The European Individual Championship is one of the elite events on the calendar. Yet year after year, the number of top players competing in the championship has declined.

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The European Individual Chess Championship now underway in Gjakov, Kosovo, has a prize fund of 120,000 euros, including 20,000 for first place. More importantly, the tournament is a qualifier for the 2017 World Cup, with 23 available spots. As the top two finishers in the World Cup qualify for the Candidates tournament to select the challenger for the World Championship, the European Championship can be a step for a player to qualify for the World Championship.

Given what is at stake in the European Championship, there is curiously one thing missing: a lot of strong players.

In this year’s championship, there are only five players rated 2700 or above. (A rating of 2700 is the plateau of the elite players; there are currently 42 of them in the world.) Altogether, there are only 60 players rated over 2600, the level of a top grandmaster, in the championship.

In 2015, there were six players over 2700 and 63 over 2600. In 2014, the championship attracted 15 players at the 2700 level and 72 over 2600. The 2013 championship had 12 players 2700 or above and 80 who were 2600 or higher. And in the 2012 championship, there were 15 players 2700 or higher and 98! players 2600 or above.

One possible explanation for the dwindling fields is the location of the competitions. But last year’s was in Jerusalem, and in 2014, it was in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

Without doing a survey of the top players, it is impossible to know why so many of them are passing up what appears to be such a golden opportunity.

Though the competition has thinned, there are still enough formidable players to make the tournament very tough. After four rounds of this year’s event, only one of the top five, Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland, had a perfect score. He was joined by Ernesto Inarkiev of Russia (who was named after the South American revolutionary Ernesto “Ché” Guevara) and the erratic, unpredictable and sometimes brilliant Baadur Jobava of Georgia.

Each of the players took different routes to their victories in Round 4.

Wojtaszek’s opponent, Alexander Ipatov, who plays for Turkey, chose a passive opening that ceded too much space to Wojtaszek, who had White. Wojtaszek nursed his advantage and gradually wore Ipatov down until he cracked and lost a long game.

