European Team Championship Begins With One or Two Surprises
BySamuel ShanklandNov 14 — 12:41 AM
Image by Stefan64
Many of the world’s best teams are playing in the championships in Iceland. A couple of them failed to win their first matches.
The European Team Championship is somewhat like the biennial Chess Olympiad. Of course the top American and Asian teams are not present, but about 80 percent of the best squads in the world lock horns and every country sends their best players.
In this year’s championship, which began Friday in Iceland, even Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, is playing, although he did not play in the first round. That may have been a mistake. His team, Norway, could have used his help as it went down to the much lower-seeded Montenegro. The critical game was the win of Luka Draskovic of Montenegro over Johan Salomon.
In the above position, Salomon, who was White, is simply better. He has a nice space advantage and the bishop pair. After the natural and strong 14. c3, he could have looked to the future with confidence.
Instead, Salomon seemed to have not quite found his form so early in the event and erred badly with 14. f3?, missing Black’s strong response 14. … Bxb2! Since 15. Kxb2 would be met with Qf6+, after which Black would collect the f4 bishop, White had simply lost a very critical pawn and any semblance of king safety.
He fought on with 15. Bc4 Bf6 16. Qxf7+ Kh8, which did win back his lost pawn, but the dark squares around the White king proved to be too weak and Black’s pieces soon invaded with a vengeance, putting the young Norwegian squad in an early hole.
While Norway without Carlsen is a very decent team and Norway with Carlsen is a very strong team, it is not among the top seeds. Those places are occupied by perennial powerhouses like Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, France, England, Armenia, and Hungary, all of which have stacked squads full of 2700+ players. That kind of strength brings a high level of professionalism, and is difficult to match up against. Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan all won their first rounds by scores of 3-1 — in each case by winning both White games and drawing both Black games.
The only top squad to get knicked for half a point was Hungary. They split a 2-2 match with Moldova, spearheaded by Viktor Bologan’s win over Peter Leko. I particularly enjoyed this game because, as I’ve written before, I like to see the Berlin Defense lose. Bologan, who was White, played a model game against the Berlin, and clearly his preparation caused Leko a lot of concern.
If the online clocks are correct, Leko thought for 54 minutes in the position above before playing 15. … Kf8. Obviously he felt Black was under enormous pressure and was probably concerned about a possible 16. Nf6+ or 16. Nd6+, so vacating the king from the e8 square makes some sense. Still, I might have preferred 15. … Be6, though I think that White would be better after a move like 16. Neg5.
The game got really ugly really fast after 16. Rad1 h4 17. Nd6!, winning back the bishop pair and leaving Black with a ton of weaknesses and poorly placed pieces in addition to the compromised queenside structure. Bologan kept his grip on the advantage and put the game away in a seemingly effortless manner.
Russia is, as usual, the top seed, and they started well. I particularly enjoyed Evgeny Tomashevsky’s victory over Alexander Ipatov of Turkey.
Tomashevsky, who is White, has given up his entire queenside to play for mate. He obviously had to hope that he succeeded because he would never have survived a long game against the connected Black passed pawns on the other side of the board.
At this point, Ipatov could not defend f7, but nevertheless he erred with 22. … Ra8? After 23. Qxf7+ Kh8 24. Bf6!! was crushing — Black had no good way to deal with the threatened Rg3. White didn’t even have to rush. After 24. … Rxe4 25. Rg3 Nxf6 26. exf6 g6 27. Rh3 h6, he even had time for a simple move like 28. Qxg6!, threatening Rg3, Rxh6+ and Qxe4.
Looking at the position in the diagram, I had wondered about that Black queen on a2 and I found a way to put it to use in the defense. Ipatov could have tried 22. … Nxe5! in the initial position, giving up a piece to gain some time to organize a defense. After 23. Qxe5 Qc4! (intending to meet 24. Qf4? with e5!) I think the position would still have been unclear.
Round 2 on Saturday should be exciting as there is already a clash between two top teams: Armenia faces France on Board 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.
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