Azerbaijan have won the European Team Championship for a 3rd time in only 8 years after finishing ahead of Russia on tiebreaks after being held to a 2:2 draw by Ukraine. Russia beat Germany 3:1, but that scoreline wasn’t quite enough to defend their gold medals from 2015. Ukraine finished 3rd in both sections, with Georgia taking silver behind Russia in the women’s event while Poland missed out on medals after a shock last-round loss to Romania.
In the end the battle for gold in the 2017 European Team Championship couldn’t have been closer, though for a long time it seemed as though Azerbaijan were going to blast their way to victory. Their match finished with four draws:
Teimour Radjabov and Rauf Mamedov both drew comfortably with the black pieces in around 30 moves, while Arkadij Naiditsch was soon setting the board on fire against Ruslan Ponomariov.
When Nigel Short joined the live commentary he described Ponomariov’s Pirc Defence as “a red rag to a raging rhino!” Sure enough, we only had to wait until move 15 for the spectacular attacking blow 15.Nf5!, while a couple of moves later it was followed up by 17.Bxb5!!
The devastating point is 17…axb5 18.Nxg7 Kxg7 19.Qf3! Nd7 (for instance) 20.Rh7+! Kxh7 21.Qxf7+ Kh8 22.0-0-0! and the rook gives mate on the h-file.
Ponomariov instead managed to keep the game going with 17…gxf5 18.Bxe8 Qd8 19.Qh5 Qxe8 20.exf5 Qe7 21.f6 Bxf6 22.gxf6 Qxf6 23.0-0-0, when Black was only a pawn down for the exchange. It seemed that would be irrelevant, though, since the black king was unlikely to survive for long.
If former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov is known for anything, though, it’s tenacity, and he hung on, and on, until the same material balance remained in a simplified ending, and after 43…Nc4 a draw was agreed:
The position is mathematically drawn, as tablebases tell us, but White could have played on for a while, and the game ending here wasn’t without controversy.
Shortly before, the game between Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Pavel Eljanov had also ended in a draw. Eljanov had an extra pawn in a rook ending, but no realistic winning chances, and it seems that the team captains, who are allowed only to confer with their own players on draw offers, had come to an agreement that both remaining games would be drawn.
It was a mutually beneficial situation, since Ukraine would be ensured of bronze medals (if they lost they would miss out), while Azerbaijan had excellent chances of gold.
Even if it’s very unlikely the outcome would have been changed if things had gone according to the rules, the apparent collusion angered Ian Nepomniachtchi:
The final moments of Mamedyarov-Eljanov were captured on video:
The day’s drama was far from over, though. Despite Azerbaijan
having beaten Russia in their individual encounter and having a clear lead in
game points, the competition rules meant that if Russia beat Germany the Sonneborn-Berger
tiebreak would decide matters. That’s described in the regulations as follows:
Match points of each opponent, excluding the opponent who scored the lowest number of match points, multiplied by the number of board points scored against each opponent respectively.
The tiebreak was unpredictable, since until the very end it depended on the results of all the teams Russia and Azerbaijan had played against.
When Alexander Grischuk joined the live show after his draw against Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu, he said he felt a 3:1 victory would be enough for Russia to take the title, and that such a victory would be a “miracle” after the loss the day before. Don't miss the last stages of the day’s action with his commentary - he also talks about what went wrong against Azerbaijan and why he'll never play Wijk aan Zee again:
In all three of the remaining games Russia ended up with an extra pawn. Nikita Vitiugov confirmed Russia would win the match when he beat Matthias Bluebaum in 42 moves, but despite seeming to have his perfect kind of position Maxim Matlakov fell just short and had to accept a draw against Daniel Fridman in 60 moves.
Ian Nepomniachtchi seemed to have come up against an unshakeable fortress, but Georg Meier cracked at the end and Nepo pulled off a win in 86 moves.
Russia had pulled off the 3:1 win Grischuk had hoped for:
It was a fine performance…
…but in the end, as with the 4:0 final victory in the World Team Championship, it wasn’t enough for gold, since Azerbaijan took the title with a tiebreak score of 230 to Russia’s 217.5. The complete results:
Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is quoted by Extra Time as saying:
In chess winning the European Team Championship is perhaps even tougher than winning the Olympiad, since in the European event you play only against European teams, which are the best in the world.
At this Championship we played the teams of Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Armenia and other strong opponents. Having played them and become champions we’ve shown that Azerbaijan is the cleverest nation in Europe (laughs). That’s our third time as European Champions. Do you know what that means? It’s something incredible. After our loss to Italy and draw with Spain people had written us off, but then we scored five wins in a row and reached first place.
