Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 5

Caruana tried, but failed to impress anybody.

At first sight the move 6 b4 looks exciting and aggressive, but it was in fact a test of Carlsen’s memory. And the World Champion passed it without problems.

It is worth noting that Caruana again switched the sub-variation in the Rossolimo, this time avoiding the capture on c6 on move 4. Of the two main moves in this variation Carlsen chose the one with more central presence, 5…e5 (after 4…Bg7 5 Re1). This reminds me of his comments before the match where he described Caruana’s style as centre-based, so in the match he’s choosing lines where he himself has good central control. This is very deeply thought-out match strategy aimed at limiting the opponent’s strengths.

The game was lively in spite of the early queen exchange. It seems to me that something went wrong on the way for White (on move 17) as instead of choosing a comfortable (if drawn) position Caruana went for an option where he was clearly on the defensive.

The surprise was to discover that neither player thought much of Black’s chances after 20…b5, while the analysis shows that Black could have posed White quite serious problems. When this moment passed the game fizzled out to a draw.

It is notable from the games that there is a very narrow margin, most often of only one moment, to pose problems. In this game it was move 20, in Game 4 it was on move 15 (15 b5 instead of 15 Re1), in Game 3 it was move 15 again (15 Ra5 instead of 15 Bd2). Taking advantage of exactly that single one opportunity requires such a high level of precision that even the best players in the world cannot always show. Once that opportunity is missed, we have seen what happens – the game quickly ends in a draw.

The match is now entering the first critical moment. Carlsen will have two Whites in a row and he will be quite eager to win at least one. So far he has been toothless with White, but I don’t expect that to continue for ever. Will the third (White) be a charm?

 

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Fight 1 e4 Like Caruana

One of the best things that happened with the rise of chess engines is that it is almost impossible to find a bad book on openings nowadays.

Every author knows all too well that his lines will be checked in great detail by his readers, who often will be equipped with better hardware than himself. This means that the level of quality of today’s books has risen as a result of the authors’ conscientiousness.

With the World Championship match under way it is no surprise that the repertoire of both participants is under the microscope of the chess public. The Challenger’s success with the Petroff Defence has been beyond all expectations, so it is only logical to try to emulate his choices.

IM Christof Sielecki has done just that. In his latest work for Chessable, he devised a repertoire based on Caruana’s choices facing 1 e4.

It is very interesting for me to see what other people think about lines where I have also done some work. Since I have also prepared and played 1…e5 (and the Petroff, for that matter!) I was curious to see what Christof had to offer in the repertore.

The first thing I discovered was a move I didn’t know existed. This was already a good sign – after all if a GM doesn’t know of an existence of a move, then certainly less experienced opposition has even less chances of knowing it! The discovery lay in the Central Gambit: after 1 e4 e5 2 d4 ed 3 c3, I have always considered the move 3…d5 to be the easiest and best way to deal with the gambit. That is what I had prepared, analysed and played. Christof acknowledges the strength of the move, but suggests another one: 3…Qe7 and goes on to prove that in fact Black is better in all the lines.

That was already an important discovery early on!

The second thing that struck me was the author’s honesty. In the King’s Gambit, after 1 e4 e5 2 f4 ef 3 Bc4 he gives the line 3…Qh4 4 Kf1 d6 and readily admits that he only adjusted some analysis already given by other authors – in this case GM Jan Gustafsson (in his DVD) and Nikolaos Ntirlis (in his book). He backs his decision with the logic that if something is good you simply recommend it, even if you haven’t come up with it yourself. No need to reinvent the wheel.

He did the same for the line with 3 Nf3, recommending the Schallopp Defence 3…Nf6, again basing his choice on analysis by other authors. All this suggests that Christof is up to date with the latest theoretical developments and published material and he was able to filter and adapt them best for his students’ needs.

