David Navara, the top seed, and Ernesto Inarkiev, are tied for the lead and will face each other in Round 8.

The European Individual Chess Championship is the only time every year that I wish I was European. Unfortunately, I am unable to participate in this insanely strong tournament populated by so many elite grandmasters because I happen to play for the United States (though I suppose I am compensated by my participation in the United States Championship, which this year featured three of the top 10 players in the world).

Seven rounds are now in the books, and the standings have been shaken up several times. The current leaders are David Navara of the Czech Republic, the tournament’s top seed, and Ernesto Inarkiev of Russia, who each have 6 points. Lurking just a half point behind them are six strong grandmasters, including Radoslaw Wojtaszek of Poland, the second seed.

Going into Round 7, Ivan Saric of Croatia had been tearing up the field and was sitting in clear first with 5.5 points. I particularly liked his victory in Round 6 over Maxim Matlakov of Russia:

Saric, Ivan vs. Matlakov, Maxim
European Individual Chess Championship | Gjakova, Kosovo | Round 6 | 19 May 2016 | 1-0
f6 I would not be surprised if everything up to this point was preparation from both sides because The Marshall Gambit has been ery heavily analyzed. But I was quite surprised at how easily Saric wins this endgame. The computer says that White has only the slightest advantage as Black's has plenty of space and the bishop pair.
28. b3 Bc5!
28... Nxd3? 29. Bxd3 Qxd3 30. Qe6+! Puts Black in a tough spot.  )
29. Qf4
29. Qxc5? Nf3+  )
29... Qxf4 30. Bxf4 Nxd3 31. Bxd3 Rxd3 I find the computer's evaluation of equal to be ridiculous. It might be right, but if there's any justice in chess, an extra protected passed pawn should matter more than a bishop pair.
32. Re1 Kf7?!
32... Bd4! This was the way to go. Black cannot afford to let his bishop become passive.  )
33. Be3! Bd6 34. Bb6! Be5 35. Bc5 a5? The final mistake
35... Bc3! Was more resilient
36. Re7+ Kg8 As White has not played f4, his king is a little less comfortable and Black has decent counterplay.
37. Kg2 a5  )
36. f4! Bd6 Black elects not to allow Re7+, but this cedes the bishop pair.
36... Bc3 37. Re7+ This is really bad for Black. If he wanted it, he should have played it before to avoid the f2-f4 advance
37... Kg8 38. Ne3 Rd2 39. f5! Dead. Wouldn't it be nicer if the pawn was on f2? See the note about 35. ... Bc3  )
37. Bxd6 Rxd6 White is up a pawn up and Black has no compensation.
38. Ne3 Be4 39. c5 Rc6
39... Rd3 This could offer some resistance but White should still win.  )
40. Nc4! Bd5 41. Nd6+ Kg6 42. Rc1 a4 43. Nb5 axb3 44. axb3 Rc8 45. Nd4 Kf7 46. Kf2 Ke7 47. Ke3 Kd7 48. Kd3

Saric’s performance reminds me an event I know all too well — the Under 18 section of the 2008 World Youth Championship. Saric was leading at the midway point in that championship (his victories included one over me) after a win over Matlakov, but lost a tough game to Le Quang Liem of Vietnam in Round 8. In the European Championship, his loss came in Round 7 to Inarkiev.

Inarkiev, Ernesto vs. Saric, Ivan
European Individual Chess Championship | Gjakova, Kosovo | Round 7 | 19 May 2016 | 1-0
Nc2?! I do not envy Black's position, but this is where the trouble really began
26... Nbc6 27. Qxa6 Qe7 White looks better, but Black is not without counterplay after an eventual Nd4.  )
26... Bxc3 The computer recommends this, but it looks far too retro for me  )
27. Ne2! Now the moves are more-or-less forced.
27... Nxa3 28. Qxa6 h5 29. Bf3 Nb5 30. Rb1 Now the point is clear: White restores the material balance by capturing the pawn on d6 and has a better pawn structure and more active pieces.
30... Nd4 31. Nxd4 cxd4
31... Bxd4 This looks more natural to me but Black is still in some trouble.  )
32. Qxd6 Nf7 33. Qb6 Qd7 34. e5! The bishop on g7 is locked down and the pawn on d4 is artificially isolated. I think Black is close to lost.
34... Bh6 35. Bc6 Qc8 36. Qb5?! I'll forgive Inarkiev for faltering in severe time trouble
36. Bb4! And Black is dead.
36... Bxf4 37. Bxf8 Kxf8 38. Ra1  )
36... Nxe5 37. Be4 Nc4 38. Rc1 Nxd2? A strange decision
38... Nd6  )
39. Rxc8 Rxc8 40. Bc6 Bxf4 41. g3 Be3 42. Qe5 Rf8? The final mistake
42... Rxc6 43. Qb8+ Kf7 44. Qb7+ Kf6 45. Qxc6 g5 And Black has some chances to create a fortress.  )
43. Qxe6+ Kg7 44. Qe5+ Kh6 45. h4 Nf1 46. Bb5 Nd2 47. Bd3 Ra8 48. Qf6 Ra1+ 49. Kh2

