None of the top teams lost, or was in any real danger of losing, in Round 1 of the European Club Cup, but several of the top players on those teams barely escaped with draws against lower-ranked opposition.

There was no match intrigue in Round 1 of the European Club Cup in Skopje, Macedonia. All the top teams, supported by deep-pocketed sponsors and featuring some of the best players in the world, cruised to easy match victories. But it did provide a rare chance for many amateurs to face the formidable stars, and some of them even managed to cause some serious concerns to the big names.

SOCAR, possibly the most expensive team around, easily won their match, although Dutch super-star Anish Giri needed some help before getting the better of 23-year-old Henri Pohjala, a strong Finnish master.

Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, who is known for attacking ability, won a game true to his style against Pekka Koykka, another Finnish master. It seemed like the less experienced player trusted the computer evaluations too much when choosing the following opening:

It already looks dangerous for Black, but he greedily accepted the exchange sacrifice and tried to justify it with some weird acrobatics:

The computer seems to think Black is just fine, which makes me suspect that it could’ve been Black’s preparation. But after Nh3 followed by Nf4, Mamedyarov easily crashed through Black’s defences.

On the other hand, Rauf Mamedov, an Azeri teammate of Mamedyarov’s, got a lot of help from his 19-year-old Finnish opponent, Jani Ahvenjarvi. Mamedov managed to turn an absolutely lost position into a draw after over a 100 moves.

More surprising were the draws on the top two boards of the Russian club Siberia, which played against KBSK Brugge from Belgium. On the top board, Alexander Grischuk, fresh off of winning the World Blitz Championship in Berlin, could not prove anything with white against 30-year-old Steven Geirnaert, a Belgium international master. After a few moves in the opening, Grischuk, who was White, seemed to be doing rather well:

For as long as I can remember, I have been taught to fear the Bg5 - Nd5 combo — Black cannot avoid his pawn structure spoiled. But Geirnaert embraced the dubious configuration and soon obtained counterplay after Rg8 and f5!

On the Board 2, Grischuk’s teammate, the Chinese grandmaster Li Chao never had any serious winning chances against Thibaut Maenhout, a Belgium master, who held him to a solid draw.

Of course, this did not alter the match in any way as the remaining members of Siberia easily steamrolled the the rest of the players from Brugge.

The third match was between the local Macedonian team of Alkaloid, led by Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine and Dmitry Jakovenko of Russia, and the mysteriously named British team of Blackthorne Russia. The top English player, Adam Hunt, forced a theoretical draw against Ivanchuk, but the remaining players, including three named Ledger, put up little resistance.

The fourth board saw the closest of the matches. The top four players for Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova, the fourth-ranked team from Italy, were held to draws by unheralded Portuguese players from the team Desportivo Dias Ferreira.

The games seemed quite evenly matched, although I was surprised that Risarcimento’s second board, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, chose the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Sicilian. It is well known that White has multiple ways of forcing a draw, and, indeed, his opponent, who was ranked 300 points lower than Vachier-Lagrave, did just that.

But the Italian grandmasters on Boards 5 and 6 were far too good for their opponents, who were rated 2100, and Risarcimento was never in any danger of not winning.

While, it is common to see grandmasters occasionally held to a draw by lower-rated opponents in the first round, it is rare to see one almost be crushed. That happened in the matchup between former champions, Novi Bor from the Czech Republic and HMC Calder from the Netherlands.

The Dutch second board, 44-year-old international master Jeroen Bosch, who is famous for his instructive and entertaining series “Secrets of Opening Surprises,” conducted a beautiful attack with White against the Czech star David Navara.

In the above position, Navara played the ambitious move h5. Considering that Black could never hope to castle long, this was indeed a very bold decision. No doubt, Navara wanted to complicate things for his less illustrious opponent. Bosch responded by g5, which appeared to give Navara what he wanted, and the Czech grandmaster quickly blocked the kingside with g6 and led his king into safety with 0-0. But was it really as safe as it looked?

Here the Dutch international master found the amazing idea to go after the kingside with Bf3, Rg1and Bxh5! Navara responded logically with Rfe8, but nonetheless White’s attack already seemed overwhelming.

Surprisingly for a player who is an excellent attacker, Navara seemed unbothered by Bosch’s threats against his king and continued recklessly playing on the queenside instead of trying some desperate defensive measures like Nf8, etc. His 26…Ra2 was particularly bad. 

After Bosch initiated the deadly plan with Bxh5 and then g6, it seemed that Black could not survive. But at the critical moment, Bosch missed a simple win.

At this moment, White should have continued g7, followed by Qh4 and Qh5. Black’s pieces were completely stuck and could have done nothing at all. Instead Bosch played Qh4, and after Kg7! and Rh8, Navara got back in the game. Fortunately for Bosch, he still had a way to force a repetition after 30. Qxh5 Rh8 31. Nxf5! exf5 32. Qxf5 Rf8 33. Qh5 Rh8, etc.

There was another game in this match where a weaker player managed to thwart a world-class grandmaster. Abeln Michiel, a German master, held Mateusz Bartel, the Polish grandmaster, to a draw with Black in a long game. Mateusz was better throughout most of it, but in the end he failed to penetrate a clever fortress built by the German. Still Novi Bor won handily. 

Overall, while the top teams had an easy time, there were quite a few surprising draws between the amateurs and the professionals. Usually it was because the weaker player had White and used that edge effectively to create drawish positions out of the opening. Beginning on Monday, the individual boards should be much more evenly matched. 

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Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 76 in the world, he is currently a sophmore at Stanford University.