Radoslaw Wojtaszek vs. Alexander Ipatov
European Individual Championship | Gjakova KOS | Round 4.1 | 15 May 2016 | 1-0
1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 The English Opening. Black now has a wide variety of options.
2... b6 3. d4 Bb7 4. g3 If Black now played 4.... e6, the opening would transpose to the main line of the Queen's Indian Defense.
4... g6 Switching to the Double Fianchetto defense, which is somewhat rare. The reason is that Black has basically ceded control of the center to White.
5. Nc3 Bg7 6. d5 Before Black has time to react, White immediately occupies d5, which also cuts down the scope of the Black light-squared bishop.
6... O-O 7. Bg2 Na6 The only viable way for Black to develop his knight.
8. O-O Nc5 9. Nd4 Preparing to play e4 to reinforce the center.
9... e5 Black reacts before White can finish consolidating his center. The move gains some needed breathing room for Black.
10. Nc2 Of course, White does not play 10. de6, when he would give up his strong center point.
10... a5 Played to block White from playing b4 to dislodge the knight on c5.
11. b3 d6 12. Rb1 White wants to organize b4 and prepares it with Rb1 and a3.
12... Bc8 13. e4 Played to prevent Black from gaining some activity with his bishop by playing Bf5.
13... Bg4 Often a useful move. If White plays f3, it weakens e3 and blocks his own bishop. If White does not, the bishop is a thorn in his side.
14. f3 Bd7 15. Bg5 Qe8 16. Na3 White comes up with an interesting plan based on the weakness of Black's light squares.
16... Nh5 17. Nab5 Rc8 18. a3 Time to dislodge Black's knight.
18... f5 19. b4 Nb7 20. Bd2 Black was threatening to trap White's bishop with f4, followed by h6 and g5.
20... f4 21. g4 It is not ideal to close the kingside like this, but White's initiative on the queenside is developing quickly and White must slow Black's attack on the kingside.
21... Nf6 22. Na7 An interesting way to infiltrate Black's position.
22... Ra8 23. Ncb5 Though White's knights look awkward, they are tying Black to the defense of weaknesses on the queenside.
23... Qe7 24. Bc3 Bxb5 25. Nxb5 g5 26. Rf2 White anticipates the opening of the h file and prepares to swing his rook over to the kingside by using the second rank.
26... h5 27. h3 Qd7 28. Be1 Not necessary, but White wants to stop any possible infiltration on h4. He is also clearing the c file for his rooks and queen.
28... Rf7 29. Bf1 Indirectly defending the knight on b5 so that pushing the c pawn is now possible. White's advantage is concrete and Black has little counterplay.
29... Bf8 30. Rbb2 Rh7 31. Rh2 The h-file is defended; White now has nothing to fear there.
31... hxg4 32. hxg4 Rxh2 33. Rxh2 Kg7 An odd move. Black blocks his bishop and his king turns out to be poorly placed on g7.
34. Bd3 axb4 35. axb4 Though Black's rook occupies the open a-file, he has no points of entry -- every square is covered by White.
35... Nd8 36. Qb1 White continues to slowly improve the position of his pieces. Notice that White has plenty of room to operate, while Black is cramped and can do little.
36... c5 A desperate attempt to free his position, but it ends up only creating weaknesses and targets for White to exploit. It would have been better to sit tight and play 36.... Be7.
37. dxc6 Nxc6 38. Bc3 Qc8 39. Qb2 Nd8 An error, though how to exploit it takes a computer.
40. Rd2 A good and reasonable move, but White had a killer: 40. Nd4! The point is that if 40. ... ed4, then 41. Bd4 and Black has no good way to defend the knight on f6. For example, 41. ... Qe6 42. Bf6 Qf6 43. Rh7 Kh7 44. Qf6 is an easy win. Or, 41. ... Be7 42. e5 de5 43. Be5, and the threat of Rh7 is deadly.
40... Nf7 41. Be2 Be7 42. Rd1 Ne8 43. Be1 The position remains difficult for Black to play.
43... Nc7 44. Bf2 Missing or passing up a continuation that might have been stronger -- 44. Nd6! Bd6 45. Rd6 Nd6 46. Qe5 Kf7 47. Qd6, when White's bishop pair and two extra pawns for the exchange should be enough to guarantee an easy victory.
44... Nxb5 45. cxb5 Though White's pawns are doubled, the one on b5 gives him a potentially powerful outpost for his rook. It also helps to keep Black's knight in check by taking away the square c6.
45... Qe6 46. Bf1 Bd8 47. Rc1 Qd7 48. Bc4 White decides that if he can get his bishop to c6, it will be even better.
48... Rc8 49. Qd2 d5 Black cracks. It is not so much that this is a pawn sacrifice -- it isn't, as White's best option is to take with the bishop and give up the pawn on b5. No, the problem is that it allows White to infiltrate Black's position.
50. Bxd5 Rxc1+ 51. Qxc1 Qxb5 52. Qc8 Qe8 53. Kg2 Qe7 54. Qc6 And the b pawn cannot be saved as 54.... Qb4 would allow 55. Qe8, winning a piece. (55.... Qe7 or 55. ... Qf8 56. Bf7)
54... Nh8 55. Bxb6 Bxb6 56. Qxb6 Ng6 57. Be6 Qf8 58. Bf5 Nh4+ 59. Kf2 Qe7 60. Qc5 A small error; 60. Bc8 was more accurate.
60... Kf6 A clever idea. If White trades queens, the position is a draw as Black's king is in time to catch the b pawn and White's king cannot leave the kingside because of the attack on the f pawn by Black's knight.
61. Qc6+ Kf7 62. Qb6 Kg7 63. Be6 Qf8 64. Bd5 Qc8 A blunder, but ...
65. Bc6 White misses his chance to end things sooner by 65. Qa7 Kh6 66. Qc5 and Black's queen cannot leave the back rank because of Qf8, so he can no longer stop the b pawn's advance.
65... Qg8 Another mistake, but the position was already pretty hopeless.
66. Qc7+ Qf7 67. Qxe5+ The win of the second pawn makes things much easier.
67... Kh7 68. Bb5 Qa7+ Missing a last chance to make things interesting after 68.... Nf3 69. Kf3 Qb3 70. Kg2 Qc2, etc., though White should eventually win.
69. Qc5 Qa3 70. Be2 Ng6 71. e5 Qa1 72. Bd3 Kh6 73. Qd6 Qb2+ 74. Kf1 And Black resigned because after 74.... Qc1 75. Kg2 Qd2 76. Kh3, he is out of useful checks.