Navara climbed into the lead with a surprisingly easy win over Baadur Jobava of Georgia. Though the game lasted 42 moves, it was the quickest decisive result of Round 7:

Navara, David vs. Jobava, Baadur
European Individual Chess Championship | Gjakova, Kosovo | Round 7 | 19 May 2016 | 1-0
18. Kc3 The players reached this endgame pretty quickly. It almost looks like a dead draw because of the symmetrical pawn structure, but Black is actually under quite a lot of pressure because White's pieces are more active.
18... Kf8 19. Rb1 Ke7 20. e5 h5 21. a4 Rd5 22. Rb7+ Rd7 23. Rb8 Rd8 24. Rb4 Rd5 25. g3 Rc5+?!
25... f6 Black could try to trade some pawns, but then he has to worry a little about the pawn ending.
26. Rb7+ Rd7 27. Rxd7+ Kxd7 28. exf6 gxf6 29. h3 f5! Not allowing g4-g5, when White will be able to create an outside passed pawn.  )
26. Kb3 Rd5 27. c4! White correctly judges it to be time to push this pawn. I still think Black should be able to hold, but going after the kingside pawns was foolish
27... Rd2?
27... Rd3+ 28. Kc2 Rd7 Black looks solid enough. I think he should hold  )
28. a5! Kd8
28... Rxh2 29. Rb7+ And the a-pawn will be able to promote eventually.  )
28... Rd7 This looks more resilient to me, but Black is definitely struggling.
29. Rb8 Rd8 30. Rb7+ Rd7 31. Rb4 g6 32. a6 Black is already effectively in zugzwang  )
29. Rb8+ Kc7 30. Rf8 Rd7 31. Kb4 The difference in piece activity is staggering. The rest was trivial for a player of Navara's caliber.
31... a6 32. Kc5 g6 33. Ra8 Kb7 34. Rf8 Kc7 35. h3 Kb7 36. g4 hxg4 37. hxg4 Kc7 38. Ra8 Kb7 39. Rh8 Kc7 40. Rh1 Rd2 41. Rh7 Rd7 42. g5 In a deadly zugzwang, Black threw in the towel

Though it happened a bit earlier in the tournament, I’d like to point out an extremely cool idea from Aleksey Goganov of Russia in his Round 5 win over Evgeniy Najer of Russia: 

Goganov, Aleksey vs. Najer, Evgeniy
European Individual Chess Championship | Gjakova, Kosovo | Round 5 | 19 May 2016 | 1-0
27. f4!? This was utter genius. White starts a tactical operation based on sacrificing a rook. It doesn't win per se, but I like the idea a lot.
27... gxf4 28. g5! Bxg5 29. e5 Re6?
29... d3 This looks more resilient to me because it prevents Rxa6, but the pawn will probably be lost and White still looks better.
30. Rxa6 bxa6 31. Bxc6 d2  )
30. Rxa6!! Bang!
30... bxa6 31. Bxc6 And despite having an extra rook, Black finds himself surprisingly helpless against the threat of Rxa6-a8 mate
31... Rd7 32. Rxa6 Rb7 33. Bxb7+ Kxb7 34. b5 The pawns cannot be stopped.
34... Rxe5 35. c6+ Kb8 36. c7+ Kb7 37. Rc6 Re1+ 38. Kg2 f3+ 39. Kxf3 Re3+

Navara will have White against Inarkiev in Round 8. It would be tough to bet against the Czech superstar at this point, but there is still a lot of chess to be played, and, if history is any indication, Saric did win that 2008 World Youth on tiebreak. (I still hate Mr. Bucholz for relegating me to bronze.)


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.