One of the good things about playing the Petroff Defence is that it is practical. You get your opening only after 2 moves, which means that White’s deviations are only on move 2. Against all these deviations, as we’ve seen with the King’s and Central Gambit, the suggested lines are well-covered and explained. I liked the fact that against the Vienna after 1 e4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 he recommended the line with 3…d5, leading to easy development for Black.

Since the repertoire is based on Caruana’s games, against the Bishop’s Opening the author follows the game Carlsen-Caruana from this year’s Norway Chess tournament. He offers an interesting improvement over Caruana’s play based on a correspondence game from 2016. I had a brief look and it appears that Black is indeed OK there.

I found it somewhat surprising that the choice after 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 was the move 3…Nc6, giving White the option of the Four Knights and the Scotch. I have always considered the move 3…Bb4 to be the more practical choice as it cuts down on the theory you are required to know after the above-mentioned openings.

Still, the suggested line after the Four Knights is the move 4…Bc5 (a bit more dynamic than the traditional 4…Bb4 or the simplifying 4…Nd4) while in the Scotch the author recommends the latest wrinkle after 1 e4 e4 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nc3 Nc6 4 d4 ed 5 Nd4 Bb4 6 Nc6 bc 7 Bd3 0-0 8 0-0 d5 9 ed Bg4!?, a move very recently employed by a lot of top players.

The core of the repertoire is of course the Petroff, and here he follows the reliable paths. It was interesting that against 3 d4 Ne4 4 de d5 5 Nbd2 he prefers to follow Caruana’s game with Grischuk from the last round of the Candidates tournament in Berlin, where he played 5…Nd2, rather than his later game with Vitiugov from Grenke where he introduced the stunning 5…Qd7. I assume this was done because the former move is easier to play conceptually.

In the Main Line the author again follows Caruana with 6…Bd6, a move he single-handedly revived. Theory is well-established there and Black doesn’t have problems.

In the currently most popular line with 5 Nc3 the author proposes a very interesting improvement over Caruana’s play in his game with Carlsen from this year’s Sinquefield Cup where Carlsen introduced the rarely played 8 Bc4.

Theoretically speaking the Petroff is one of the most solid openings and in spite of its reputation it is not boring at all. The authors shows many exciting and aggressive lines for Black which can make for a very entertaining time spent behind the Black pieces. The Petroff is also a highly theoretical opening, so as long as all is well with the student’s memory, this opening can serve a player for a lifetime.

The full course is available on Chessable and you can also check out the free promo just in case you need to see what’s in store first.

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Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 4

The shortest game of the match so far and in fact there was only one critical moment in it.

Carlsen opened with 1 c4, adding more options right from the start. Would Caruana try to go for QGD set-ups with 1…e6 or would he go symmetrical with 1…c5 or would he go for a Reversed Sicilian with 1…e5? Caruana chose the latter and they followed his recent game against So, from the Paris Grand Chess Tour blitz.

Carlsen introduced a novelty, the engine’s first choice and naturally Caruana wasn’t surprised even a bit, so he continued to blitz out his moves. Carlsen declined the invitation to force the game immediately with 12 Nd4 and chose the preparatory 12 Rb1.

After this move Caruana stopped to think for a while and I am not sure whether he was trying to remember his preparation and if he succeeded because after 12…Nf3 (12…Bg4 was interesting) 13 Bf3 his move 13…a6 appeared to give White a promising possibility.

That was the critical moment of the game. After a really long think, “to b5 or not to b5” Carlsen chose the latter and the game quickly lost its edge. In the analysis I found it hard to find a straight-forward way for Black towards equality after 15 b5. Probably there is one, but it is quite certain that playing b5 would have put more pressure on Caruana.

After Carlsen’s choice of 15 Re1 Caruana didn’t have any problems whatsoever. In the ensuing endgame he efficiently solved all his problems.

Another White game went to waste for the players. But things are slowly starting to change – in Game 3 Caruana had an advantage after the opening, while today Carlsen had the promising option of 14 b5. The players still do not make the maximum of their chances, but they will.

