Round 5 will feature a match between the top two seeds, which could very well decide the championship.

Watching top teams fight against each other is certainly more competitive than when a top team faces more feeble opposition. The downside is that better matched players tend to produce a lot more draws, particularly when the players are extremely strong. Round 4 of the European Club Cub was no exception. For the first time in the tournament, there were more draws than decisive games on the top boards.

Nonetheless, there were still some fireworks, and SOCAR, the top seed, was able to move to a perfect score, led by Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan who respectively beat Peter Leko of Hungary and Etienne Bacrot of France.

Mamedyarov’s game was very interesting from a strategic perspective. I have always believed that Benoni structures should be fine for Black if he is able to exchange off his light squared bishop, and especially strong if he is able to take white’s dark squared bishop. Mamedyarov, however, clearly had a different opinion. If you look at the position after 11. cxd5:

I believe Black should be entirely fine in a position like this one. The pawn on h6 is probably a pretty useful move that black got to play for free, and more importantly after 11. … Bg4!, White will be foced to trade off black’s light squared bishop, which is what eventually happened.

However, after that, I believe Bacrot began to falter by playing 12…. Nh5?! This strikes me as a waste of time, and indeed the knight promptly retreated to f6. I would have preferred 12. … Qe7, which is generally a very useful move in the Benoni. Black threatens the pawn on e4, and following something like 13. h3 Bxf3 14. Bxf3 Nd7, I think black has excellent coordination and can follow up with the maneuvre Ne8 and Nc7, preparing for queenside expansion with b5. Instead, Bacrot ended up in a worse position.

A critical moment was reached after 20…. Rb8.

Here, Mamedyarov made an excellent and somewhat counterintuitive strategic decision with 21. Bxe5! I’m always hesitant to give away my dark squared bishop in these structures, but Mamedyarov correctly sensed that here it was the right idea.

After 21. … Bxe5 22. Nc4 Bg7 (I would have preferred Bd4, but the bishop is still pretty ineffective,), White was able to clamp down on the queenside with 23. Rb6! That stopped b5 forever and tied Black’s pieces down to the defense of the d6 pawn. Mamedyarov convincingly turned this positional bind into a nice victory, and helped his squad score a 4-2 win over Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova.

The match on Board 2 was a bit more lopsided. Just as he did in Round 3, Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, the former World Champion, won a clean positional game over another Russian player. This time his victim was Peter Svidler.

On his final move before time control, Svidler erred in this difficult position. 

White’s extra pawn is entirely meaningless. The much more important factor is that he is effectively playing without his knight on a5 because it cannot move without being taken. 

Still, if Svidler had continued 40. gxh5, it would have offered him excellent chances to save the game. After 40. … gxh5, Black would definitely win his pawn back with Nb1 and Nxa3, but White’s position would be extremely solid. He could leave his king on g3 to defend h4, and place his bishop on c5 to hold both the e3 and b4 pawns. Black would have to leave his bishop on d5 to control White’s knight, but probably White can survive, albeit he would definitely have suffered.

Instead, after defending quite well previously, Svidler erred on the final move of the time control with 40. Bb8?, which allowed the devastating reply 40. … Ne4+ 41. Kh3 Nf2+ 42. Kg3 Nxg4, which not only won the g4 pawn but also led to the pick up of the e3 pawn  because 43. Ba7 could be met by Kf5 followed by Ke4. Svidler resigned only a couple of moves later.

Playing alongside Kramnik, the Chinese stars Li Chao b and Wang Yue both won their games to help Siberia clinch a 4.5-1.5 victory over the team Medyni Vsadnik. I was particularly impressed by how calm and collected Li Chao was under pressure toward the end of time control in his game against Maxim Matlakov of Russia.

In the above position, Li calmly played 34. Kh1!, which sidestepped Black’s threat of Bxb6+. While this seems to bring the king farther away from the action and looks like it is asking to be mated on the back rank, Black is completely stuck and unable to prevent Bc6 and then b7.

Matlakov tried 34. … Bb5, once again threatening Bxb6, but Li replied 35. a4!, which now came with tempo by attacking the bishop. Matlakov tried 35. … Bxa4 rather than move his bishop and allow 36. a5, but after 36. Rax4 he was just a piece down and had to resign shortly afterward

The match on Board 3 looked for a long time like it would end in 6 draws, but another Chinese player squeezed his opponent to break the deadlock. In the last game going, Alkaloid’s Yu Yangyi managed to fight back from a worse position against Zybnek Hracek of the Czech Republic who was playing for Ave Novy Bor.

For a long time, it looked like the game would end in a draw, but the young Chinese player kept creating practical problems for his opponent, who eventually cracked in the following position:

Hracek played 74. Qd6+?, which was a blunder. No doubt after a long game, White was getting very tired. But queen and two f pawns against queen is a technical win, as I learned from analyzing this exact endgame after a game with Georg Meier.

Instead, White could have held with 74. Kf3! at which point all pawn endings are drawn. But this would require precise calculation under huge pressure, and with just 45 seconds on his clock, Hracek was unable to find his way.

Round 5 will feature a match between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds — SOCAR and Siberia. It could be the match that determines the title. 

Coverage of Day 3.

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.