20 January 2016

The Twists and Turns in Minsk

The new European champion Mikhail Popov's long journey to the European rapid and blitz championship.

You can't win.
You can't break even.
You can't even get out of the game.

Ginsberg's Theorem

Introduction for Thriller and Crime Story Lovers

The European Rapid and Blitz Chess Championship is probably one of the most remarkable events in the calendar of an ordinary chess player. Each discipline brings together 600 to 800 players ― a pretty good number, isn't it? If you are lucky with the pairings, you might face, already in the first rounds, someone like Nigel Short sitting in front of you and thinking about what feedback about your play he will post on Twitter. And if you aren't lucky, no problem: you win an interesting game against a local amateur ― up to 300 of them turn up for the tournament ― and stroll around the playing tables in a relaxed manner until the next round. And then you might be lucky after all...  

So when Dmitry Kryakvin, journalist and editor of the Russian Chess Federation's website (who, purely by accident, happens to play chess pretty well), suggested that we visit Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and play some blitz, I really couldn't sit idle. So said, so done: we wrote to the organizers, bought the tickets, and went to an insurance office to get the polices mandatory for all the participants. And then... then follows the author's little cry from the heart, so the readers who specifically came here to enjoy the aesthetic aspects of chess can skip the next several passages. Purely because the story will now be about the tough fate of the two Tyumen chess players who wanted too much: getting to Minsk by the start of the first round.

So I continue the story from the moment of soliciting the insurance police. As soon as we told the insurance agents that we wanted an insurance, the entire office started clicking their computer mice frantically to calculate the precise amount, and only one employee, a bit bristly but very warm-hearted, showed a spectacular interest to our black-and-white passion. "Who are you? Chess players? Cool? How long have you been playing? Fifteen years? And how old are you then? What, have you been playing your entire life?" And those are just a few of the inspired insurer's questions that I had to answer. He didn't leave Dmitry out either, of course: learning about his Rostov roots, he started asking him in at once about fishing in the Don. When he finally satisfied his curiosity and gave us the papers that we coveted so much but never actually needed, the good insurer wanted to wish us good luck but didn't know what words were usually used for this. And he asked just like this: "To wish good luck to fishers, you say, 'neither tail nor scales'. But what about chess players?" To that I replied in a blink, "That one is fine. Absolutely." 

After I did some college studies (the life of a non-professional chess player is hard), I started packing my suitcase. We decided to leave on Thursday so we could get there without hurry, check in, and have a free day to see some Minsk sights. I still remember how I took a taxi to the airport hoping to have a good flight, find the time to see the city, and sleep well. But as soon as I got to the airport, all my hopes vanished: it turned out that I had convinced myself that the plane would take off two hours later than actually scheduled. It actually departed two hours later due to a delay, but they didn't let us in, saying that we shouldn't have come so late. We still wanted to play in the tournament, and we had some time left, so we went to the ticket counters to get a backup flight. Of course, there was only one ticket left from Tyumen and Moscow for the 17th, and it cost a fortune. But before we got desperate, the clerk offered us a perfect option, or so it seemed at the time: go to Yekaterinburg and depart from there on an evening flight so as to arrive in Minsk by midnight.

A new shock awaited us upon our arrival at the train station: it turned out that since we hadn't checked in for the first flight, each and every connection flight was also lost. Even the return flights. Strangely, when we asked if we could at least keep the tickets from Minsk, the answer was that we could, but then a price of 77,000 rubles was mentioned. Then we had a temporary break from our misfortunes; we got to Yekaterinburg without trouble and could even take a nap. An airport employee found us the only route to get back home, even though we had to pay through the nose again and to risk missing the flight closure. We bought the tickets half-heartedly and decided to get a cup of coffee.        

