Undefeated Russia in Control of European Team Championship
BySamuel ShanklandNov 16 — 9:26 PM
Image by Worldchess
The top seed beat No. 2-seeded Ukraine in Round 4 behind a masterful performance by Peter Svidler.
The fourth round of the European Team Championships in Reykjavik, Iceland, featured a showdown between the top two teams: Russia and Ukraine. While Russia has struggled in team tournaments in recent years, in this match-up it walked away victorious and now is the sole leader with a perfect score of 4-0.
The margin of victory against Ukraine was 3-1. Leading the way was Peter Svidler, who won a beautiful game against Vassily Ivanchuk.
Ivanchuk has always been a very principled player, and he often has no qualms about pawn hunting in the Marshall Gambit when playing White. It’s very rare for Black to get the trademark Marshall-style kingside attack nowadays, but Ivanchuk is certainly one to let them try. I can remember him losing a gruesome game to Wesley So early this year in the same line.
While he chose a different continuation in Round 4, the idea was still the same: grab the pawns and hold on for dear life.
In the above position, Svidler banged out 18. … b4!, trying to undermine some key squares on the queenside and in the center before White can break out of the pin on the first rank. (I think this move was recommended by Jan Gustaffson in his video series.)
After 19. h4 h5 20. c4 Nf6!, Svidler paid no heed to the hanging pawn on c6, knowing full well that his piece activity and kingside play would be decisive if White were to take it. Instead, Ivanchuk tried 21. Bd1 Re8 22. Bd2 Qe5, but now Black had every Marshall player’s dream: active pieces pointed directly at the White king and full control over the e file. Things got out of hand quickly for Ivanchuk.
With seemingly effortless and natural moves, Svidler’s pieces had become poised to strike. Now he found a convincing way forward with 26. … Ng4!, which led to a decisive breakthrough.
After 27. Ne3 Qd6! 28. Nxg4 hxg4 29. Qxg4 Bh5!, the skewer proved to be decisive. Ivanchuk tried 30. Qxh5, but after 30. … Qxg3+ 31. Kh1 Qxf2, with mate looming, Ivanchuk threw in the towel. An excellent game by Peter Svidler and a fine advertisement for the charms of the Marshall Gambit.
The match on Board 2 between France and Serbia was no less critical, as the winner was likely to get a crack at Russia in Round 5. France was a huge rating favorite, and things seemed dire when Serbia’s top player, Ivan Ivanisevic, got blown off the board by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who had White.
I’ve never understood why some players choose to suffer so early in the game by playing subpar openings. Opening with 1. … g6 against a player of Vachier-Lagrave’s caliber is just asking for trouble, and the Frenchman obliged his opponent. In the following position, Vachier-Lagrave blasted open the center with 11. e5!
After 11. … dxe5 12. dxe5 Nd5 (of course not 12. … Qxe5? 13. Qd8, mate) 13. Bd4 Bf5?, Vachier-Lagrave struck with 14. e6! f6 15. Nxd5 cxd5 16. Nf4, and was already completely winning. Ivanisevic resigned by move 25.
Serbia has always been a resilient team. I remember vividly how well they played at the last Olympiad, and how well they handled themselves on the top boards. So, after the quick defeat of the team’s top player, Milos Perunovic rose to the occasion and struck back, defeating Romain Edouard in a wild game with crazy tactics and the evaluation of who was winning and losing seemingly changing every move. Edouard’s final mistake came at move 24.
Black is under considerable pressure, but the cold-blooded 24. … Re8! would have left the outcome unclear. Instead, Edouard erred with 24. … Qb3+? and after 25. Kd2 Qd5 26. Ke3!, the same position was reached as in the above diagram, except with the White king on d3. This unpinned the bishop and cleared the d file for the rook, and after 26. … Re8 27. Nf7 Kd7 28. Ne5 Kd8 29. Bc5!, Black had no good answer to the threat of Rd2. This win helped Serbia secure a drawn match.
After losing in Round 4, things did not really get better for World Champion Magnus Carlsen. It’s pretty rare to see him play against a rank-and-file grandmaster, but that is what he had to do in Round 5. His opponent was Sune Berg Hansen of Denmark, ranked No. 359 in the world among active players, and Carlsen was not able to put him away. Carlsen, who was Black, had a chance, but he missed it and after that his slight advantage proved insufficient for victory.
The critical moment came in the above position. White has just played 21. Bh3, which is not an especially subtle move — he is looking to destroy the black kingside with 22. Nxf7. Carlsen respected this threat with 21. … Bc8, after which he was only slightly better. But, he actually could have ignored it with 21. … Rb3!, with the point that if White plays 22. Nxf7, he could reply 22. … Rxc3!, and White has no perpetual check after 23. Bxe6 Rxc2 because Black can always sacrifice his queen on f7. The computer suggests 23. Qd2, but then 23. … Rxa3! would eliminate an important attacker. Then after 24. Rxa3 Kxf7 25. Bxe6+ Kf8, black would be winning.
Though Russia has the lead, the tournament is not even half-over. In Round 5, Russia faces No. 3-seeded Azerbaijan, so there is a long to go before Russia can be crowned European 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.
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