World no. 3 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov played a fine exchange sacrifice to beat Grigoriy Oparin and give the Kings team victory in Round 1 of the traditional Christmas Nutcracker Battle of the Generations in Moscow. His teammates Alexei Shirov, Boris Gelfand and Sergei Rublevsky drew against rising stars Andrey Esipenko, Vladislav Artemiev and Daniil Yuffa, with Yuffa-Rublevsky a thriller that very nearly went the youngster’s way.
The Nutcracker tournament has become the traditional end to the Russian chess season, and it’s also traditional for it be accompanied by other events. On the eve of the tournament the Botvinnik Central Chess Club in Moscow hosted an evening in honour of the Russian women’s chess team, which in 2017 won the World and European Team Championships. Santa Claus and Levon Aronian and his wife Arianne Caoili also put in an appearance.
The chess action began on Wednesday, with the format the same as in previous years. Two 4-player teams, Kings and Princes, play one classical and two rapid games against each member of the opposing team, with 2 points for a win in classical chess. A women’s event, Queens vs. Princesses takes place alongside. You can see the line-ups and play through the games using the selector below:
Traditionally the Kings team features players that while still extremely strong have their best years behind them, but Shakhriyar Mamedyarov is in the form of his life. In 2017 the world no. 3 qualified for the Candidates Tournament by winning the FIDE Grand Prix series, won the Shamkir Chess supertournament and also the European Club Cup and Team Championship with Globus and Azerbaijan. He hit a new peak live rating of 2802.7 and is only 1.2 points below that mark after his victory in Round 1 of the Nutcracker tournament.
His opponent, 20-year-old Grigoriy Oparin, finished unbeaten with the best performance in the 2016 Nutcracker tournament to qualify for the Zurich Chess Challenge. In the intervening year Oparin has been unable to boost his rating, with it remaining to be seen whether he’ll blossom relatively late like Vladimir Fedoseev and Maxim Matlakov or may instead have reached his ceiling.
In any case, he won’t finish unbeaten this year, after Mamedyarov turned on the style in their game:
It looks as though Oparin, playing White, has found a way to force piece trades that will likely lead to a draw. Shak wanted more, though, and here played the exchange sacrifice 22…Rc3!, giving Black a powerful passed pawn backed up by the bishop pair. The position was still close to equal, but Oparin lost his way in the run-up to the time control, dropping a pawn and getting his pieces badly tied up. He still had some chances on move 41, but probably decided that offering his opponent the chance to repeat moves a 3rd time gave the best odds of a draw:
41…Qc6 would have been a 3-fold repetition. That move has the nice idea that 42.Qxf2 Qh1+ 43.Qh2 Qxh2+ 44.Kxh2 c2 wins, since the white rook doesn’t have the c4-square to stop the pawn. That could be parried by 42.Kh2, though, while 41…Bd4! simply held on to the c-pawn and left White lost. 42.h5 was met by 42…e4! and soon the c-pawn won the game.
The other three games were drawn, with two of them relatively uneventful. 15-year-old Andrey Esipenko, Russia’s youngest grandmaster and a World and European U16 Champion, came well-prepared for a line Alexei Shirov has played on multiple times against the Sicilian. He didn’t start to think until a drawish endgame had been reached, and while Shirov is a brilliant endgame player he could get nothing against the youngster.
The most balanced match-up of the day was between 49-year-old Boris Gelfand and 19-year-old Vladislav Artemiev. Neither player needs much introduction, with Gelfand having had a tough year but still of course a formidable opponent, while Artemiev is the world’s no. 3 junior and recently moved to no. 2 on the live blitz rating list. His lack of focus on openings has perhaps slowed his rise in classical chess, but he’ll be a player to watch in 2018 (or maybe 2017 if he competes in the World Rapid and Blitz).
The game got off to the most promising of starts as it opened 1.Nf3 g6 2.e4 d6 before eventually looking a lot like the Bayonet Variation of the King’s Indian Defence. That approach, with an early b4, was once championed by Vladimir Kramnik and helped convince Garry Kasparov to abandon his favourite opening. There was little of that excitement in Moscow on Tuesday, though, as a hard-fought game eventually ended with Gelfand forcing perpetual check with the white pieces.
The remaining draw was a debut for 20-year-old Daniil Yuffa in the Nutcracker events. The youngster saw his profile rise dramatically in 2017 when he featured on the Russian TV show “Amazing People”, performing a blindfold chess stunt at the same time as playing the piano:
He almost did something equally impressive against 43-year-old Sergei Rublevsky, a former Russian Champion who currently focuses more on commentary and his job as senior coach of the Russian Women’s Team. In the position after 22…Rd7 it seemed as though Rublevsky was ready to consolidate an advantage with Nd5. Yuffa had other plans:
23.Rxa6! The point is to distract the bishop from covering the f3-square, since after 23…Bxa6 White can play 24.Rf3 and the knight on f6 is going nowhere. That might have been best anyway, but instead Rublevsky spent 22 minutes on 23…Ne4!? and things got extremely complicated fast: 24.Rf3 Qe8 25.Bf4 Bxa6 26.Qxe4 Rd5 27.Re3 gxh5:
Here Yuffa could have played the beautiful 28.Bxh5! It’s mate-in-3 after 28…Rxh5 29.Qa8+, while 28…Qxh5 29.Qxe6+ is also crushing, though with more nuances – for instance, in one line it’s key that White can fork the a6-bishop and h8-rook from f6. Black could, however, struggle on with 28…Qd7.
In the game, meanwhile, Yuffa played 28.Bh2 and there were a lot more adventures before the time control, with Rublevsky even getting a chance at one point. The game is fun to replay with computer analysis (and try out moves of your own on the board), and although both players missed opportunities they also did remarkably well to keep some control on the chaos on the board. A draw was perhaps a fitting result.
The classical section continues on Wednesday to Friday, before Saturday and Christmas Eve each feature four rounds of rapid (15+10) chess. Follow all the action here on chess24 from 13:00 CET each day!
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