Russia and Ukraine won their third round matches, while World Champion Magnus Carlsen made his debut, and lost, to Levon Aronian.

There were some important developments in the third round of the European Team Championship in Reykjavik, Iceland. Russia and Ukraine, the top seeds, won their matches, leaving them as the only undefeated teams. And Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, played his first game of the championships as Norway was facing Armenia, the No. 6 seed. 

Armenia was coming off a tough loss to France in Round 2. It is not hard to have a little sympathy for Levon Aronian, Armenia’s top player. One nice thing about Swiss tournaments is that after a loss, a player generally gets an easier opponent the following round. That is not always true in team tournaments, however, and Aronian, who was ground down by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France in Round 2, had to play the chess world’s version of godzilla in Round 3. And Aronian had Black.

Not for nothing, though, did Aronian once have the fourth highest rating ever (2830 in March 2014). While he has fallen to No. 7 in the world rankings, Aronian, when he is well prepared and in good form, is just as good as anyone else. This became abundantly clear in Round 3 when he won a beautiful game against Carlsen.

When Black plays 5. … Nd4 in the Berlin, the idea is to retreat his bishop back to b6, play c6, and then play Bc7. White often does the same thing with Ba4-c2, and the fight revolves around who can advance their d pawn first.

In this game, however, Aronian came up with an interesting new plan. In the above position, he chose 10. … a5!? here, a move I like very much. It is a generally useful move, gaining space on the queenside, but more importantly it allowed the dark squared bishop to retreat to a7 instead of c7. This made it much harder for white to accomplish d4, and black had an absolutely fine position. The next critical moment occurred only a few moves later.

Here, Carlsen chose the greedy 14. Bxf6 Qxf6 15. Nxa5. This left him positionally ruined, with poorly placed pieces, and no way to oppose the Black bishop on a7. He was up a pawn, however, and he obviously hoped to reorganize is pieces.

But Aronian played the very strong move 15. … d5! I would not be surprised if this was still part of Aronian’s pre-game preparation. The point was that 16. exd5 cxd5 17. Bxd5 would fail to the surprising retreat 17. … Qd8!, forking the bishop and knight in a style reminiscent of the famous game between Larry Christiansen and Anatoly Karpov, in which Karpov resigned after 12 moves.

Of course, Carlsen did not fall for that and chose 16. Bc2, but after 16. … dxe4 17. dxe4 Rd8 18. Qe1 Qg5, Black was threatening both Bh3 and Rd2, leaving Aronian with full compensation for the pawn and the more pleasant posiion to play.

Carlsen kept things under control until he erred in the above position with 21. Nxb7? The computer proposes 21. Bb3 and claims White is fine with passive defense, but I find it’s a common trend among strong players to dislike defending passively, which is probably for good reason.

After Carlsen’s move, the tactics started flying and Aronian quickly emerged on top following 21. … Bc4! 22. Nxd8 Bxf1 23. Qxf1 Rxf2 24. Qg1 Ra2!, which won a decisive amount of material. If the online clock times are correct, Carlsen played this sequence very quickly, as if he had seen it all but somehow misevaluated the consequences. Still it’s hard to figure out what he was thinking — White has lost his queen after all. Aronian easily converted the advantage and dealt Carlsen a tough loss to start the tournament.

On the top boards, there was no shortage of excitement, including a fairly balanced match between France and Hungary. The match ended in a draw, due in no small part to a critical victory by the always interesting Richard Rapport over Laurent Fressinet of France.

Rapport is an erratic player, often playing bizarre openings to try to confuse his opponents and get fresh middlegames. This time, however, seemed different. Although he opened with 1. f4, he very soon had a very good version of the Schlecter Slav for White, as having his pawn on f4 was quite useful for controlling e5. 

In the bove position, Black absolutely needs to advance c5 to avoid positional capitulation and Fressinet did play 12. … c5, but after 13. Nxc5 Nxc5 14. dxc5 Bb7 15. e5, it became clear just how valuable an asset the pawn on f4 was. Were it still on f2 as is normal in such structures, Black would have been able to play 15. … Nd7 followed by winning the e5 pawn, and I would even have preferred his position. Instead, after 16. Be3 Black would just been down a pawn. 

Fressinet chose 15. … Nd5, but after another strong move 16. Ng5! followed by Ne4-d6, black’s position was in ruins. Rapport easily converted his advantage and scored a critical win.

The top match was between Ukraine, the No. 2 seed, and Azerbaijan, the No. 3 seed. Just as during the World Cup, when he made it to the semifinals, Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine was the star. While the bottom three matches all ended in draws, it all came down to the hottest player on the planet to continue his winning ways. And he did not disappoint against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. 

Here Mamedyarov, who was Black, erred on the last move before time control, by taking the wrong rook and playing 40. … Rxb1? — he would only have been slightly worse after 40. … Rxa2.

Mamedyarov may have missed that after 41. Ra8+ Be8 white can win with the surprising 42. Nxd6! Rxc1+ 43. Kh2 cxd6 44. Bh3! Qe7 45. Be6+ and with Qh5 to follow, Black would quickly be checkmated. So Mamedyarov tried 41. … Bf8, but even after the second-best 42. Qc4 (the highly computer-esque 42. Qf1! just wins the game for reasons I do not understand), Black was clearly worse and Eljanov went on to win very quickly, securing the overall victory for Ukraine.

Round 4 feaures a match between Russia and Ukraine which could already be decisive in determing the eventual champion.


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.