12 October 2015

European Champs' Little Secrets

13 medals out of 36 – an excellent Russian performance at the European Junior Championship is reviewed by GM Dmitry Kryakvin.

Venue: Porec, Croatia

While the World Chess Cup was underway in Baku, won by Russians Sergey Karjakin and Peter Svidler, who qualified for the Candidates Tournament, Russia's young players performed just as brilliantly at the European junior Chess Championship in Porec (Croatia). Russian players won 13 medals out of 36, including six gold medals. As it turned out, Russians won in a half of the age groups, leaving players from other countries far behind: even the cumulative score of Russia's main rivals fell short of that of the Russian team alone.

As is well known, Sergey Janovsky, the Russian national teams' head coach; Andrey Beletsky, chairman of the Russian Chess Federation's Junior Commission; and Mikhail Kobalia, the junior team's irreplaceable senior coach, have recently started to reshape the system of training young Russian talents. Grandmaster centers were established in each of Russian districts, and children from Yuri Yakovich's school already made great progress. The Northwestern Federal District center also had a successful start. An icing on the cake: the boys and girls who already showed their worth on the international arena got an opportunity to train with renowned experts on an individual basis. To be honest, I didn't talk to everyone who got this chance, but Anna Styazhkina and Andrei Esipenko, who came to train with Alexander Khalifman and Konstantin Sakaev, respectively, were absolutely thrilled with that session. And the Russian delegation's performance improved immediately.

I have to say that Croatia itself is a great country, and the organizers planned the trip very well. My generation grew up at the time when Pavel Lobach wrote articles on junior championships, where horrible hotels, transfer problems, and theft from the rooms were unfailingly mentioned. Time passed, it's 2015 now, and everything was great this time, except for the local currency's exchange rate against the ruble. Obviously, the Russian Central Bank's chief Elvira Nabiullina was not on the Russian champions' team. One evening, as we walked around the city with Kobalia, I told Mikhail that a European had cried out at the U20 World Championship in Khanty-Mansiysk: "I love Russia! The taxi costs one euro! Fruits cost one euro! You can eat whatever you want in a restaurant for five euros! I love this country!" The senior coach laughed and felt sad at the same time. What can be done about this?..

The games were played at the huge sports center Jatica; as Alexey Slavin, a Samara chess official, told me it was built for the handball world championship (he had attended the event). This was a huge, well-ventilated, and comfortable place, but a problem arose: the stands where parents sat overhung the leaders' tables. A wave of complaints quickly followed that the players were receiving, or could receive, tips. After the second round, the organizers finally cleared the sector above the "Girls under 8", "Girls under 10", and "Girls under 12" groups. The Appeal Committee headed by Adrian Mikhalchishin later decided to clear all the stands above the leaders' tables during the final rounds and even ban the delegation leaders from entering the room, so the event seemed to finish smoothly.

The interesting part came when the games of rounds 2 and 3 were put off. The reason was the Israeli celebration of Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, repentance, and forgiveness of sins. This is the only day in a year when Torah demands that Jews do nothing but analyze their deeds and thoughts. As a result, the second round was postponed to 10 a.m., and in the third round the Holy Land delegation members got zeros: they were not allowed to start playing before 8 p.m. It was the morning of round two when I positioned the yawning Daniil Yuffa, Semen Khanin, and Andrey Esipenko at their tables, took a coffee and walked around the rest area for accompanying persons. "Kippur...Kippur! That's what Salov recently talked to Surov about," the voices of confused parents from Russian-speaking countries were heard all over the place. One idea went over and over in my head: "What if Boris Gelfand had made it to the World Cup quarterfinals today, which he usually does?"  

...It was very interesting to watch the tournament, children's reaction to everything happening at the board, and their behavior. In one corner, there's a big team of Russian girls from the younger age groups. The three-color caps hide their faces completely, so that you can't see the eyes or even recognize the player. Is that Obolentseva over there? No, it's not Vulfson's student that is supposed to play at this table according to the pairings schedule. But that's certainly a Russian team cap! The girls radiate phenomenal energy, and the Russian rising chess stars' opponents will surely find it hard to cope with those Darth Vader fans!     

Anna Styazhkina and Aleksandra Maltsevskaya look much dreamier and more relaxed. Sometimes they seem to look somewhere far away. But appearances are deceptive: as soon as the opponent lets her guard down, the Russian starts playing relentlessly well and punishes her peer immediately.  

