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!

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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