As I digested a burger in the first junk food café we found, I mulled over the morning events and asked myself the following question: what if all of this is a dream and a flight attendant is going to wake me up now to offer some tea or coffee? And indeed, someone came up to our table almost at once, but it was the waiter rather than a flight attendant: she asked us to pay immediately because the Koltsovo airport would be evacuated due to a bomb alert! Starting to suspect that the entire world had conspired against us, we grabbed our stuff and got outside, but didn't find any crowd; on the contrary, people kept entering the airport as if nothing had happened. By listening unwittingly to talks of the initiated, we learned that the bomb was in the nearby hotel, and the airport was evacuated just for good measure. Of course, a few minutes after we became aware of this fact we were already checking in for the Moscow flight at the registration desk. But we couldn't enjoy the lack of a queue at the desk: the air controller's ringing voice demanded that we leave the airport building again. This time absolutely everyone was evacuated and we were no exception, even though we didn't feel like going outside due to the somewhat unfriendly weather in Yekaterinburg.

Now we knew where to listen for information. I wish we hadn't: after thinking over what I've heard, I'd like to ask plenty of questions to people whom I will probably never meet. "They say a new call came in. The bomb was planted not only in the hotel, but also in the airport building and the runways." Fine for the airport and hotel, but how could it be on the runways? With the extremely rigorous security at the Sverdlovsk Airport, had a suicide bomber found some roundabout path to the runways and was now waiting for a plane to take off? Whatever the case, security above all, and we had to wait obediently until several security agents wearing a dozen of layers of clothes checked the facilities for bombs.  

The Angelo hotel during the first evacuation. One can already notice the abundance of ambulance cars and the almost fully deserted adjacent area

And this is the second evacuation. There are no bombs in the hotel, which is why they started to send there the freezing passengers waiting for the airport to be checked

Soon the Koltsovo airport was checked too, and we went to that amazingly hospitable place to warm up, full of hopes and with plenty of time at our disposal. The boarding was about to begin, and to kill time I suggested that my companion in distress solve some three-move chess puzzles on my mobile phone. I specifically downloaded them on the phone the night before (while I should have checked the flight time instead!). The first puzzle didn't raise any questions, but the second wasn't to Dmitry's liking, and he said: "Let's finish with the puzzles and listen to the announcements, it would be a shame not to get to Minsk at all because of a chess puzzle." The suggestion seemed reasonable and proved to have a predictive undertone: almost immediately, the painfully familiar female voice resounded in all the corners of the departure hall: "Dear passengers! For security reasons, we ask you to..." Before hearing the rest, I put on my coat and made myself go outside in the frost with a stony face.

Evacuation, act three. Behind me is about the same crowd, nervously trying to warm up in the tiny area near the Angelo hotel, which was evacuated too 

The third evacuation turned out to be the most large-scale and the longest, but also the merriest: cars with flashing lights came in one after another, as if an unplanned Rolling Stones concert had been announced at Koltsovo. I started to regret I wasn't wearing my reliable weatherworn winter boots but some lighter boots instead, but after an hour and a half my frozen toes were granted an amnesty. Nothing was found at Koltsovo again.  

There were not many reasons for worrying at the outset: despite the bad start of the day, the connection gap in Moscow were about four hours and a half. Even after 100 minutes of dancing outside, we still had plenty of time. Even waiting for an hour for the boarding to start (at first they sent off the planes that couldn't leave before the third evacuation), I was more than confident that now we would certainly be in time. But the Thursday doom was still there.

"Dear passengers, the plane is delayed by 25 minutes due to the offloading of the baggage of passengers who didn't turn up for the boarding."

"Dear passengers, the plane is delayed by 20 minutes due to de-icing."

But our plane had already been sprinkled from the de-icing hose, so why we couldn't take off for half an hour? Can you guess in what direction all of this was heading? Right.

A few hours later:

I (out of breath): "Has the plane for Minsk already left?"

Operator: "Yes. Go to our company's representative, they will give you tickets for a new flight."

Representative: - "Don't worry, everything is fine. Here are your tickets, you'll be in Minsk by 13.30."