The match is also approaching a turning point because after Caruana’s next White game in Game 5 it will be Carlsen with two Whites in a row and it is clear that he will do his utmost to score in at least one of them. Interesting times ahead.

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Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 3

A rather unconvincing showing by both players.

Caruana deviated from Game 1 and chose the rare 6 0-0 in the Rossolimo (I’m afraid we won’t be seeing an Open Sicilian any time soon). The omission of h3 introduces many subtleties in the upcoming middlegame as a lot depends on the plan Black chooses.

Carlsen also chose a rare move, 6…Qc7, as the queen is often not placed here in the Rossolimo structures. After some natural moves were made it transpired that White had the more comfortable position. As Grischuk put it, he had a good version of the Anti-Berlin (and I joked on Twitter that everything in modern theory is about the Anti-Berlin, even the Sicilian!).

Caruana decided to keep control and not grab the c5-pawn and on move 10 it seems that Carlsen miscalculated something because after the exchange on f3 and b4 White had the obvious pressure on the queenside. But then it was Caruana’s turn to commit an inaccuracy – he even called his 15th move a blackout.

Even though he still kept chances to maintain some pressure, it seems that Caruana immediately switched to playing for a draw and this premature change of direction shifted the momentum to Carlsen.

Momentum is extremely important in chess, often more important than the objective evaluation of the position. All top players sense the momentum and its changes and I would even go as far as to say that Carlsen, together with Karpov before him, are the best “momentum” players, easily switching to playing for a win after they had felt that they are not in danger anymore.

Carlsen did start to apply pressure, but luckily for Caruana the position was too simple for him to go wrong. Perhaps it was possible for Carlsen to be even more precise in the endgame, but I doubt that would have altered the final result.

A disappointing game for Caruana, who easily misplayed his opening advantage, and for Carlsen, whose opening preparation wasn’t up to the task.

The first and this game got me thinking about whether the choice of the Rossolimo is the best suited one for Caruana. In the maneuvering positions that arise it appears that Carlsen feels more comfortable, at least for the time being. A mistake in the strategy (allowing to end up in positions that are better suited for the opponent) can cost Caruana dearly. As a comparison, I’d remind you of Tal’s choice of the Advance Variation in the Caro-Kann in his return match against Botvinnik. Tal was well-prepared and was obtaining decent positions after the opening, but the character of the positions was more in Botvinnik’s style and he managed to outplay Tal in the ensuing middlegames. Are we going to witness something similar in London?

Here’s Game 3 with detailed analysis.

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Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 2

The players keep surprising me.

In my Preview I argued that Carlsen would play 1 e4 because after it the preparation can successfully be narrowed down. The point is that after 1 d4 Black has more satisfactory defences than after 1 e4 (where basically on this level there is only 1…e5 and 1…c5).

And in spite of that logic Carlsen went 1 d4 today. I have noted that Carlsen is a very theoretical player in World Championship matches and with this choice he showed that he was fully prepared for everything – the Slav, Semi-Slav, Semi-Tarrasch, Ragozin, QGA, Vienna and the opening we got – the QGD.

It was exciting for me to follow the opening phase of the game after having made a complete repertoire for Black based on it for the site Chessable. You can check this repertoire clicking the image on the right, just above my yellow newsletter subscription box. (Alternatively you can check my posts on the QGD on this search page.)

And I wasn’t disappointed. Caruana played the extremely rare 10…Rd8 instead of the very popular 10…Re8 (the move I also recommended in my analysis). This was a huge surprise for Carlsen who immediately started spending a lot of time. Usually people don’t look for alternatives in positions where everything seems to be going well and this makes Caruana’s introduction (and preparation!) even more impressive.

I am convinced that Caruana was in his preparation well after move 20. Stellar preparation, especially if you take into account that Carlsen wasn’t always choosing the most testing moves.

The most exciting moment in the game arose on move 17 when Carlsen could have sacrificed a piece for what looked like a promising attack. The analysis shows that the complications should lead to a draw, but the lines are amazing and quite complex. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Carlsen declined the offer and decided to steer the game towards a draw. Even though he was on the worse end of an equal position, he didn’t have trouble holding it.

