18 January 2018

Mikhail Kobalia: Taking a Cup from the Home Team

Senior coach of the Russian youth team, winner of the U16 Olympiad, answers Vladimir Barsky’s questions  

– Mikhail, my congratulations on your victory! Where was the Olympiad taking place?

- In Ahmedabad, India. This city is belongs to the State of Gujarat that borders on Pakistan.

– Is it a small town?

– Speaking country-wide -- yes -- some six million residents. Although little-known in our country, the city is of a historical significance as it hosts the first house-museum of Mahatma Gandhi, also known as Ashram. This is where his Salt March began. In 1930, Gandhi and his followers set off for a 390-kilometer march towards the Arabian Sea coast. Gandhi insisted that salt should be evaporated from the sea water and be available to people free of charge. It was a campaign directed against the British rule.

The rest day we journeyed to Ashram. One of Gandhi’s maxims has branded on my memory, “You need to cultivate cold courage to die without killing.” Lying in store for us was a matchup against Iran, our most principled rival of recent years. As for me, this trip had me recharged with energy; it seems to have had a similar effect on the young folks, too, even though they would rather spend their rest day in the hotel.

Mikhail Kobalia and Mahatma Gandhi

– How prestigious this tournament is?

- It is considered to be the main team competition in the world youth chess. Leading chess powerhouses will invariably send their teams. It should be noted that the U.S. team is not such an often visitor, but the main driving force in the youth chess today is, of course, India; being a permanent participant, this country’s lineup would be its strongest, as a rule. Besides, Iran has been traditionally very dangerous, as well as a number of European teams.

– Does it apply to China as well?

As opposed to above-said, China would show up rarely. As ironically as it may sound, China’s medal share in the junior chess is not that great. It goes without saying that when the 2013 Olympiad was taking place in China, their team was up and running, Wei Yi being one of the players. In general, however, China is not a regular Olympiad participant.

– What about Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Ukraine?

– When the tournament is underway in Europe, the European countries would participate in their entirety. Meanwhile, when the trip is costly, not every country is ready financially. This time Armenia was there, while Azerbaijan and the Ukraine were not. On the other hand, new strong teams enter the stage. For example, Uzbekistan has built a fully capable team, which did even without its youngest grandmaster Abdusattorov. Mongolia is a new country on the chess horizon. The Mongolian children have taken to winning medals at the world championships. This team is not the sharpest tool in the shed yet, but their potential cannot be denied. The Republic works a lot on chess, which has turned into a mass sport. Two years ago the Olympiad was held in Mongolia, and back then the hosts boasted an achievement that found its way into the Guinness Book of Records in that one of the children’s tournament listed some 10.000 participants! With the Mongolia’s population amounting to 3 million, this percentage is impressive indeed!

Beginning with 2011 that I have been with the team, the prize places are usually taken by India, Iran, Russia and Armenia. Still, you need to put together 5 strong players, including one girl that will play a minimum of 3 games. We used to have a pretty strong chess player Alexandra Obolentseva as a team member, who would play more games for that reason; but for many teams this rule comes as a pretty unpleasant thing.

– Does it backfire on them?

– It does. Certain teams feature three strong players, four at best, but you need to come up with five. There is no shortage in our lineup; we have a different kind of problem. We can afford shuffling players from one board to another, but we often lack scorers at top boards. The reason of Iran becoming the two preceding event’s champion was that our team would go down in key matchups. It is seldom that we lose matchups in general, not more than one per competition. This said, we went down to Iran in the past three years. As in the song "Argentina - Jamaica, 5:0", the two Iranians’ score with the Russian team was 5:0, them beating our players both as White and Black. Taking it into consideration, the next matchup with Iran was for us not even a question of prestige, but of dignity!

Alexandra Obolentseva, Timur Fakhrutdinov, Artur Gaifullin, Sergei Lobanov and Semen Lomasov

– Who was your board one in that duel?