Inarkiev faced Zaven Andriasian of Armenia. Andriasian, who had Black, played too aggressively, sacrificing a pawn for little compensation and then lost a piece as Inarkiev marched his extra pawn down the board.

Ernesto Inarkiev vs. Zaven Andriasian
European Individual Championship | Gjakova KOS | Round 4.3 | 15 May 2016 | 1-0
1. e4 c5 The Sicilian Defense is always double-edged. Many top players have abandoned it because there are many ways for White to gain a substantial advantage. But there are also many ways for White to go wrong and in a tournament, where every point is important, sometimes it is worth the risk.
2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 The Najdorf Variation, named after the great Polish-Argentinian player, has long been one of Black's most popular lines.
6. Be3 The Byrne System, named after Robert Byrne, the former United States champion, and the chess columnist for The New York Times for 34 years (1972 to 2006).
6... e5 The sharpest reply. Though Black cedes control of d5, he is compensated by having strong attacks on d4 and f4.
7. Nb3 The most popular move, though there have been a few experiments in recent years with 7. Nf3.
7... Be7 8. f3 A good multi-purpose move. It shores up the support for e4 and also prevents Black from attacking the bishop on e3 by playing Ng4. The move also prepares the push g4 to begin an assault on the kingside.
8... Be6 9. Qd2 Preparing to castle queenside.
9... O-O 10. O-O-O With the opposite side castling, both players are essentially announcing their intentions to attack each other's king.
10... a5 An interesting move that is also rare. While it is aggressive, it is easy for White to parry this attack. Both 10. ... Nbd7 and 10. ... b5 are more common and also more effective.
11. a4 Not necessarily best; 11. Bb5, developing a piece was more logical.
11... Nc6 12. g4 Nb4 13. Kb1 A useful prophylactic move; the king is almost always better placed on b1.
13... Rc8 14. g5 To rushed; either 14. h4 or 14. Rg1 were more accurate.
14... Nh5 The knight has been chased to a better square as it now attacks f4.
15. Rg1 f5 Double-edged. While this will open the f-file for Back's rook, it also opens the g-file for White's rook. Perhaps 15. ... g6, slowing White's attack was better.
16. gxf6 Rxf6 17. Bg5 Forcing a series of trades, though the resulting middlegame will not be simple.
17... Rxf3 18. Bxe7 Qxe7 19. Qxd6 Qxd6 20. Rxd6 Nf4 An error that Black will come to regret. He should have played 20. ... Bb3, eliminating the attack on his bishop and the attack on his a-pawn. While Black gains some compensation for his pawn sacrifice, it is not enough.
21. Nxa5 Rf2 22. Nxb7 White has too many unopposed pawns on the queenside.
22... Rxc2 23. a5 This pawn will quickly become a big headache for Black.
23... Rxh2 24. a6 Bb3 25. a7 Ne6 26. Rb6 Bc2+ Another error, though Black was already losing.
27. Kc1 Ra8 28. Nd6 h5 Not 28 ... Ra7? Then 29 Rb8 Nf8 30. Bc4 Kh8 31. Rf8, mate.
29. Rxb4 A bizarre decision; 29. Rb8 won simply, but I guess Inarkiev felt that with an extra piece he would have no problems. In a way, he is right, but the game drags on for another 20 moves. Though Inarkiev misses some simpler ways to win, the rest of the game is uneventful and really requires no comment.
29... Rxa7 30. Rg2 Rh1 31. Kxc2 Rxf1 32. Nf5 Nf4 33. Rg5 Rf2+ 34. Kb3 g6 35. Rb6 Kh7 36. Nh4 Rg7 37. Nd5 Nd3 38. Rbxg6 Nc5+ 39. Ka3 Rxg6 40. Rxg6 Nxe4 41. Re6 Nd2 42. b4 Rf1 43. Ka4 e4 44. Nf6+ Kg7 45. Nxe4 Nc4 46. Kb3 Ne3 47. Nd2 Nf5 48. Rg6+