So what do we have after 2 games? Both players showed their fantastic preparation with Black and in both games White was suffering. Such is the importance of an opening surprise, with the aim to take the opponent into one’s own territory and preferably a line he hasn’t analysed very deeply.

However, with more information becoming available with every game played I expect White to be able to determine the boundaries of the opponent’s Black repertoire for the match and then pose more problems. It won’t be easy though as it is obvious both are superbly prepared with Black. Just remember how Karjakin failed to pose a single problem with White throughout the whole match in 2016.

Contrary to my predictions the players switched the first move – Caruana went 1 e4 and Carlsen went 1 d4. Will it remain so? I am really looking forward to Game 3 to see whether the Sicilian was a one-off surprise by Carlsen or a mainstay defence. Game 4 will also indicate the same for Carlsen’s 1 d4.

Here’s Game 2 with detailed analysis.

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Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018 – Game 1

What a start of the match!

I never expected Carlsen to be that aggressive from the get-go. In fact, I never imagined he could play something other than 1…e5. It was quite a shock for me to see the Sicilian! Is this a match strategy to be more aggressive with Black? The next games will give the answer.

I immediately wondered what Sicilian he had prepared, but Caruana was quick to play the Rossolimo. My guess would be the Sveshnikov, a variation he regularly played almost 10 years ago. It has a good theoretical reputation and even Anand (who had Peter Heine Nielsen as his second back then!) couldn’t do anything against it when Gelfand chose it as his mainstay defence in their match in 2012.

Another thing about the opening is whether this is a one-off thing or we will see the Sicilian on a more regular basis? I’ve written more than once that Carlsen has the habit of playing one-off openings in his World Championship matches – against Anand in 2013 it was the Caro-Kann and against Karjakin in 2016 it was the Trompowsky. I am very curious to find and I am rooting for the latter option! It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen open Sicilians in a World Championship match (we have to go back to Kasparov-Anand for that! The odd outing of the Kan in the second Carlsen-Anand match does not really count.)

Carlsen’s choice of the sub-line in the Rossolimo was also very deeply thought through. He went for a line with long-term prospects for Black – he had the bishop pair and the perspective to push the pawns on the kingside. The drawback was that White had a quick development, but he was taking into account the surprise factor and as a result of it the inability of Caruana to play in the most precise way. This small “gamble” paid off handsomely and Carlsen immediately got a wonderful position on the board and a huge time advantage on the clock. In a way, this choice was similar to his choice in their game from 2015, when he also went for the long-term prospect of a kingside attack (even though there it was more risky as he completely abandoned the queenside).

He then proceeded in a forceful manner and even though he may have been hasty on move 21 his energetical play brought him a winning position. And then something happened and he became hesitant. He started missing wins and as it usually happens eventually he let it slip completely. Of course, credit also goes to Caruana for his tenacious defence, but this time it was all in Carlsen’s hands. The best Carlsen could do was to liquidate to a drawn endgame that he played for 3 hours, without creating anything substantial.

A curious start of the match and an unnerving reminder for Carlsen of his missed chances against Karjakin. If you don’t score your chances, you concede. For Caruana this was an opening catastrophe – to end up worse and with a huge time deficit after 15 moves is definitely not how you want to start the match.

So neither would be happy, but I suppose the happier will be Caruana – after all he did save a lost game. And he was suffering from start to finish but he didn’t succumb. Resilience will definitely be a key factor in this match.

Tomorrow is the second game and I am very curious to see both players’ strategies with colours reversed.

Here’s the game with detailed analysis.

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Carlsen-Caruana, WCh 2018: A Preview

This match will probably be called a classic, no matter which way it goes and how it goes.

The previous match was between childhood rivals, but one was afraid of the other, and the fearful tried to dry it out. This match won’t be like that. This time there is no fear.