...And the first blitz round was to start at 11.00. This was indeed the final nail in the coffin. Dumbfounded, I dropped on a chair feeling as if fate had played an extravagant opening against me and was outplaying me in about 20 moves, in a way I could do absolutely nothing. Luckily, the "Black Thursday" had come to an end and things started to look up slowly. We were able to exchange the tickets for slightly earlier ones (arrival at 10.25), get a snack and catch some sleep in a hotel where they kindly gave us a room due to the inconveniences.   

While we sat in the plane later, we tried to joke without any emotions about what else could happen to us. Will the plane have to be refueled urgently? Or are there terrorist hijackers sitting behind us? Was there such dense fog in Minsk that the pilot would abstain from landing, turn around and fly back to Moscow? No, everything turned out to be much simpler, but quite within the master plan "Do Everything to Make Popov and Kryakvin Miss Round One": the flight was simply delayed by an hour. Therefore, we set our feet on the great Belarus soil right when we were scheduled to start the clock. As soon as we landed in Minsk, however, we got a text message that still gave us a glimpse of hope. It said that there was a delay, the first round wasn't beginning any time soon, and we actually had every chance to be on time.

Forty minutes later we felt at our own expense what kind of "delay" it was. When entering the Palace of Sports where over 600 chess players were waiting for the beginning of the European Blitz Championship, we received "a warm welcome" from brutal security officers who demanded that we show the content of our suitcases. Seeing that my T-shirts didn't possess any explosive properties, they finally let us into the playing hall, where the battle for determining the Old World's strongest blitz player was already in full sway. We hurriedly found ourselves in the pairings, and ran to our corresponding tables hoping to find at least a couple of seconds on the clock, but it was switched off: we were too late for the first game. Both myself and the journalist/editor were able to come back in the second game, after which we took a breath and got down to business, hoping to catch up with the leaders.    

Finally, the championship!


And now we come back to the key component of this report. I'll describe briefly the hows, whats and wheres to those who decided to save their time and refrain from reading the enormous saga about the two Tyumen players' 30-hour adventure. The three-day Minsk event started with a blitz tournament of 11 double rounds. The players spent all three days in the fairly roomy Palace of Sports, where the organizers easily managed to receive all the participants ― with 600 of them in the blitz tournament and as much as 750 in the rapid event! As Belarusians themselves admitted, they hadn't hosted such big chess festivals for a long time, but this year it was still decided to hold the European championship beyond the traditional Poland. I will share my impressions on the organization of the tournament further in the article because I really have to get to the chess part now.

Even though the event coincided with a Swiss-system tournament in Qatar, probably the best-represented lately, the European championship's composition proved to be strong. The initial list was topped by Ukranian GM Iuri Shkuro, who managed to gain an impressive rating of 2792 without even playing in major tournaments! Unfortunately, the European championship didn't become an exception: Iuri never came to Minsk. In his absence, the top-rated player on the starting list was the Czech GM David Navara, followed by Rauf Mamedov, Ilia Smirin, Tigran Petrosian, Igor Kovalenko, Hrant Melkumyan, the 18-year-old Ukranian talent Olexandr Bortnyk, and Baadur Jobava: the latter's blitz rating was 2700 sharp. These were followed by another 40 grandmasters, and a whole raft of international masters and blitz amateurs!

In the first round, only one grandmaster on the first 49 boards where the games were broadcast failed to win the micro-match. It's easy to guess that it was the RCF editor and journalist who, for objective reasons, failed to overcome a Belarus player's resistance. In the next rounds, the favorites were resilient, but there were many more draws: Gadir Guseinov, Nigel Short, and Boris Savchenko failed to defeat their opponents, and in the third round Ivan Popov suffered a loss. That said, some won without breaking a sweat, while others had to toil hard to obtain the smiles of fortune.   
Author's note: since special rapid and blitz ratings were calculated in the tournaments, each player's rating relevant to the tournament format is given in brackets next to the last name for the reader's convenience. 