– Semen Lomasov. He was given a task to neutralize one of our offenders to at last break with the negative pattern! Semen was slightly ill before the round, so he profited from his white color to fix a draw via a threefold repetition.

All in all, Lomasov had added greatly over the past six months. He made a GM norm in the recent U20 championship in Italy. Having received a wild card nomination from the organizers, he was competing in the Russian men’s Cup right before the Olympiad. He defeated Pavel Ponkratov in round one, and were he to repeat his success in round two...

– …You would have had problems with the team’s lineup, right?

– We would have had no such problems, but Semen ended up making it in time.

– Does it mean he lost in the Russian men’s Cup just time to make in into the team?

– We can say so. We left for India six hours after his arrival from Khanty-Mansiysk.  He was given some rest at the start, and then he went on to display a very solid performance, going through the entire distance without defeats and taking first on his board with 5.5 out of 7. We should keep in mind that board one is traditionally strong in such events.

– The average rating amounts to 2500, right?

– It does. Meanwhile, many of those rated 2400 now will soon reach 2500. The young players are very fast to step up the rating ladder! Thus, India’s average rating across four boards was above 2500. Board four was a 2460 player, the team’s lowest by rating, who ended up scoring 7.5 out of 8 though. Besides, their girl was a very decent player, playing board two two years ago at that. Thus, the Indian team was practically invulnerable, but we managed to score 3:1, and it could have been even 3.5. Semen Lomasov delivered excellently as Black. Our board two was Sergei Lobanov: his opening preparation was so brilliant that it took him only 15 minutes to put his opponent down in what was a really lopsided game!

– Has Sergey negotiated a certain slump in his play?

– He has failed on several occasions this year. For example, he started badly at the European Junior Cup in Jermuk and finished the tournament in the minus column. Lobanov got into the team at the last moment because of the reigning World and European champion Andrey Esipenko’s refusal to participate.

A similar situation happened in 2012, when I took Maksim Chigaev as No.5 player at the last moment. I was aware of soft spots in his play, but when studying games, styles and psychological nuances of our players before the tournament, Maxim was on the rise and moving up the boards. He ended up on board two and did a confident job of all his opponents. Accordingly, Sergei Lobanov made it to board two. His performance was brilliant, scoring 5.5 out of 8 with six games as Black. The most important was, however, that he delivered in key matches with Iran and India, winning a game from the Iranian who finished 8/9.

There are no easy victories, however. Round one matchup was not that difficult, but already in round two we were faced off with a solid team of Belarus. We had to fight back or aim at draws on the first three boards, while the overall victory was brought by board four Alexandra Obolentseva. We managed to outperform the Mongolian team without dropping any points along the way, while round four was in store for us with a grueling battle against the team of India, which I have already mentioned before.

Round five was a demanding matchup with Uzbekistan.  The Uzbek players have recently added significantly, taking medals at the world championships on multiple occasions. Lomasov succeeded on board one, and we succeeded with a minimum score.

We started brilliantly by taking all five matches, but there was to be a rest day. It was just that in the latest edition of "64" Sergei Zagrebelny highlighted that the junior world championship in Italy exposed the problem of the Russian chess players in that a rest day was their underwhelming as they would score poorly immediately after. I was aware of it myself since long ago, honestly speaking.

– Does it come as an aftermath of a rest day well spent?

– I cannot give you the exact reasons. It may well be that certain players get into the habit of performing under pressure. A golden mean is needed, in my point of view. It is a good idea to go out for a sightseeing to shift your focus from chess to a certain extent. It helps recharge your batteries, but without going overboard with anything excessive, of course. We seem to have had it going our way this time. The contest with Iran, our traditionally troublesome opponent, was not an easy one, but Semen Lomasov fulfilled the assignment and made a draw, while Sergei Lobanov won superbly as Black. Timur Fakhrutdinov, our last board, scored as well, sealing a 3:1 victory. We felt more confident afterwards.