The challenger is younger than the Champion. Historically speaking, and having in mind the “classical” lineage (where the Champion is the one who beat the previous Champion in a match) Botvinnik drew Smyslov in 1954, Petrosian defeated Spassky in 1966, Kasparov defended his title twice against younger challengers – against Short in 1993 and Anand in 1995 and Anand did the same against Topalov in 2010. Not a very frequent event in chess history, an older champion to emerge victorious against a younger challenger.

An aspect that I see as very important in this match is the possible tie-break. In case of a 6-6 tie, a rapid tie-break will follow. This may have huge influence on the match strategy of both players, if we take into account that Carlsen is clearly superior in rapid and blitz time controls to Caruana. Caruana surely has done some preparation for this scenario, but I’d still see Carlsen as the clear favourite in rapid and blitz.

This means that it may be Carlsen who won’t mind drawing the match. Not necessarily playing for a draw (I sincerely doubt he’d go down that road), but generally playing with the knowledge and confidence that a 6-6 is in his favour. This can put pressure on Caruana not to let the match go to tie-breaks, but only if he’s not confident enough for that phase. But I have the impression he will be.

What distinguishes this match from all the previous Carlsen matches is that Caruana feels confident when playing Carlsen. He has shown he can beat him and will openly play to win. I don’t expect him to change his usual style for the match – mostly because his style is uncomfortable for Carlsen.

Caruana’s approach of concrete opening preparation, aimed at obtaining advantage (as opposed to Carlsen’s “just to get a game” – more on this below), followed by forceful play based on very precise calculation is one that should pose Carlsen problems. It is in a way similar to Kasparov’s approach against Karpov’s. Karjakin also had that kind of opening preparation prior to the match with Carlsen, but in the match he modified it in order to obtain safe positions and draw the games. Caruana will not change like Karjakin and I expect him to go for the most critical lines and also to unveil new theoretical paths.

I also expect Carlsen to continue to do what he usually does, only on a higher level, both theoretically and practically. I have noticed that Carlsen is in fact a very theoretical player in World Championship matches, as opposed to tournaments. He will also introduce his own ideas and I won’t be surprised if they are of a forcing character (remember the 8th game from the match in Sochi or the 6th game from the match in New York, both times drawing effortlessly thanks to his excellent preparation).

In terms of general match strategy and play I expect both players to do what they do best with no changes in style and approach a-la Kramnik against Kasparov. A typical clash of two styles and one that should produce fascinating struggles. Please bear in mind that I expect fascinating struggles, even though this may mean that the majority of the games end in draws – it is the substance that will make the excitement.

Concerning the openings, usually the World Championship matches pick up the latest developments and then build on them. So a quick glance at what the best players have been playing lately should give an idea what openings we will see. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be any surprises, but generally the matches follow the trends.

The major question is what Caruana will opt for on move 1. Only 1 e4, only 1 d4 or a mix of both (with 1 c4 also being an option). This will largely determine the array of openings we will be seeing. Against 1 e4 Carlsen will stick to 1…e5, both the Berlin and Marshall (as in the match with Karjakin) have proven to be 100% reliable. The Giuoco Piano is also a very probable option, with many ideas being discovered in the last several years it is still a fertile ground for further developments.

Against 1 d4 Carlsen has more choice – he prepared the Slav against Karjakin, while he can play pretty much everything (QGD and Nimzo, to name just the most solid ones), including the Grunfeld (against Anand in Sochi). Lately in tournaments he toyed with the King’s Indian, but I doubt we will see it. It is difficult to sense what opening he will prepare for this match.

With Carlsen as White, I expect to see 1 e4 more. I also expect to see Carlsen start the match with something he won’t play afterwards – in Chennai he essayed the Caro-Kann in Game 1, never to return to it in the remainder of the match, and in New York it was the Trompowsky. Against 1 e4 Caruana will also most likely stick to 1…e5 and the question is how much he will depend on the Petroff.

The Petroff served Caruana beyond expectations and Capablanca taught that one should always play the openings that bring good results. So probably the Petroff will feature in London, but how often and what will Carlsen have to show against it?

