After three rounds, the top six seeded teams are the only ones with perfect records.

So far, so good for the top teams at the European Club Cup. The top six have lived up to their seedings by remaining undefeated through the first three rounds of the championship. But they had to survive much tougher tests in Round 3 as they finally faced some strong teams and many of the elite players had formidable opponents. 

The top seed, SOCAR, played Univerzity-Belorechensk and came away with a convincing win. Fabiano Caruana of the United States, who is playing for SOCAR, was the first to draw blood, finding an extremely precise sequence to dispatch Baadur Jobava of the Republic of Georgia.

A topsy turvy game had ended up in the messy position above. Black is down a pawn but his attack against White’s weakened queenside gives him compensation. He does not have to fear Nb5 because he can play Qa5, when Nxd4 Nxd4 does not actually win an exchange.

Caruana ignored any perceived danger to his king and struck with 28. e6! After 28. … axb3 29. Qxb3 Ra4, things looked dire for Caruana, whose king seemed sure to be fried with both Nd4 and Ra1 looming. But Caruana had everything under control after 30. Qc3+ Nd4 31. b3!, holding his queenside together. After 31…. Kh7 32. Rd2, with his rook and knight both attacked, Jobava threw in the towel.

[Editor’s note — One nice feature of the final position is that 32 … Ra1 would fail after 33. Qa1 Qa1 34. Ka1 Nb3 35. Kb2 Nd2 because of 36. e7, and Black would have to give up his rook for the pawn.]

As clean and effective as Caruana’s calculation was, Michael Adams subtle approach was no less impressive. I’ve always been a sucker for paralysis, and Adams achieved that beautifully against Sergei Rublevsky in the following position:

After 37. … Rc6!, White was in a quandary. His rook and king were tied down to the defense of the c2 pawn — which was more than just a pawn because if Black could play Rxc2, he would also get the a2 pawn as well, winning immediately. White’s knight was now also stuck on a4. Strangely, the computer still thinks the position is roughly equal, but in fact White was completely lost.

The game continued 38. h4 g5 39. hxg5 Kh7 40. Kc1 Kg6, and White now felt compelled to play 41. c3 instead of waiting for Black to penetrate with the king. But after 41. … bxc3 42. b4 c2, Black was threatening Nb3+. White finally extricated his knight with 43. Nc5, but then Rb6!, allowed Adams to win White’s b pawn Rublevsky played on for a while, but his position was already hopeless. 

The match on Board 2 was also well played as Siberia, the No. 2 seed, defeated SHSM Legacy Square, despite a loss by Alexander Grischuk of Russia, one of Siberia’s top players. I particularly enjoyed Vladimir Kramnik’s victory over his fellow Russian Ian Nepomniatchi, winning in the fine positional style that the ex-World Champion has always made look so easy.

Here, Kramnik played 16. c5!, which is both textbook and classy. White shuts down the b7 bishop, leaving it passive for the foreseeable future. Nepomniatchi might have been well-advised to consider the extremely unappealing 16. … b5, which condemns him to a gritty defense with a bad bishop, but remains reasonably robust. Instead, he went pawn grabbing with 16. … Bxb2, allowing Kramnik to exchange one advantage for another with 17. Qb3! After 17. … Bf6 18. cxb6 axb6 19. Bxb6, the structure was greatly in White’s favor because of his outside passed pawn. Kramnik went on to win in fine style, leading his squad to a 4-2 victory.

On Board 4, Hikaru Nakamura of the United States showed once again that he is a fierce competitor and psychologically strong. After what must have been a devastating loss to a much lower player in Round 2, he bounced back in Round 3 and simply decimated his opponent, Lexy Ortega of Ialy. As always, his tactical vision was spot on. 

Just about anything wins here, but always on the alert, Nakamura immediately banged out 33. Rd5!, trapping black’s queen and ending any feasible attempt at resistance. [Editor’s note — If 33…. Qd5, then 34. Nf6, followed by 35. Qd5.]

One game that really surprised me was the failed conversion on Board 3 of a much better, probably winning position by Evgeny Tomashevsky of Russia against Vasif Durarbayli of Azerbaijan. Tomashevsky has always been a strategic player and endgame aficionado, but somehow this time his intuition did him a disservice. While several mistakes were made over the course of the game, the one that really stood out to me happened in the following position:

Here, Tomashevsky played 26. Ne7+?, a move I fail to understand. White has everything clearly under control and can simply start advancing his central/kingside pawns, aiming to make use of his extra material. The Black knight on d7 is really pitiful and the White knight on d5 is gorgeous, so why exchange these pieces? It also weakened the b4 square, which allowed the rook to swing in with counterplay.

After 26. … Bxe7 27. Rxd7 Bf8 28. Rd2 Rb4 29. Rc2 Kf7, White was still much better with his extra pawn, but Black’s pieces were quite active and ultimately the rooks showed their drawish tendencies, allowing Durarbeyli to save the game.

Luckily for Alkaloid, the No. 3 seed, Dmitry Andreikin of Russia, one of Tomashevsky’s teammates, won his game and the team squeaked out a one-point victory over Odlar Yurdu.

The tension will rise in Round 4 as the top teams face each other!

Coverage of Day 2.

Coverage of Day 1


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 7 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.