Top Seeds, Including France, Win in Round 2 of European Team Ch.
BySamuel ShanklandNov 14 — 10:54 PM
Image by Worldchess
The top four seeds and Spain have won their first two matches at the championship. France had the most difficult match in Round 2: it played No. 6 Armenia, but still came through.
Round 2 of the European Team Championship was quite eventful, not least because the match on Board 1 was between two very top-tier: France, seeded No. 4, and Armenia, seeded No. 6.
It was a very tense match for a long time, with the three bottom boards all ending in draws. Ultimately, the French squad managed to squeak out a victory because Maxime Vachier-Lagrave beat Levon Aronian.
It’s hard to point to a single critical moment of the game — Vachier-Lagrave very slowly but surely outplayed his opponent without any real errors. In the above position, however, I was impressed by the Frenchman’s resourcefulness. I thought the game would be promptly drawn as I could no credible plan for either side, but here Vachier tried 54. … g5!, preparing to sacrifice a pawn with g4 to open up some lines on the kingside. While the position should still be defensible, Aronian was under real pressure and did not have a ton of time. After being forced to make several difficult decisions, he finally erred in the following position:
Aronian played 61. Kf2?, which should lose the game. White had to bite the bullet with 61. Nxd5! Kxd5 and then simply wait with his king on d1, e1, or f2, depending on where Black went. After 61. Nd5, the position would be a draw, but it’s very hard to play something like this over the board with that kind of confidence because the Black king has so many avenues to try to invade. After the game continuation, the d pawn turned out to be a major headache for White following 61. … d2!. While he eventually scooped it up, it came at a heavy price - his kingside started to fall, and Black was able to invade and win the game.
The matches on Boards 2 and 3 were pretty sedate affairs, with England and Holland drawing against Georgia and Croatia, respectively. Loek van Wely has always been a keen proponent of the White side of the King’s Indian, and he has won many games there, including against some extremely strong players. I very much like the way he closed his game out against Zdenko Kozul of Croatia.
White is winning here due to his extra pawn and well placed pieces, but the King’s Indian has always been a tough line to face because even when it goes badly wrong, Black always seems to get practical counterchances. In this case, Van Wely played the very strong 33. Ng6!, leading to a case of total paralysis. Black’s bishop on h3 is locked out of the game, the queen cannot move, the rook on g4 cannot move — all Black can do is shuffle around his other rook and dark squared bishop with absolutely no plan. In such a position, time is not of the essence the way it normally is, and Van Wely walked his king all the way to c3 before finally carrying out the winning plan of advancing his b pawn on move 54, a full 20 moves after putting Black in this bind.
One would think Norway might have learned their lesson in Round 1 about sitting the Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, but they also played Round 2 without him. This time, however, the team managed to overcome that handicap and narrowly defeated Lithuania by 2.5-1.5. The key to the victory was my friend Jon Ludvig Hammer’s victory over Aloyzas Kveinys on Board 1.
In the above position, I was sure White is better, but it looked difficult to make progress without taking risks, But Hammer is adept at finding simple-looking, but extremely effective plans that others might struggle to spot, and he pounces on weakness mercilessly. Here, Hammer played 23. a4!, which is brutally effective. He is simply preparing b5 and a5, breaking down the black queenside with a gain of tempo. After that, Kveinys was unable to offer any serious resistance.
Round 3 will have some excellent and exciting match-ups, with No. 2 Ukraine against No. 4 Azerbaijan, and France against No. 7 Hungary. And with Norway facing Armenia and Aronian, perhaps Carlsen will finally be in the line-up.
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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