Baadur, who also had White, like Wojtaszek  and Inarkiev, did not play particularly well against his opponent, Mircea-Emilian Parligras of Rumania. But just as they reached the time control, Parligras blundered and lost a piece and promptly resigned.

Baadur Jobava vs. Mircea-Emilian Parligras
European Individual Championship | Gjakova KOS | Round 4.4 | 15 May 2016 | 1-0
1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 The Nimzo-Indian Defense.
4. e3 O-O 5. Bd3 One of the most, if not the most popular line against the Nimzo.
5... d5 6. cxd5 Jobava clarifies the situation in the center and also makes sure he does not need to spend another move with his bishop to recapture a pawn. Despite the logic behind the move, it is not often played as it relieves the tension in the center and fress Black's light-squared bishop, which helps Black.
6... exd5 7. Ne2 To avoid being pinned by Bg4.
7... Re8 8. Bd2 Bd6 9. Rc1 a6 10. O-O Nc6 11. f3 Jobava wants to expand in the center with e4, butt Black does not give him a chance.
11... Nb4 12. Bb1 c5 13. Kh1 Nc6 14. Be1 cxd4 15. exd4 Chances are equal and the position has become quite drawish.
15... Nh5 Immediately an odd move by Black.
16. Qd2 Why not 16. Nd5? After 16 ... Bh2 17. Kh2 Qd5, White should be a bit better because of his pawn in the center and having two bishops.
16... Be6 17. g4 Nf6 18. Bh4 Be7 19. Nf4 Nd7 20. Bxe7 Nxe7 21. Rce1 Nf8 22. Nh5 White begins probing the Black kingside, trying to create weaknesses, but this should come to nothing. The position is still roughly equal.
22... Nc6 23. Ne2 f6 24. Neg3 Rc8 25. h4 Rc7 26. Nf4 Rce7 27. h5 Bf7 28. Rd1 Qa5 29. Nf5 Rd7 30. Qf2 Qc7 31. Nd3 Be6 32. Rfe1 Rdd8 33. Rg1 Kh8 34. Qh4 Qf7 35. Nf4 Bxf5 A small error, allowing White to open the g-file, at the cost of ruining his pawn structure.
36. gxf5 h6 37. Rg2 Rd7 38. Rdg1 Black is under some pressure thanks to his error on Move 35. But all is not lost; he just needs to be careful. For example, 38. ... Nh7 is probably okay after 39. Rg7 Qg7 40. Rg7 Rg7 41. Ne6 Rge7, though it is clearly easier to play White.
38... Nxd4 A blunder that immediately loses a piece.
39. Ng6+ Nxg6 40. hxg6 And Black resigned.

With seven rounds to go, and 52 players with 3 or more points, the competition is still wide open and the 23 spots for the World Cup are still very much up for grabs. Those 52 players are probably feeling pretty thankful, however. After all the competition could be much tougher, and in years past it has been. 


Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of World