SOCAR, the top-seeded team fell to Siberia, the No. 2 seed, and the No. 3 team also lost. With two rounds to go, can anyone stop the Siberian express?

In the first four rounds of the European Club Cup, SOCAR, the top-seeded team and the defending champion, had successfully overcome all the obstacles in its way. But in Round 5, it finally faced one that was insurmountable. SOCAR played the second-seeded Siberia squad, and it was defeated.

The most critical and notable game of the match was between Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, Siberia’s top board, and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, the player for SOCAR. 

The two players contested a match for the World Championship in 2006 that became notorious for the toiletgate controversy, in which Topalov accused Kramnik of cheating while taking frequent trips to the bathroom. Since then, the two have not shaken hands before any of their games, as is customary.

Maybe it would be a good thing if we managed to get more top players to dislike each other because Kramnik and Topalov have played some great games over the course of the last nine years, with 6 of the 7 ending decisively. The one in Round 5 on Thursday was no different.

Topalov was under some pressure throughout the game because of his loosened kingside. But, if he had just sat and waited, it would not have been easy to suggest a plan for Kramnik. Topalov had enough of a presence on the third rank that Kramnik could do very little. And without the possibility of a rook lift, I can’t find a convincing way to include more pieces in the attack.

But Topalov has never liked passive play and always looks to complicate the game, and this time it came back to bite him when he played 28. …gxh5? Classically this move makes sense — Black can plug the g file with Qg6, safegaurding his king and he may even be able to find counterplay against g2.

But Kramnik replied with the strong and typical exchange sacrifice 29. Rxd5! After 29. … exd5 30. e6!? (I would have preferred the simple Rxd5) R3c7? (30…. R3c6 was a better defensive try but still extremely difficult for Black) 31. Rxd5 Qxe6 32. Qg5+ Kf8 33. Rxf5, the attack was far too strong and Kramnik collected the full point a few moves later.

The other key victory for Siberia was by Alexander Grischuk, Kramnik’s countryman. He defeated Fabiano Caruana of the United States in a game that I derived a lot of joy from, as Caruana played the notorious Berlin Defense — a very sound opening but a really boring one, too. It eliminates the middlegame almost entirely and leads to a huge number of draws, making chess a significantly less enjoyable game. It has even been dubbed the Berlin Wall, and as far as I am concerned, every time the Berlin Wall crumbles, it feels like justice has been served.

Michael Adams of Britain managed to fight back and even win a highly unpleasant position against Li Chao b of China to get at least one win on the scoreboard for SOCAR, but that was not enough to save the match as SOCAR fell to Siberia by a score of 3.5-2.5

As I mentioned in a previous report, when elite teams face with top players many each other, a lot of draws can ensue. That was true in the match on Board 2, where five of the six games between Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova nor Alkaloid were drawn. It all came down to the match on the top board between Peter Leko of Hungary, playing for Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova, and Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, who is on Alkaloid. It was a terrific fight.

In the above diagram, Ivanchuk, who was Black, had a dream position out of a Petroff Defense. He had already made some minor mistakes that allowed Leko to escape from a completely lost position, but it was still miserable for White. The bishop on f6 is a monstrously active piece and all of white’s pawns are weak.

With this in mind, I would have preferred the simple 28. … Rxe3, immediately winning back the sacrificed pawn and leaving black with excellent winning chances due to his superior pawn structure and more active pieces. Ivanchuk was clearly feeling more ambitious and tried 28. … Rb4!?, aiming to activate the rook along the 4th rank and harass the White kingside. In and of itself Rg4 is certainly not a bad move and Black is still better, but it’s definitely risky.

After 29. Rb1, Ivanchuk really started to falter. He should have played in the center and the kingside with his active rooks. For example, he could have retained a large advantage after 29. … Rg4. Instead, he continued 29. … Re8?!. His idea was to continue with 30…. Reb8 and 31…. Rxa4. But there was a flaw in the idea and Leko immediately pounced on his chance with 30. Rhf1!, eyeing an exchange sacrifice on f6, which he carried out shortly. Fireworks ensued [Editor’s note — according to the computer, both sides made blunders, though the position was complicated and hard to assess] until ultimately Ivanchuk made the last mistake in the following position:

Black understandably wanted to run his king away from danger and played 37. … Ke8? But afer 38. Qg8+! Qf8 39. Bxf7+, the rook on g2 was lost. Though Ivanchuk could have fought on, his position was bad, and he resigned, perhaps also disgusted with how he had blundered away a winning position. 

Leko’s win gave Obiettivo Risarcimento Padova the match, and handed Alkaloid its first loss.

It was hard to find the same level of excitement on the lower matches populated by teams that are mostly out of the hunt for first place. There were some excpetions. I particularly enjoyed a nice trick by David Navara of the Czech Republic against Nicolai Getz of Norway, that capped off a flashy and successful king hunt.

Navara, ignoring the attack on his queen, played 27. Ng5! The move was, of course, tactically justified. If Getz had continued 27. … Nxe2, then after 28. h7+, Black would have had a choice between 28.… Kh8 29. Nxf7#, or 28. … Kf8 29. h8=Q+ Ke7 30. Qxg7, when White would have regained his queen and soon have delivered mate.

So Getz played 27. … Bxd3, but after 28. Qxd3, the threat of Qh7 forced him to play 28. … g6. But he had no good answer to 29. Qf3, with the devastating threats of 30. Qf6 or 30. Qxf7, so Getz resigned.

Though Alkaloid, the No. 3 seed, lost in Round 5, they will play Siberia in Round 6. If Alkaloid wins, the tournament would still be wide open going into the final round on Saturday. But if Siberia wins, it would all but wrap up the championship. 

Additional coverage: Day 4Day 3Day 2Day 1Imported players at European Club Cup.


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.