In their last encounter Carlsen came up with a fresh idea and convincingly outplayed Caruana. Then he hesitated and missed the win. Here’s the game with the comments I published in the September edition of the British Chess Magazine.

Normally people prepare two openings for Black in these matches, one is the main defence and the other one is the back-up. The question is then, if the Petroff stays, what will be Caruana’s back-up?

A relatively recent (starting with Wijk aan Zee this year) development in Carlsen’s opening approach was his increased use of the main lines – he’s played the English Attack against the Taimanov, the Yugoslav Attack against the Dragon, and even the most aggressive 6 Bg5 against the Najdorf. Previously I wrote that I see this development as a way to prepare and pose theoretical problems in the match. Personally I would be delighted to see both players slugging it out in the most topical variations!

To conclude, I am expecting a great match! When two players who are confident in themselves and go out to beat the other guy meet, the result can only be a ferocious fight. And this time I see no favourites.

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Isle Of Man 2018

The open of Isle of Man cannot be stronger than it already is. Last year it had Carlsen and Caruana and everybody else, while this year it “only” had everybody else.

Apart from the appearance fees, I can see only one reason why the elite players would play an open event. That reason is the absence of pressure on them to win. We all know that a win in an open depends on many factors, luck not being among the less important ones, so even the public doesn’t expect the absolute favourite to win. So the elite players take it easy, not caring so much whether they win the tournament or not, though definitely caring about their rating points.

Last year I wrote of Kramnik’s nightmare on the Isle. It was a typical case of a player not being able to motivate himself to beat an almost 400-point weaker player. I perfectly know the feeling, you are expected to win, but you don’t want to play the game, because you get nothing from it, neither creatively nor materially. The win is a meagre 1 raing point (or less) and a loss is such a disaster you don’t even want to contemplate it.

The following position is from Kramnik’s second-round game.

Ah, finally, I thought, Kramnik is doing his magic of positionally dominating an opponent, showing infinite difference in class and understanding. White can barely move here, probably should just resign and marvel at Kramnik’s artistic superiority.

Now comes the shocker – in the position above, Kramnik was playing with White!

He was being stuffed by IM and WGM Alina Kashlinskaya, modestly rated at 2447.

Kramnik would never allow himself to be humilated like this against a fellow elite player. So why did he allow it to happen against Kashlinskaya? (And he was also lost in Round 1 against Indian GM Sundararajan Kidambi, rated 2445.)

The answer is what I wrote above – he couldn’t motivate himself, he didn’t care enough in order to play at full capacity. Luckily for him, he “showed infinite difference in class” and “confidently” drew.

When Kramnik started playing opponents with higher rating his level also rose and he confidently beat L’Ami (2639) and Shirov (2636). The latter is a curious case of a former elite player who dropped considerably, but Kramnik definitely needed no extra motivation to play against him.

OK, enough of Kramnik and his motivation. Here is one of the most exciting games of late, not only from the tournament, but also generally:

The tournament was very interesting because of the fact that we saw only 1 (!) game between the top 10 players – in the last round Grischuk beat Vachier. And seeing the less common pairings of elite players against “lesser” GMs, where the “lesser” ones were more often than not on the brink of winning, is a novel experience after witnessing so many elite all-play-alls.

Chess is fun after all.

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On The Way To The QGD – A Video Course

The third and final part of my repertoire based on the QGD is out and this concludes the whole series. This means that now there is a video course to complement the analysis for “everything except 1 e4.”

This part is divided in 4 chapters, The London System, the Trompowsky, The Rest and the Catalan. Theoretically speaking the London and the Catalan are the most important ones; the Tromp without a knight on f6 (1 d4 d5 2 Bg5) isn’t very threatening, while The Rest deals with obviously the rest plus the innovations of some of the world’s most original players Jobava and Rapport (mainly 1 d4 d5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 Bf4).

