in 5th.
Many other matches were also decided by just such fine margins. For instance, Romania held Israel to a draw, which was already an achievement, but it could have been better:
Playing the great Boris Gelfand and with only a couple of minutes on his clock, Constantin Lupulescu here played 51.Kc2 and after 51…Rf2+ moved the king back and took a draw by repetition. Instead, though, he could have played 51.Kb2! Rf2+ 52.Qc2!! when after 52…Rxc2+ 53.Kxc2 Rd8 he would have the winning 54.Rb2!, promoting the a-pawn.
Another example was the match between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, which also seemed set to end in a draw before Jiri Stocek decided he could simplify matters with 62.Rb7?
Alas, after 62…Rxb7! 63.cxb7 Qb6! it turns out the black b-pawn is simply queening and there’s nothing White can do. Or rather, he could play 64.Qc6, but after 64…Qxc6 65.b8=Q Black has 65…Qc1+ and will soon create a second queen. The game instead ended 64.Qxd5 Kg7 65.e6 b2 White resigns
Spain hung on to score a draw against the Slovenia after David Anton managed to hold a lost rook ending against Luka Lenic in a match also notable for Spanish Champion Ivan Salgado beating 63-year-old Alexander Beliavsky with Black in just 22 moves. When Salgado talked to Jan Gustafsson afterwards he revealed that he had a photo in his room from meeting Beliavsky as a 10-year-old:
The 2nd most dramatic moment of the day, however, came in the women’s section, where Poland were within a whisker of inflicting a first defeat on Russia and catching their rivals. The top three games ended in draws, while Klaudia Kulon, who scored 9/11 for Poland in the 2016 Baku Olympiad, had Alexandra Goryachkina well and truly on the ropes.
Klaudia had plenty of time, but let victory slip away after 49.Kc3:
She took just 16 seconds to play 49…Ke5?, which at a glance seems an easy win, but Goryachkina here realised that 50.Rxb2! Rxb2 51.Kxb2 is only a drawn pawn ending. The game ended 5 moves later with bare kings on the board. Instead it would have made all the difference to play 49…h4!, when the pawn ending is now won for Black. It wasn’t trivial, though, since you had to see that 50.gxh4 f4 51.h5 should be met not by 51…f3 and a draw but a king move such as 51…Ke6.
That means Russia still lead and in the next round play Italy, who upset the odds to beat Turkey 3:1 in Round 6. A slip-up seems unlikely, but if one did occur 2nd seeds Georgia are only a point behind and would be ready to pounce. They defeated 3rd seeds Ukraine after Nino Batsiashvili made up for her loss to Kateryna Lagno by grabbing a crucial win over Natalia Zhukova.
Jan Gustafsson and Fiona Steil-Antoni will be commentating live from 14:00 CET, while you can watch every game with computer analysis here on chess24: Open | Women. You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps: