I write this in the deserted Holiday Village Hotel where yesterday the European Club Cup finished. I am the last man standing as all the participants have left and the whole hotel resort looks like a ghost town.
I was the captain of the women team Caissa Pentole Agnelli. Unfortunately we didn’t have a good tournament. We missed our big chance in the penultimate round, when playing the lower-rated team from Maribor we had superior or just winning positions on all 4 boards and yet managed only 2-2. Had we won we would have shared 2nd place going into the last round with everything to play for. But it wasn’t meant to be.
In this post I would like to explain my reasoning and strategy I had for one of the clutch matches that happened as early as Round 2. We played last-year’s champions and this year runner-ups, the team from Monaco. Last year they destroyed us, in spite of having good positions on all boards, so this year I wanted us to be more cautious.
On Board 1 we had Sarasadat Khademalsharieh, the Iranian superstar, facing Humpy Koneru. Sara is a sound positional player who prefers technical positions so we thought that simply playing her lines and the positions she obtains from them would suit her well. Bearing in mind that in team competitions it is usually considered that a draw with Black is good, we didn’t expect that Koneru would try for more, so I felt safe on that board – some pressure if it happens, if not, then a draw without a risk. And that is exactly what happened.
On Board 2 we had Pia Cramling against Elisabeth Paehtz. The board pairings from Board 2 to 4 were exactly the same as the previous year, when we lost all 3. I didn’t mind that, since I knew that our players were good and what happened last year was a mid-match collapse that will not happen again.
Lisa again played the Slav against Cramling and this time it wasn’t an Exchange, but the line with 4 Qb3. We expected it, and Lisa was well-prepared to obtain a solid and safe position. This year I wanted her to keep it solid, as last year she went for complications when the match started going wrong and lost. After a lucky blunder by Lisa on move 18, meaning that taking the exchange led to some positional compensation, which Cramling declined to take advantage of, the game was uneventful and we drew safely.
On Board 3 Olga Zimina was facing Monika Socko. Olga lost an atrocious game last year with White, being ouplayed in an equal endgame from the English Opening, so this year I wanted something more “central.” We decided upon the Catalan, with the fresh idea of 7 Be3, as in the game Caruana-Anand and also some others as our opening surprise. But Socko avoided it by playing 6…c5 before 6…a6, so it transposed back to the usual lines. We didn’t get anything out of the opening there, but I was happy with the resulting position as I knew Olga wouldn’t get in any danger. She pressed a little, but Socko defended well and the game was drawn.
On Board 4 Deimante Daulyte-Cornette was playing Marina Brunello. This was the board where I expected a more dynamic fight, as it fits Marina’s style. In an expected Najdorf we thought that the resulting positions would be to Marina’s liking where we fancied our chances. I was influenced by last year’s game where Marina got a great position in the Najdorf and outplayed her opponent, only to lose after trying to win too hard and blundering once the match turned bad for us.
However, on this board we ran into some preparation by our opponents. White played the fresh idea by Vachier-Lagrave, the move 8 Bg5 in the fianchetto Najdorf that he used to beat Wei Yi in the recent FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg. We didn’t particularly prepare for it, so it was a surprise, but I thought that since Marina plays the Najdorf all her life she would find a good reaction to it. It turned out this wasn’t so easy.
We practically lost without a fight after Marina couldn’t find an appropriate reaction to the dangeous threats. This game decided the match and we lost 2.5-1.5.
We lost because we got caught in the opening and our own opening surprise didn’t materialise. After the match I was thinking whether our strategy was sound. In view of last year’s encounter it was definitely an improvement and we didn’t collapse, the match was under control except for Board 4. Perhaps we could have prepared better there, but it is difficult to prepare everything (and on 4 boards too!).
Eventually the match strategy to keep it solid on the first three boards, having in mind our players’ stylistic preferences and the opponents we were facing, and have a dynamic fight on the last one, where we had an excellent Sicilian player, backfired. Normally we are always well-prepared in the openings, but this time we got caught and that caused us the match. If that didn’t happen perhaps the strategy would have justified itself, who knows. For me, the lesson to learn is to prepare better when more is at stake on a single board.
The second ECC where I am coaching the same team was another great learning experience. Every match and the preparation for it is a valuable insight into the nuances of team competitions. I enjoy this type of work, devising a strategy for the match, starting with who plays, analysing our and our opponents’ repertoires, deciding what to play and then seeing it all unravel in the playing hall is very exciting. I do get frustrated because of the fact that I am only an observer once the match starts, but that is the nature of the captain’s work.
In the end, I would like to thank my players Sara, Lisa, Olga, Marina and Elena for their efforts. We did what we could and hopefully the third attempt, next year in Austria, will be a charm!