The London System and the Catalan are among the most popular openings today, so it is crucial to be well-prepared against them. Even though the book was published last year, I re-checked everything and I can confirm that I am still perfectly happy with my proposed lines.

As theory doesn’t stand still I also made sure to provide updates where it was required. These were added to the analysis and also feature on the video.

The main update concerns the Catalan, as the line suggested in the repertoire (4…dc 5 Bg2 Bd7) has become one of the most popular choices against it. Last year at the FIDE World Cup in Tbilisi Maxim Rodshtein introduced the very strong novelty 10 Qc2 in the main line. He obtained very promising positions in his match against Hovhannisyan and even won the match thanks to that novelty. Since Black was suffering there I had to find an antidote and hopefully I managed to do so.

Recording the video was again a process that gave me both pleasure and anxiety. There is something about being in front of a camera and while I cannot call my videos “a performance” there is something of a thrill in the fact that quite a lot of people will be watching you. That same fact gave me also a lot of anxiety, a result of my desire to provide the best quality for the audience. In fact I would appreciate some feedback on it, so thanks for your time if you decide to give one.

On the Way to the QGD is out on Chessable.

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European Club Cup 2018

It’s been hectic, chaotic, exhausting yet curiously rewarding time since the Olympiad finished.

In the few days between the Olympiad and the European Club Cup I thought I would rest, but life thought otherwise. So going to Porto Carras I was already tired. My job was not to play, but to coach and help my Italian women team of Caissa Italia Pentole Agnelli to reach the summit of Europe.

We really had a great team, comprised of top players: Valentina Gunina, world’s number 9, Elisabeth Paehtz, world’s number 10, Stavroula Tsolakidou, a triple World Champion (U14, U16 and U18) and one of the brightest young talents, Olga Zimina, reigning Italian champion and Marina Brunello, reigning Italian vice-champion and fresh from winning the gold medal on her board at the Batumi Olympiad.

The atmosphere in the team was one that was envied by all present in Porto Carras. We were always together, supporting each other, making sure everybody was comfortable and laughing and having a great time. Some Facebook photos easily confirm this.

Unfortunately there was one factor that we couldn’t control and that cost us dearly. That factor was fatigue. All the players were crucial for their teams in Batumi and played a lot of games there – Lisa played all 11, Valentina, Stavroula, Olga and Marina played 10. There were no easy matches in Porto Carras (we underestimated this fact in the beginning!) and the inner resilience that is required for a team to do well in a tough tournament was lacking because there was no energy for it – the girls were simply out of steam by the time they arrived in Greece.

Already the first match showed the problems we were facing. Playing against the weaker on paper but highly motivated team from St. Petersburg we were lucky to draw the match. The following game on Board 1 was one of the craziest I’ve witnessed in person. The comments below are my impressions while watching the game standing behind Valentina. I leave it to the reader to decide whether to switch an engine on or not.

When the tournament starts with a game like this, there are only two options – either everything will go your way or it won’t. Unfortunately for us, it was the latter.

Even though we won the next two matches against weaker opposition (one of these teams was our second Caissa Italia team) it was clear that the girls were not playing well. There were blunders galore and an apparent lack of energy. This showed in the 4th round when we faced the leaders Monte Carlo.

A win would have assured us of a qualification for the semi-finals (the women’s tournament was played not as a normal Swiss but rather a system of two all-play-all groups with the first two of each group qualifying for the semi-finals). We approached the match seriously and prepared well. I was happy to see our preparation on all four boards, especially on Board 1 where Valentina managed to catch Anna Muzychuk in a forced line in the Exchange Slav.

But then things started to go down. Olga obtained a drawn endgame on Board 3 against Monika Socko (that was the plan) but slowly drifted into problems and lost it. The mess Lisa created on Board 2 against Cramling was going to be decided in time-trouble and it didn’t go our way. Valentina faced an incredible resourcefulness by Muzychuk and failed to capitalise on the best chance, eventually drawing. On Board 4 Marina started to take over little by little only to blunder an exchange. The final result: 0.5-3.5.

