At the European Team Championship, Russia retained its lead by drawing its match against Azerbaijan, but many of the world’s best players, including the World Champion, had terrible oversights.

Round 5 of the European Team Championship was memorable, but not for the usual reasons.

The top match between Russia and Azerbaijan featured 4 draws, with nobody ever holding more than a very slight advantage in any of the games. Though it was the first match Russia did not win, the result was enough to keep the team in first place. 

On Board 2, Ukraine beat Hungary to get half a point closer to Russia, but since the teams have already played each other, Ukraine will have to keep winning and hope that some other team can slow Russia down.

While there was little excitement as far as the standings are concerned, the round was not uneventful. There were more ghastly blunders by grandmasters today (even extremely strong ones) than I have ever seen before. The biggest one came from World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

In the above diagram, White has a minute advantage, which he has had for the whole game. This is quite typical of Carlsen’s playing style, and he has beaten elite players time and again with a remarkable degree of consistency. While I’m sure the position is objectively drawn after something like 45. Rb5, I would expect Carlsen to turn the screws for a very long time and probably beat his lower-rated opponent.

Instead, Carlsen play 45. … Rg8??, and after 45. … Ne7, he had to lose the knight on d3, after which he was unable to hold a draw.

This tournament, and even the whole year ever since he won Tata Steel in January, has been a disaster for Carlsen. But there is no doubt that he is still the strongest player in the world, and when he finds his form again (not if, when), he will start to wow fans with the same kind of awesome results everyone is used to seeing.

The margin for Ukraine’s victory on Board 2 was supplied by Pavel Eljanov beating Richard Rapport. The win was the result of a surprising gaffe by Rapport. While Rapport is not as strong as Carlsen, and he is certainly a very erratic player, nobody can deny his strength and he is an especially alert tactician and calculator. So, his error in the following position was surprising. 

Here, the simple 41. … Nxf3 would leave Black with a fine position. Instead, Rapport chose the bizarre looking 41. … Bxf3?, which failed to a simple tactic. After 42. Bb2!, Black had to keep the rook on the back rank to defend the knight, but following 42. … Rb1 43. Bc3!, the knight on e1 was attacked and could not move due to the hanging bishop on f3. Rapport played 43 …. Ne4, but after 44. Re4 Be4 45. Be1, White’s material edge was too great and Eljanov easily converted this advantage into a win.

Another game in the same match featured another questionable move. In the Catalan (or really any opening with a c6+b5 structure after 1. d4), the fight often revolves around Black’s ability to achieve the freeing advance c6 to c5. The game between Zoltan Almasi of Hungary, who had White, and Yury Kryvoruchko of Ukraine, was no different. In the following position, I really liked White’s chances.

White has a very nice position because the pawns on d4 and b4 prevent Black from achieving the c5 advance. While Black can remove the d4 pawn by exd4 at any moment, this would allow White to recapture on d4 with a knight, after which it would attack c6 and e6, giving White a big edge. So, any kind of neutral move, such as 28. Ra2 (planning Rd2) or 28. Bh3, just trying to improve the position of his pieces, would improve White’s position.

Instead, Almasi chose 28. dxe5?, which was a positional atrocity I would never expect from such a strong player. After 28. … fxe5, Almasi could no longer prevent c5, which saddled him with a strategically terrible position. He sacked some material later on for some counterplay and was only very lucky to achieve a draw.

Another strange blunder occurred in the game between Matej Sebenik of Slovenia and Sergei Tiviakov of the Netherlands. Up until move 24, Sebenik, who had White, had played an excellent game, clearly outplaying his stronger opponent. And then disaster struck.

In the above position, Sebenik played 25. Rxc8??, and after 25…. Bxc8 26. Qb8 Qb7 27. Rc1 Ra8! the tide had turned. I can only guess Sebenik missed 27. … Ra8 in his calculations. White gave up his bind and lost an exchange, leaving him with a completely lost position. Instead, if Sebenik had started 25. Bb8! Ra8 26. Bc7! he would have had no problem achieving a winning position.

None of these blunders came with any time trouble, and I find them entirely inexplicable. But, having insulted a great deal of strong players by citing some of their mistakes, I feel it’s only fair to show that nobody is immune.

The above position occurred in this year’s United States Championship in a game between myself and Wesley So. I was White. While I can hide behind the excuse of having less than a minute on the clock and that it had been an incredibly long game, almost any move would have preserved a drawn ending. Instead I found 92. g4??, which lost to 92. … Nxg4. I don’t even know what happened, it’s the most basic winning king and pawn ending after 93. Nxe4 fxe4. So my worst moments are as bad as anyone else’s.

In Round 6, Russia will face Georgia, the No. 17 seed, while Ukraine will get the strong French team. Hopefully there will be fewer blunders and more exciting chess. 


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.