With a win in Round 7 over its closest rival, Russia is now comfortably ahead of the field in the European Team Championship. The real battle is now for silver.

Russia may have sealed the title in Round 7 of the European Team Championship. Facing a tough French squad, Russia pulled out a narrow victory, by the score of 2.5-1.5. At the same time, Azerbaijan, which was a half-point behind France, only managed to draw against Latvia. That gave Russia a three-point lead (2 points for a win and 1 point for a draw) heading into the last two rounds. While it is mathematically still possible for Russia not to win the championship, practically it would take an epic collapse. 

The key to Russia’s victory in Round 7 was Alexander Grischuk’s fine victory over Laurent Fressinet. There is very little that makes me happier than seeing the Berlin Defense (which I really do not like) take a beating. That has happened several times during the championship, but Grischuk’s handling of the Defense from the White side was particularly brutal.

In the above position, Black is on the verge of activating his pieces and can even think about trying to round up the e6 pawn. But Grischuk played 23. Nh4!, counterattacking the f5 bishop. It had nowhere good to go, and after 23. … Bc2 24. Nh5!, Black’s kingside was under massive pressure — his g pawn was attacked and his entire structure looking tender as can be.

Fressinet tried 24. … Rh7, which is an ugly move. But after 25. f4 Nc6 26. g4 Nd4 27. f5, the game was effectively over because Black could stop White from putting a knight on g6, after which White had a protected passed pawn and, more importantly, Black’s rook was stuck on h7. Grischuk made a few errors, some of which were even quite large, but his advantage was so enormous, he still had no trouble winning the game. 

Just as critical to Russia’s match victory was the expert defensive play by its two players who had Black. Peter Svidler had an unpleasant position against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but accurate defense and some small errors from his opponent earned him a draw.

Even more impressive was the play of Evgeny Tomashevsky, who had to suffer a lot against Etienne Bacrot to get his half point. He finally did it by constructing a fortress in the endgame, showing once again why he is one of the game’s strongest and most resourceful technicians.

In the position above, Tomashevsky played 53. … e6+. When I first saw this move, it looked like suicide to me, but Tomashevsky had seen one step further. After 54. Kc4 Bxe4 55. Bxf8 Kxf8 56. Kd4 Bf5!, I thought it was all over because White can take both the a6 and e6 pawns. Indeed he did, but Black could construct a fortress even then!

The game continued 57. Rb7 Bg4 58. Ra7 Bf5 59. Rxa6 Ke7 60. Rb6 Kf7 61. Rb7+ Kf8 62. Ra7 Bg4 63. Kc5 Bh3 64. Kd6 Bg4 65. Rc7 Bh3 66. Re7 Bg4 67. Rxe6 Kf7! (of course not 67. … Bxe6? 68. Kxe6, when White would easily win the ending), and White could not break through. Bacrot played on for a few more moves, but he soon conceded the draw.

No doubt, the Russian players were also happy when the next closest team, Azerbaijan, draw against the much lower seeded team from Latvia. In fact, Azerbaijan was fortunate to draw the match, as Latvia took an early lead following a win by Igor Kovalenko over Teimour Radjabov.

In the game, Kovalenko showed that he had a better understanding of what to do in the Winawer Variation of the French Defense if the pawn structure is blocked in the center.

This was a pretty typical position and I think both sides have their trumps. The main theater of action will be on the kingside, where Black will try to play moves like g5 and f6 to combat White’s plan to expand. The result of the game often is determined by who is better at executing their strategy.

The game went 13. Nh4 Nge7 14. Qc1 Rdf8 15. Bf4 Qa5 16. Bd2 g5 17. Nf3 f6. Black had, over the course of those moves, achieved everything he could want — both f6 and g5 — while White had played Nf3-h4-f3 and Bd2-f4-d2, wasting a full 4 tempi. Unsurprisingly, things went downhill quickly for Radjabov, until the game reached the following position.

Kovalenko has thus far done a very good job of increasing his advantage, and here he found the right way to continue with 29. … Qg3!, making use of the pretty tactic that 30. fxe4? would fail to 30. … Rf2!, with mate to follow on g2.

Radjabov tried 30. Be3, but after 30. … Rxf3! 31. Bxf3 Rxf3 32. Rxf3 Qxf3, Black collected both the g4 and h5 pawns, giving him 3 pawns for the exchange. Soon afterward, the normally awful French light-squared bishop swung into action on the kingside, and Radjabov resigned before the time control in one of the ugliest positions I have ever seen.

Only incredible perserverance by Shakriyar Mamedyarov, who ground down Alexei Shirov, allowed Azerbaijan to draw the match.

The struggles of the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, continued as he made a very fast draw with White against the much lower rated Ioannis Papaioannou of Greece. Carlsen actually seemed a little uncomfortable and unfamiliar in the opening.

Here Carlsen played the natural 9. 0-0, but 9. Na3! is actually the best move. It allows White to win back the pawn on c4 without giving Black an opportunity to play e5 first. It’s possible Carlsen was worried about 9. … Ne4, but White could then play 10. Qc1 (preventing c3 by defending the knight), and Black would be slightly worse for a long time to come — a dream position for a player like Carlsen.

Instead after 9. 0-0 e5 10. dxe5 Nxe5 11. Nxe5 Qxe5 12. Na3 0-0 13. Nxc4 Qe7, Black was ready to block the long diagonal with c6 and easily equalized, drawing the game without any difficulty.

With two rounds to go, it would seem that no one can catch Russia, barring an historic collapse. But with five teams — France, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Hungary — tied for second with identical scores, silver and bronze are still up for grabs. That should continue to stimulate lots of action.

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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.