27-year-old Croat Ivan Saric beat David Navara in the final round to win clear first in the 2018 European Championship. The event in the Georgian seaside city of Batumi was unfortunately completely overshadowed by the Candidates Tournament, but still gathered 135 grandmasters, who were mainly hunting the prize of one of 23 places in the 2019 World Cup. Some had to miss out, with Jakovenko, Ivanchuk and Dubov among the unlucky ones, while Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo dropped out and revealed how a nightmare tax bill has ruined his last two years.
The 2018 European Championship was a gruelling 11-round Swiss Open that ran from the 17-28 March. 104 games were broadcast live each day, and you can replay then all using the selector below:
Although the total prize fund was €100,000 and the top prize was a decent €20,000, there’s no hiding the fact that most of the players were there not to win but to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. 23 places were up for grabs, with 7.5/11 the minimum score:
As you can see, it’s unclear what happens with David Anton and Mircea-Emilian Parligras, who were in fact tied exactly on all three tiebreakers for 23rd place. The regulations didn’t specify how to break that tie, so instead the organisers announced at the closing ceremony that they’d do their best to make sure both players make it to the World Cup. In fact it’s likely that some players, such as Radek Wojtaszek and David Navara, will qualify for the cup by rating, freeing up more spaces.
6th seed Rauf Mamedov is one of those on 7.5/11 who will have to cross his fingers after finishing 26th – he did that after seizing a nice tactical chance at the end of a last round game in which he’d been struggling against Evgeny Alekseev. 36.Kg1? was a losing move:
After 36…Nxh3+! White resigned. If play continued Black would have done everything with check: 37.gxh3 Bh2+! 38.Kxh2 Qxf2+ 39.Kh1 Qxf1+ 40.Kh2 Qg2#
Going into the final round there were eight players tied on 7.5/10 who knew that a draw would guarantee a place in the World Cup. Six of them did draw, allowing Croatia’s Ivan Saric to emerge from the pack and snatch sole first place after a third win in a row, this time over David Navara:
He drew praise from another player with Croatian citizenship, who also happened to be in Croatia at the time:
The game was one of a number of fine displays of endgame technique by Ivan:
27.b5! hits the d4-bishop, which the computer would give up for a pawn immediately with 27…Bxf2!, since after 27…c5 28.b6 axb6 29.axb6 Rb7 30.Rxd4 it was gone in any case. It was still a very tricky endgame, but Saric masterfully managed to outplay Navara in what followed. There was no great harm done, since David still qualified for the World Cup.
If Ivan seems familiar it may be because of his 3-hour chess24 series in which he provides an almost complete repertoire to play the Italian (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4) with White:
Silver was taken by Polish no. 1 Radek Wojtaszek, who shrugged off a Round 2 loss to 16-year-old Bogdan-Daniel Deac as he won five of his first six games and ultimately cruised home.
I’m very happy with the medal, but above all with the level of my play. I had some fears since it was my first tournament after a long break. I believed in my ability, though, and that faith wasn’t even dimmed by a loss in the 2nd round. It seems to me that I showed an active and aggressive style of play here, which I hope the fans liked. I’d like to thank all the people who supported me during the event, starting with my wife Alina, and also LOTTO, who since 2017 have been supporting our team and accompanying me in my recent successes.
25-year-old Russian Grandmaster Sanan Sjugirov took bronze with an unbeaten 8/11 after spoiling what up to that point had been an excellent tournament for 8th seed Daniil Dubov. Their penultimate round game featured a 6.Bg5 Najdorf in which Daniil managed to sacrifice three pawns by move 15, while the position after 27.Ng5!? was perhaps the most picturesque of the game:
27…hxg5 was strictly an only move to avoid getting mated, but objectively White had nothing and fell to a logical defeat, though Daniil might have had some chances in an opposite-coloured bishop ending if he’d played 38.Qxe8+. It’s a curious fact to note that all three of the players who finished on the podium have beaten Magnus Carlsen in classical games!
Other positive stories included Gawain Jones and Luke McShane impressing for England to take 4th and 6th places, with Gawain in particular playing some very nice games:
16…cxb5? 18.Rc8! Kd7 19.Rac1 is an adventure Black won’t survive, but 16…Kd8 17.Nxa7! Rxa7 18.Qxb6+ was also absolutely crushing, with Deac resigning on move 21.
The other qualifiers included Swedish no. 1 and all-round nice guy Nils Grandelius, as well as 18-year-old Spanish GM elect Miguel Santos Ruiz, who finished 19th despite being seeded 146th!
Of course there were also hard luck stories. For instance, top seed Dmitry Jakovenko finished 52nd, while 5th seed Vassily Ivanchuk went for a miscalculated sacrifice in the last round and finished 36th after a loss.
Then there was the strange case of Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo. He began as the 4th seed but dropped out of the event after losses in Rounds 3 and 5, but it turned out his withdrawal had little to do with chess. A bombshell Facebook post laid bare a nightmarish couple of years:
It begins (in translation):
It’s difficult even to start writing as so many things are seething in my mind. Why write now? Because I’ve reached the limit, and although I don’t think it’s advisable for me, I don’t care. I don’t consider myself a weak person or one it’s easy to unbalance – I think that by definition a chess grandmaster is someone accustomed to dealing with difficult situations.
How an idyllic life can turn into a disaster at great speed.
We go back to the year 2011. I play some online poker, for fun, I’m not even close to being a gambler. I lost everything, a few thousand, and stopped playing. That was that.
The year 2016. I received a letter from the Spanish tax authority demanding more than 6 figures! Over half a million euros because you’d played poker and lost. It seemed like a macabre joke, but it isn’t, and from that moment it snowballed into something that crushes you.
Paco went on to explain that until the law was changed in 2012 the tax authorities counted any individual hand that a poker player won as winnings to be taxed, while ignoring all the losing hands. Inevitably that meant some massive tax bills even for players who had lost or broken even. Paco isn’t alone, but currently there’s no obvious way out of the situation, and with legal costs, frozen bank accounts and problems with his mother’s health he’s found himself all but unable to play chess.
We hope that going public will see someone step in to find a solution, while for now you can help in some small way by signing this petition:
Returning to chess, the day’s rest after the Candidates is over and the GRENKE Chess Open has started (Bacrot, Rapport, Wang Hao, Andreikin, Kasimdzhanov and Van Wely top a 842-player field – and that’s just the A Group!), while on Saturday - it had to happen! - we’ve got Caruana-Carlsen in Round 1 of the GRENKE Chess Classic!