We didn’t deserve such a loss, but quite unexpectedly we were given a second chance. The team from St. Petersburg drew against the weaker team of Maribor and now if we won against Odlar Yurdu from Azerbaijan we would still qualify!

I made sure we didn’t repeat the mistakes from Round 1 when we underestimated opponents who were slightly lower rated than us. We again prepared well. I thought we would take this chance.

And again things started so well. We got our preparation in on all 4 boards and I was content. Alas, this was only for history to repeat itself. Soon after leaving preparation Stavroula on Board 3 sank into thought and quickly messed up a perfectly good position. Not much later on Board 4 Marina misplayed a fantastic position and ended up a clear pawn down in a hopeless endgame. Lisa was pressing in an Exchange Slav with White while Valentina grabbed a pawn and I was hoping she would soon start playing for a win. A faint chance for a 2-2 appeared, only to be brutally squashed when Valentina blundered and lost. Lisa bravely fought on and won, but the match was lost 1-3.

This loss really took out everything out of me. Fatigue was there for all of us, but the hope of qualifying kept me going. Now with it gone I was flat.

Things didn’t get easier though. In the first match for 5-8 place we faced the tough club of Kyiv. If only we could win one match against strong opposition…

It wasn’t meant to be. On Board 3 we had the same scenario as with Monte Carlo – with White Olga obtained an equal endgame, which under normal conditions she would easily draw, but devoid of energy she lost. Lisa went for a complex endgame against Zhukova on Board 2 and was outplayed, but when things got tactical she started finding resources and saved the game. On Board 1 Valentina got the other Muzychuk sister, Maria, into her preparation, but she slightly misplayed it and the position was equal. Then she started to do what she does best – creating tactical threats and Maria started to err. And then, instead of simply either forcing a perpetual check or taking the sacrificed pawn with continuous attack, Valentina went for the attack immediately, missing that the king can run away from the kingside and hide in the centre. After that there was no attack and the extra pawn for Black decided the game. At least on Board 4 we got a consolation as Stavroula played a good game, first absorbing White’s pressure in a Najdorf and then winning in the endgame. We lost 1.5-2.5.

The final match was against the weak team of Beer Sheva. We were outrating them by almost 400 rating points on Boards 3 and 4. So what happened? We lost on Board 4 with White in 16 moves when Marina blundered her queen. 0-1 after merely an hour of play. Stavroula on Board 3 won a good game, a type of game we wanted to see more often, showing a difference in class and winning easily. Valentina misplayed the Caro-Kann on Board 1 and was happy to draw, while Lisa was an exchange up in a complex position she managed to transform to a winning one. But then she allowed unnecessary counterplay and Black had a draw, which she luckily for us (finally!) missed. We won: 2.5-1.5.

True to our atmosphere we had a great party afterwards, but it was clear that this result was a disappointment. It’s a pity that all players were out of shape and tired and even though other players also played at the Olympiad the fatigue seemed to affect us the most. As a coach and captain in almost all the matches I learned quite a lot. I understood what a team really needs in order to win a competition as tough as the ECC – I am not sure the word resilience is the one that best describes it, but what I mean by it is that the grit, the fighting spirit, the inner toughness of each player and the team as a whole is the main characteristic that leads the team to the top of the pedestal.

We are a “new” team – this was the first time we played together. Now we know each other so much better and we all learned from what happened in Porto Carras. In spite of all the efforts I really enjoyed working with all the girls. I also thank them for everything they did, because I know they did the best they could under the circumstances. I also thank Yuri Garrett and Gianvittorio “Il Direttore” Perico for putting together such a great team and allowing us an opportunity to go for glory.

Since our sponsor Pentole Agnelli is a cookware company, to which we are all indebted to as it was them who made our expedition possible, I think that we can safely say that we will be back next year with some nasty surprises cooked up beforehand. And if we somehow manage to win, I can guarantee the party afterwards will be an unforgettable one!

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