The rising chess star Ilya Makoveev attracts lots of attention. Jaroslav Prizant's student isn't conspicuous with impressive physical dimensions so far, and sometimes Ilya has to stand up on a chair to reach a piece, but this is a real Mowgli of the chess jungle. Makoveev's eyes burn with the desire to fight, he wants to win every game with his whole heart, aware that a loss is a small death. Judging by his posture at the board and his attitude to chess, the Gelendzhik player is already a real champion, despite his tender age.  

In the U-14 group, the future top finishers Sergey Lobanov and Andrei Esipenko held top places from the outset. The young talents play differently from their older teammates, Daniil Yuffa and Maksim Vavulin, whose muscular bodies tower above the board for four to five hours without a break, as if Daniil and Maksim were tireless machines ready to work their best the whole day long. Esipenko and Lobanov leave the board every now and then and walk around the room with springy strides, like cheetahs who have found prey and are waiting for the right moment to leap and thrust their fangs into its jugular vein!

Leading boys and girls are a very superstitious lot: the kids told me about their latest fad, a mascot they place on their page on the Russian social network VKontakte. One of the Russian players suddenly found out that if you put the pretty Internet guardsman Booblya on your page, then:

1) the calculating capacity is improved;

2) positional understanding gets deeper;

3) you start playing endgames much better.

And there's a whole bunch of other advantages. As a result, Booblya protected almost all pages of the favorites just before the tournament kicked off. You'll be laughing, but everyone who used the mascot, which somewhat resembles the well-known young player Alexey Sarana, played beautifully in Porec. 

Have you already placed the Internet mascot on your page?

Let's move on to the tournament's chess component. I apologize to the parents whose children weren't mentioned in my review. They are all very talented, and the achievements of all of them are equally precious for Russia. But your humble servant is a mere mortal unable to keep track of everyone at once. By the way, I apologize again to Leonid Lystsov, the bronze winner among boys under 8: his family name is written on the FIDE website in such an unusual way that I could translate it back into Russian only after some time, and only after Beletsky helped me out. Leonid is a good and bright boy, and I hope that his third place will only be a beginning. And his coach, Viktor Skorchenko, used to be the childhood coach of my wife Elena. Unfortunately, Russian players fell short of winning any other medals in the U-8 group.     

Leonid Lystsov (middle)

Under 10

The Volgograd chess school student Galina Mironenko won in the girls' group. She secured the victory after her final win over Ukraine's Yelyzaveta Hrebenshchykova.

Hrebenshchykova – Mironenko

Hrebenshchykova played confidently in the opening, and it seemed that the Ukrainian coaches prepared Yelyzaveta brilliantly against the Pirc Defense. But Mironenko suddenly lashed out at the opponent's king neglecting her own monarch's safety, and White panicked.

The obvious move was 12.Rdg1, withdrawing the knight to d1 with a subsequent g4-g5, but...

12.Bxb5? Rxb5 13.Nxb5 Qxb5 14.Rde1

And then Galina made a couple of subtle moves, which determined the tournament's outcome: 14…Nb6 15.g4 Nc4 16.Bc1 Qxb2+! (beautiful!) 17.Bxb2 Nd2+, and Black won.

Galina Mironenko with the Russian flag at the closure

 Makoveev played in the senior group this year, and his 8.5 points out of 9 were not the result of his total domination, but rather the huge work that Ilya performed at the board. Romanian Dragos-Andrei Antonica stood out among Makoveev's competitors and finished second. In his game with Makoveev, Antonica played very well up to a certain moment, outplayed the Russian, and won an exchange. Makoveev kept complicating the game persistently, and the moment of truth came...  

Antonica – Makoveev

White has extra material, and Antonica looks forward to grabbing the a7 pawn. Black has just one tempo to create counterplay.

44...Ne4+ 45.Kf3?

This natural move brings White to a catastrophe. The subtle 45.Ke1! Ng3 46.Rg2 or the down-to-earth 45.Kg2 Nd2 46.Re1 retained every chance for a win.

45...Ng5+! 46.Kg2

Alas, there is no 46.Kf2 Nh3+, and now the Romanian loses his base pawn e2, and his king gets is trapped together with his rook.

46...Rxe2+ 47.Kf1 Rc2 48.Rg2 Rc1+ 49.Kf2 Rc2+ 50.Kf1 Rc1+ 51.Kf2 f3!

Makoveev repeated the moves, as chess classics advised, and then made the decisive strike.

52.Rh2 Rc2+ 53.Kg3 Ne4+ , capturing the rook.

Congratulations to Ilya and his family on the new victory! Bravo, coach Jaroslav Prizant! The third place in the tournament went to Muscovite Martin Stukan. Martin made Ilya's life much more difficult at the Russian championship, denying Makoveev an easy walk for the gold. A convincing revenge took place in Porec, but Stukan was good in all the other games and became the bronze winner. 