As we played two rounds that day, we also managed to defeat Turkey, a somewhat awkward opponent of ours. Round eight pitted us against Armenia, seeded four in the tournament, a team traditionally dangerous and known for its togetherness. Although we had a cushion of three points separating us from the nearest pursuers, it safeguarded us against nothing just yet. The match with Armenia had its ups and downs, but everyone did whatever he was supposed to. We scored on board four, whereas the first three boards delivered the desired result by making forced draws. This being out eighth success in a row, we clinched first!

It goes without saying that it was nobody’s intention to relax; a task was set to win nine out of nine, but winning board medals takes a certain number of games to play. It takes seven games for boards one through four and six for the reserve board. Therefore, we had to remove one player from the combination Sergei Lobanov - Artur Gaifullin. Those two were in excellent shape; this pair makes an ideal team player. I would jokingly tag them as Arthur Lobanov.

– Are they friends in life?

– Yes, they get along pretty nicely. The best team player is Artur Lobanov that would usually bring one and a half points out of two!

– Please, tell us something about Artur Gaifullin.

–  He's from Bashkortostan. His performance at the latest Russian Championship was underwhelming, but his result at the European Championship was quite a decent one, finishing +4, with 6.5 out of 9. We went together to a matchup with China a couple of years ago, so that he was not a new chess player for me. I have come to know him as a good team player and felt confident for him.

What about Timur Fakhrutdinov?

– He is from Verkhnyaya Pyshma, a town near Yekaterinburg. A two-time European champion, his performance this year has been subject to ups and downs. However, he ended up second on his board, having played the majority of his games as Black, much like Sergei Lobanov.

It has been Alexandra Obolentseva’s second appearance for the team already; this time, however, her performance was inferior to that of the previous event. Having scored 3.5 out of 6, she delivered a victory as Black when most needed in a matchup against Belarus, which saw us struggling through one of its phases. Since the distance is long, 9 rounds, and with two rounds on certain days at that, a bench player is yet another factor of high importance. You need to distribute loads between players in a more or less uniform proportion. I believe we have dealt with this aspect successfully.

A huge Cup goes to Moscow!

– Does Obolentseva manage to hold her own when competing with boys?

- She took first place on board one at the latest U19 Russian team championship among boys, and for the first time in many years the Moscow Palace (now known as the "Botvinnik School") won the Russian championship. This is quite a level already. It would be yet premature to call her a seasoned fighter, but she is definitely in her element when it comes to tactical complications and calculation of lines. It is true, though, that there was a period when she was not feeling well in India. Several players have had health problems caused by the local food.

– What is the essence of the problem?

– The majority of Gujarat’s population are vegetarians, and the fact that we sometimes had chicken and fish was a great achievement in itself. However, a combination of many bones and much spice in a chicken gives a taste that we are not quite accustomed to. Following 3-4 days of struggling with chicken, I “converted” into a vegetarian against my will.

– Please, do not tell it to anyone if you visit Georgia!

- It turns out that living on vegetables and things like that is not impossible. To hunger is human!

Having missed our winning opportunities, we did go down to India II in the ultimate round. Anyway, I do not recall any other instance when the entire team would take individual awards, all five players. This is a superb performance, no doubt!

We have brought to Moscow a huge Cup, which was undoubtedly intended for the home team. They were confident about the victory and put together an optimal lineup, but it worked otherwise.

– Your team has done well! Let me congratulate you one more time!

– Thank you. It is beyond any doubt that the level of competition is on the rise and that new strong teams appear on the scene. Once it was a contest between two teams, whereas nowadays this number has increased significantly. It is all about team points, and there is no ruling out a 2:2 result in any match. Luck definitely sided with us, but still, it was an Olympiad victory with one round to go! I do not recall anything of the kind happening before and give props to my young team players!

The Cup has arrived at the Central House of Chess Player on the Gogol Boulevard