The European Teams finished in Crete two days ago. I didn’t have much time to settle down and consolidate my impressions, but perhaps even better so. What I will write here are my direct and immediate thoughts in the aftermath of an exhausting tournament.
My appointment as a coach of the women national team came very late, at the beginning of October. This left very little time to prepare and do any meaningful work as this was also time to get to know the players. We organised several meetings in the few weeks that we had and did some opening work. I also gave the girls home assignments on improving their calculation. We also got to know each other and the atmosphere was immediately very positive and supportive. On a negative note, we didn’t have a reserve player due to the financial constraints of the federation.
During the preparation period we also discussed some psychological aspects, the game and match plans and the tournament regime. Now I can say that these worked almost perfectly.
Once the tournament started we entered our rhythm of preparation and playing. Usually we would start our preparations after the team pairings would come out in the evening, discussing possible openings for every board, and then we did the more concrete opening work in the morning after breakfast when the board pairings would come out.
The start was promising. We almost beat the very strong team of The Netherlands, ranked 14 (out of 32; our starting rank was 30). We even narrowly lost the match but the way the match was going showed that our players were very motivated and the quality of the play they showed was beyond expectation.
In Round 2 we beat Montenegro without many problems, which showed our confidence – we expected to win and we did it without allowing chances.
Then we ran into a tough patch. In Rounds 3 and 4 we were paired against the exceptionally strong teams of Romania (ranked 9th initially, finished shared 4th) and Italy (ranked 15th initially, finished 10th). We lost both matches, but the girls put up a great fight in both. We shouldn’t have lost so many games in these two matches, but the difference in experience eventually came to the fore.
This was a good learning experience as it showed that the girls are capable of playing on equal terms with nominally much stronger players. In these matches we were usually outrated by some 300 and more points. Even though the losses hurt, I kept repeating that they can play as equals against anybody. I think after a while they started to believe me.
In Rounds 5 and 6 we had two drawn matches, against Austria and Slovakia. These were matches of missed chances as we should have won both. Perhaps we were maturing for the final two rounds.
But before the final two rounds we lost heavily (0.5-3.5) in Round 8 to Lithuania. This was perhaps the only match where we didn’t overperform and maximise our chances. Luckily, it turned out to be a slump before the rise.
The last two rounds are always vital. If you perform well then you are guaranteed a successful tournament.
In Round 8 we were paired against Finland, the only team we played ranked lower than us. We beat them 3.5-0.5 and the win showed that the previous losses didn’t take our confidence away. The match also saw a crucial win for our Board 2, Dragana Nikolovska, who endured a torrid time by then, scoring 0/7. With her rating of 1854 she was commonly outrated by 400-500 points and in spite of giving her best she never got to score. But against Finland she played a very fine game, sacrificing a pawn for initiative and nurturing it to a win.
In Round 9 we were a bit lucky with the pairings, but you also have to justify that luck by playing well and winning the match. We played Greece 2, ranked 27th and a team we were confident we can beat. The course of the match was rather smooth in fact. We were much better on the first three boards while we were in trouble on Board 4. Then Dragana on Board 2 and Bojana on Board 3 lost their advantages and the games were drawn. Monika on Board 1 kept the pressure on while Gabi on Board 4 turned things around and was playing for a win. So we were never in any danger in the match and as the games progressed both our players outplayed their opponents and won their games. We won 3-1.
We didn’t lose a single game in the last 2 rounds. I have a feeling the team was growing from match to match and with each game the players grew more and more confident that they can play well and win. They all played well, all won rating points and showed a level of play much higher than the one they had shown before.
A few words about the players. On Board 1 WFM Monika Stojkovska scored a WIM norm. She has an uncompromising character and this translates on the board where she is a ferocious fighter. I was usually comfortable on Board 1, whomever she was playing, because with the good opening preparations we did I knew she would get a good position and then she would play well. I never saw her inferior in the games, in spite of the fact that the average rating of her opponents was almost 200 points above her rating. I think this tournament gave Monika the necessary confidence and showed her that she has nobody to fear. Rating gain: 37.4 points.
Dragana Nikolovska on Board 2 had a difficult tournament, but fortunately it ended on a high. We talked quite a bit before the tournament about the challenges she would face playing on such a high board and we were all aware of the dangers. I see her suffering on Board 2 as a huge learning experience, both psychologically (she didn’t crack and won a game after 7 losses in a row!) and chess-wise. She played well, the main problem being her time-management and the drop of her level of play in time-trouble. With good work she can use the momentum now to raise her level and improve immensely. Rating gain: 2.4 points.
Bojana Bejatovic on Board 3 was very solid and reliable. Like with Monika, I had the least worries here. Bojana has a very serious approach both on and off the board and she had the best time-management in the whole team. She was our best player until the last 3 rounds when unfortunately she started missing her chances. By that time the whole team was getting tired (playing non-stop without a reserve!) so this was not surprising. Bojana now knows that she can play much better than her rating and can progress rapidly. Rating gain: 21.8.
On Board 4 we had our most experienced player, WIM Gabriela Koskoska. Gabi scored 3.5/4 in the last 4 rounds and was a major factor of our success. She is a natural fighter, with good feeling for initiative and she used those qualitites in all her games, successfully overturning suspicious positions and winning quite a few of them. Her main problem was the opening when she would sometimes forget the preparation, but once in the middlegame she was quite confident in her abilities. I think Gabi’s presence in the team was very positive as she has been playing Olympiads and European Team Championships since 1994 and having such a player is always beneficial to strike balance between youth and experience. The girls look up to her and her opinion is highly valued. Putting Gabi on Board 4 was a mutual decision and it turned out to be a great one – she was our most successful player with 5/9 and her rating gain was 15 points.
The result of the Macedonian women team is truly exceptional and historic. With a starting rank 30 we finished shared 20th (with Belarus, Czech Republic and France – ranked 6th!) and left teams like Slovenia, Croatia, England and Slovakia behind us. We have a young team that is very much capable of growth and improvement. Women chess has largely been neglected in Macedonia, but this result should change that attitude. The potential for success of the women team is no less than that of the men. The women team is much younger than the men’s, with equal opportunities I don’t see why the women cannot catch up with the men. With this result and their attitude the girls showed that they deserve that chance. Now it should be given to them.