Ilya Makoveev (right), Martin Stukan (middle)

Under 12

Elizaveta Solozhenkina was victorious among girls under 12. Earlier, Liza proved her worth at women's national blitz and rapid championships. And her father, Evgeniy Solozhenkin, is not only a strong grandmaster and experienced coach, but also the author of several fascinating articles on chess history published on the Russian Chess Federation's website. You might have read Evgeniy's study on the talented chess players who were victims of World War II military operations. 

Solozhenkina gave her father jitters at some point, but won the tournament deservedly. Despite her young age, the European champion has a classical style, she is a very good positional player who is not seduced by setting traps, which is common among girls of her age. Liza's father could have his own opinion, but I liked the following part of her game versus Alexandra Afanasyeva most of all:

Afanasyeva – Solozhenkina

Black has a space advantage, but White's position is strong and can only be disturbed through an active approach.

26...f4 27.f3 b4!

The squeezing b4-b3 threatens, but it was time for Alexandra to remember about her idle knight on f1: 28.Be1! b3 29.Rxa8 Rxa8 30.Bb1, and Nd2-e4 (c4).

28.Ba4?! Na5! 29.cxb4 cxb4 30.Be1 Nc6 31.Bxc6?

And this is already a serious mistake, after which Afanasyeva finds herself in dire straits. The correct line was 31.Bf2 Nd4 32.Bxd4 exd4 33.Nd2, and the knight is in play.

31...Bxc6 32.Bf2 Rxa1 33.Rxa1 Bb5! 34.Rd1 Rd8, and Black won the d3 pawn and the game.

The third place went to Leya Garifullina from Yekaterinburg. Congratulations to both Leya and Roman Ovechkin, her coach and my friend and colleague.

Elizaveta Solozhenkina (right), Leya Garifullina (middle)

Russia is rich with talents, which was confirmed by the boys' tournament. An heir to Dmitry Batsanin and Vitaly Bachin emerged in the Russian Far East: his name is Kirill Shubin. Muscovite Dmitry Tsoi was considered to be one of the main favorites in this age group, but he only got hot at the second half of the distance and couldn't make it to the pedestal. Shubin, however, headed for the victory at full steam, and the chess goddess Caissa helped his somewhat in a game versus Armenia's Mamakon Garibian in the penultimate round.

Garibian – Shubin

"There are so many of you and so little of me!" ― Athos allegedly told Milady in the Three Musketeers, and Kirill could have said the same to his opponent. One queen does not make a battle, but fortunately, when supported by a bishop and a pawn, it can accomplish a champion's deed.


A dagger strike, which brought the Armenian boy to a challenge: how to improve the coordination between his pieces. Of course, an indirect defense like 44.Nd2 Qd4 45.Rc1 Bb6 46.Nc4 Qxd3 47.Nxb6 Qxe4+ suggested by the computer is a hard nut to crack in time trouble, but the reasonable option is 44.Nh2! Qb3 45.Be2 Qa2 46.Re1 Bb4 47.Kf1!, and it's better to abstain from capturing the rook. Black's resources are not exhausted here, however.

But unfortunately for Garibian, he decided to protect the bishop with the king and blundered away a piece.

44.Kf3? Qd1+ 45.Be2 g4+! 46.Kxg4 Qxe2+ 47.Kh3 Qxe4

Even now it seems impossible to bring together the remains of the white army, and Shubin reaps an abundant harvest.

48.Rh2 Qf5+ 49.Kg2 Qxd5+ 50.Kh3 Qe6+ 51.Kh4 Qc4+ with a win.

Kirill Shubin (right), also with a Russian flag 

Under 14

Before the event kicked off, high hopes were placed on this age group featuring a plethora of Russian talents. Indeed, the girls seemed to have a Russian Championship, Edition 2, with Russia's Anna Kochukova, Aleksandra Maltsevskaya, Alexandra Obolentseva, Anastasia Zotova, and Polina Shuvalova all getting the top five places! And that's with Ekaterina Goltseva and Anastasia Kozina being out of shape. 

Our girls' level of play goes through the roof: once I played with Shuvalova, who had a 5/7 score in a Voronezh rapid tournament. I could certainly have become Polina's next scalp but for the exchange she blundered in time trouble. I won't analyze the girls' face-to-face encounters or draw conclusions who was stronger or who was lucky and who wasn't: that wouldn't be objective anyway. But I would like to turn your attention to one interesting episode.  