Mamedyarov was briefly no. 2 on the live rating list (now he’s back to no. 3 behind Aronian) and continued:
At that moment my friend Rauf Mamedov told me that I was first among humans (laughs), while Magnus Carlsen was leading - a very strong and tough opponent. It’s very hard to beat him. To be second on the rating list is for many the same as being first, but Carlsen can also be beaten. I’ll try, and there’s still time. I don’t think I’m so old that I should stop fighting. God willing I’ll fight for first place.
The star of the show for Azerbaijan was Rauf Mamedov, who finished on an unbeaten 8/9 and comfortably topped the list of rating performers:
Talking to Extra Time he compared the win to an earlier triumph:
Of course the emotions aren’t the same as in 2009 when we first won the European Championship. Back then it was the late Vugar Gashimov who brought us victory. I'm still living off that victory today. In the current continental championship we started badly, losing to Italy and not beating Spain. Of course we’re glad that we won in the end. After the Chess Olympiad in Baku last year, when we performed badly, the whole of Azerbaijan was expecting only success from us. And now we’ve again shown that Azerbaijan is a strong chess country.
I prepared for the games with our captain Eltaj Safarli and my personal trainer Alexander Khalifman. They thought about the variations before the match with Russia. You saw for yourself that we crushed Russia and that, in essence, was the championship match.
I always tried to play to the end. I played in all nine games, at times for 5-6 hours. In an individual tournament it’s easier as you feel a little more relaxed, but when you’re playing for your country, for a team, you have to fight to the end. I’m very glad that we beat Armenia. It was precisely that victory that opened up a path to the championship for us.
Who was the heart, brain and soul of our team in the current European Championship? That was Eltaj!
The team that just missed out on medals was Croatia, who matched Ukraine’s score but couldn’t match their tiebreak. The 14th seeds overperformed, with Marin Bosiocic grabbing a fifth win for 6/8 and a 2824 rating performance. The most dramatic game in their 2.5:1.5 defeat of Turkey, however, was Ivan Saric’s victory on top board over Dragan Solak. Dragan was well on top with the white pieces, but then let his advantage slip and finally blundered with 31.Qa4?
Ivan unleashed 31…Ra8 32.Ba5 Rba6!, exploiting the fact that the b5-pawn is pinned to the queen (though 32…Rb7 and then 33…Rba7 would also have done the job). The producer in Crete pointed out that the swing in that one game might also have swung the gold medal race in Azerbaijan’s favour.
Hungary had beaten Croatia and Russia and had the best tiebreak of any team, but in the end had to settle for 5th place despite crushing England 3.5:0.5 in the final round. The watching Nigel Short could see only one remedy after the 4th seeds ended in 16th place:
Tied with Hungary were Israel, who performed roughly to expectations, and Romania, whose last-round defeat of Spain saw the 20th seeds finish 7th.
The last round also saw some shock results. Anish Giri’s fine tournament was spoiled by a one-sided loss to Luka Lenic, although Jorden van Foreest got yet another late win to give the Netherlands victory over Slovenia. Georgia also beat Finland, but what Baadur Jobava did against Tomi Nyback almost defies rational explanation. With an hour on his clock Baadur was playing extremely fast and didn’t pause before going for what he seemed to have concluded was an easy win:
40…Ra1+??? would, to be fair, be winning, if not for 41.Nxa1. Those tricky backwards moves
The women’s gold medals had been wrapped up with a round to spare, but Russia didn’t take their foot off the gas and beat Armenia 3.5:0.5 to win the event with a near perfect 17/18. One moment summed up a tough day for their opponents. Elina Danielian was on top, but then played 28.Rd5?:
Alexandra Kosteniuk pounced with 28…Nd2!, when Black is threatening Re1+ and Nf1+. There was nothing better than 29.Rxd2 Qc1+, giving up the exchange and eventually the game.
As expected Georgia took silver medals, beating Italy 3.5:0.5 and Turkey suffered a second 4:0 loss in two days as Ukraine did everything in their power to take bronze. They managed, but only because Poland, the only team to take a point off Russia, were beaten by Romania for their first loss of the event. Karina Szczepkowska’s win was negated by three losses, with the match situation forcing Klaudia Kulon to press for a win rather than exchange queens in an equal position – in the end she got mated by Mihaela Sandu, with 9th seeds Romania finishing 5th:
It was a deeply disappointing end for Poland, though it’s notable the top four seeds in the women’s section finished in exactly the expected order! (while Germany performed in the women's section as England did in the open)
Spain ended on a high with a 4:0 win over Austria that left the 12th seeds in 6th place. They even acquired the world no. 2 Levon Aronian as a new mascot!
You can catch a glimpse of the closing ceremony in this short video recap with Fiona Steil-Antoni:
So that’s all for the 2017 European Team Championship! The next major chess action on the horizon is the Champions Showdown in St. Louis, that begins with the Nakamura-Topalov, Caruana-Grischuk and So-Dominguez matches starting on Thursday, before the Carlsen-Ding Liren match starts on Saturday!