Kochukova – Zotova

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5

It was round 9, with Anastasia Zotova being half a point behind the leader. The Scandinavian is a frequent choice in such situations, and it's one of the most popular openings in girls' chess. Kochukova's coach is Vladimir Belikov, a strong and experienced grandmaster who used to coach none other than Kramnik. And in this position, Kochukova reacts in a very forceful way.


Widely known in narrow circles, this move is often accompanied with an exclamation mark in European textbooks. The idea for White is to prepare c2-c4 and d4-d5. How to respond? 3...e5 can lead to simplifications in the center with some development advantage for White, and the theory lines 3...Nf6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2 Nc6 6.c4 Qh5 7.d5 or 3...Nc6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Be2 0–0–0 6.c4 Qf5 look desperate: it's dangerous to go there without preparation against a well-prepared opponent. Anastasia panicked and chose the worst of the options.

3…Qa5+?! 4.c3! Nf6 5.Nf3 Bf5

There's no big difference if 5...Bg4 6.Nbd2.

6.Nbd2 c6 7.Nc4 Qc7 8.Nce5 

And then there was an event that is unbelievable and jaw-dropping for women's chess: the opponents conceded a draw! Which became possible with Sofia rules abolished all over Europe (with the only exception of Russia) after the fall of Silvio Danailov's regime. To be honest, I haven't seen anything like that in female chess in my entire career of a player, a coach and a journalist.

I remember girls losing games after they abstained from a threefold repetition that would have guaranteed them a medal. After they refrained from perpetual checks. After they failed to swap their last pawns, or avoided in plenty of other ways. One of my favorite authors, Ilia Odesskij, dedicated dozens of articles to this phenomenon and the secrets of a female chess player's mind. 

Of course, Black's position is "nothing to write home about", but she could have easily opted for 8…Nbd7 9.Bf4 Nd5 10.Bg3 Nxe5 11.Nxe5 Qc8 and kept playing in the hope that White would cross the line in pursuit of simplifications. If Zotova had won the game, she would have become a champion. Did Anastasia simply abandon her dream? Hoping that her rivals would have the results she needed so that she would get the bronze bauble? But both Obolentseva and Matsevskaya won, and Zotova ended up fourth. On top of that, it turned out that the Chess-Results server had been brazenly fooling the players and coaches for as long as eight days, and that the first tie-breaker was not the Buchholz Cut but the opponents' average rating. Which is a very odd rule for kids' tournaments with the current 4x multipliers. (Mr. Azmaiparashvili, is it possible to revise the rule introduced by your predecessor?)   

 It so coincided that Anastasia's coach Pavel Maletin is my best friend, and I asked the chief coach of Siberia why she had made such a decision. "Her nerves let her down, she was confused in the opening and got scared", said Pavel sadly. Zotova is certainly a very gifted player. And I wrote these lines not to sting her pride, but to make sure that Anastasia becomes stronger than steel in her future games.

The Russian chess school: Polina Shuvalova, Anastasia Zotova, Alexandra Obolentseva, Aleksandra Maltsevskaya, and Anna Kochukova

In the boys' section, the battle was expected to take place among the Big Four, namely Sergei Lobanov, Andrey Esipenko, Semen Lomasov, and Timur Fakhrutdinov. The Russian guys' key rivals were European Champion Viktor Matviishen (Ukraine) and World Champion Aram Hakobyan (Armenia). Hakobyan knocked Matviishen out along the way, and the Ukrainian was never able to put himself back on track. Semen and Timur lagged behind somewhat, and the intrigue boiled down to the race among Esipenko, Lobanov, and the Armenian player.  

In a face-to-face encounter, Andrey subtly outplayed Sergei with Black in a Ruy-Lopez, but lost to Hakobyan after defending an unpleasant position for several hours. In the last round, Esipenko made short work of Zarubitski (Belarus), who had stopped him at the last Euro Cup and this year's Children's Olympiad, and had to wait and see which of his competitors would be the first: Andrey's average rating was lower due to the unfortunate encounter with the Belarus player in the middle of the race. 

I met Lobanov over supper in the evening before the final round and asked the player from St. Petersburg how he assessed his chances in a battle with Aram, who had been scoring one point after another, supported by a powerful Armenian team of coaches led by Vladimir Akopian and Artashes Minasian. "I'll win!" said Sergei, and his eyes sparkled. And he was as good as his promise.

Lobanov – Hakobyan 

Black feels pretty comfortable, he has many tempting continuations, but given the ultimate mission he faced, it was worth playing 22...Bxe4 23.Rxe4 Rd7, and then an additional half a point in the standings could have made a difference for Aram. But Hakobyan didn't cope with the pressure.

22… Rd7?! 23.Nc5 Rdd8 24.Nxd4 Ka8?

Missing some simple tactics. The line 24...Rxd4 25.Rxd4 Nxd4 26.Qxd4 Qe7 27.f4 (there's no point in 27.Qd6+ Qxd6 28.exd6 Kc8) 27...Rxh4 would have saved Black from an immediate disaster, although the fight would have continued and White would have had some promising ideas there. But now the game shifts to the technical stage.  

25.Ndxe6! fxe6 26.Nxe6 Rxd3 27.Nxc7+ Kb8 28.Na6+! bxa6 29.Rxd3

Black's pawns are weak, and the white rook and infantry are clearly stronger than the two black pieces. Lobanov was relentless in the conversion stage and was hugged warmly by his coach Valery Loginov after the game.

First place for Lobanov, second for Esipenko: a pity Russia didn't win the entire medal set!

Sergei Lobanov (center), Andrey Esipenko (right)

Under 16

Unfortunately, the Russian boys' delegation was a bit weak here: only the country's silver medalist Semen Khanin showed up, whereas Alexey Sarana, Semen Elistratov, and the brothers Drygalov could also have fought for the medals. But it's the crisis that is to blame. Semen did his best and could have ended sixth had he found a precise move in the last round's endgame, but he never competed for the top three places.

The girls' delegation looked just as impressive as in the younger group: Irina Drogovoz, Olga Mylnikova, Anna Vasenina, Svetlana Tishova, and Maria Milovanova, but they managed to win only one medal. Vasenina, for example, was thwarted by that infamous average rating: Anna had a draw in the first round and got the next opponent who was rated 1500... And her Buchholz was much better and wouldn't give her only the sixth place as she shared places 2 to 6. Mylnikova failed to win at the finish line and make it to the top three, even though Olga battled ferociously against Anna-Maja Kazarian (the Netherlands) in the final round.

The second place went to Irina Drogovoz, the heroine of the latest Russian Championship's Higher League. Even after the Khanty-Mansiysk marathon, the Ugra star still had enough strength, although her coach Alexander Korneevets, with whom I often walked during the tournament, said she could have played even a bit better! In her game against Kazarian, Drogovoz faced a choice: secure a draw or plunge into a dubious position. The first option would have been just a start of the Russian ― Dutch race, but Irina acted like a character from Odesskij's articles...

Irina Drogovoz (right)

Under 18

The oldest Russians had one failure after another. Deplorable yet logical. Anna Styazhkina started with a loss and couldn't catch up with the leaders, and Liya Chekmareva was defeated by the winner Nino Khomeriki; thus, the Russian girls took places 6 and 5, respectively. Meanwhile, Turkey's Ali Marandi proved to be the evil genius for Russian boys, becoming (no kidding!) a five-time European champ. The Turk defeated the leading Maksim Vavulin in the final round, throwing the Muscovite back to the fifth place. And in the penultimate round he held ground against Daniil Yuffa. Daniil, who played the opening with flying colors, had a beautiful combination at his disposal; had the Tyumen player found it, the gold's fate would have been determined in the game Vavulin ― Yuffa. Alas... Daniil won the final game, but was only placed fourth.

Yuffa – Ali Marandi

Here, instead of the game move 19.Re5?, which kept the pressure high but was objectively weak, there was the incredible

19.Rxc5!! bxc5 20.c4! Bxc4

There is no other way, since the bishop threatens to jump to h6 and the knight to d2.

21.Ne5! Bxf1

21...Bb5 22.Bd5 or 21...Be6 22.Nc6 are bad.

22.Nc6 Qc3 23.Be5!! Qxa1

Of course, the queen must be given away: 23...Qxe5 24.Qxe5 Rfe8 25.Ne7+ Rxe7 26.Qxe7 Bxg2 27.Kxg2 a5 28.Qxc5 Nb4 29.h4, but then White wins since the black knight can't return to its allies and stands in the way of the passer.


A beautiful miniature, ideal for Maksim Notkin's column, but purely hypothetical. I feel sorry about this missed masterpiece. As a coach, even more sorry than about the lost medal.

Liya Chekmareva (extreme left)

The saddened Maksim Vavulin and Daniil Yuffa (left)

This is the end of the review, so please allow me to take leave. May you, dear readers, always have the best average rating of your opponents, and may the loyal Booblya protect your VKontakte wall! We'll be looking forward to the World junior Chess Championship in Greece.