Navara (2730) – Pogosian (2382)
European Blitz Championship, round 3, game 2

Take the rating favorite David Navara. Five easily won games at the start and a good chance of winning in the sixth: he is up an exchange and two pawns, and the white king is waiting in full safety for his counterpart to be checkmated. Or, actually, was waiting in full safety, because instead of playing an accurate move like 35.b4 David opted for a "prettier" move: 35.Qc6??, after which Manvel Pogosian captured the queen cold-bloodedly: 35...Rxc6!, since the rook's check on b8 would be followed by the black queen's leap Qg8, Black having an extra piece as a result. In general, it is better to avoid unnecessary "pretty" moves in blitz, particularly with just a few seconds remaining. One could unintentionally suffer! David didn't give up, however: he captured the rook 36. Rxc6 and got to this position:

White's success is obvious: the b7 pawn is dangerous, and it was time for Black to put up with a draw: 67…Kxh5 68.Re3 Qg6+ 69.Kh2 Qf5, since the rook is untouchable, or else the queen will slip through. And finally it did, but in an even more cunning way:

67... Qb6?? 68.R3xf6+! gxf6 69.Rxf6+ Qxf6 70.b8Q, and after 70…Kxh5 71.Qg3 Qd8 72.Qg4+ Kh6 73.Qf4+ Kh7 74.Kg3 Qd1 75.Qh4+ Black resigned.

Chigaev (2603) – Kocheev (2336)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 3, game 2

Maksim Chigaev, the triumphant participant of Kirishi-2015, could barely secure a draw in the first game of the micro-match versus Aleksandr Kocheev, and his position in the second game is quite shaky as well. The doubled pawns make it more appealing, of course, but after the simple 37...Re7! it's not clear how they can help White later in the fight. But here Maksim suddenly grasped a lifeline thanks to another blitz player's bad habit: if you see a check, perform it!

37…Qh1+ 38.Kf2 Rf8+ 39.Ke3! Rf3+? 40.Kxe4!

As Maksim said, after the enemy bishop was taken Aleksandr looked as if his opponent had just conjured a trick in David Blaine's best traditions. Indeed, White's queen is under attack, the king is under discovered check, and despite all that they feel more than comfortable. After making a few moves – 40…Rf1+ 41.Kd3 Rf3+ 42.Kd2 Rxg3 43.Rxh1 Kh7 44.c5 g5 45.Rb1 – Kocheev understood that further resistance against the prestidigitator from St.Petersburg/Kemerovo was useless and laid down his arms.

While the first three rounds were more or less quiet, absolute phantasmagoria, the one for which blitz is so much loved in the chess world, started after that.

Dzhumagaliev (2560) – Meribanov (2331)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 4, game 1


Why not a move for blitz?! No preparation at all, just play whatever your heart desires.

1..c5 2.h5 h6 3.c3 Nc6 4.d4 cxd4 5.cxd4 d5 6.Nc3 Nf6 7.Nf3 Bg4 8.Ne5 Bxh5 9.f3

White is lacking a pawn, of course, but Black has to do something with his bishop. Vitaly Meribanov decided to give it away, just in sake.

9...Nxe5? 10.dxe5 Nd7 11.Rxh5 e6 12.f4 Bc5 13.e4 d4 14.Nb5 Qb6 15.a4 d3 16.Qxd3 Bf2+ 17.Ke2 0–0?

Black doesn't need the second bishop either.

18.a5 Qc5 19.b4 Qxb4 20.Kxf2 Nc5 21.Qc4 Nxe4+ 22.Kf3 Qe1 23.Qe2 Qg3+

Clearly, the knight is an unnecessary piece, too. Particularly if, by sacrificing it, you can make the enemy king take some exercise.

24.Kxe4 f5+ 25.exf6 Rxf6 26.Re5 Raf8 

Black has achieved his goal: he lacks three pieces, but the others are in play and his king is safe. He also possesses a quality that often brings several extra points in blitz: the ultimate confidence in oneself. It's the opposite for White: his king has travelled as far as to square e4, while half of his pieces haven't moved since the beginning of the game. The punishment followed immediately.

27.Nd4?? Rxf4+ White resigned.

Kulaots (2587) – Mamedov (2769)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 4, game 1

And this is an example of being "lucky as the first prize winner". The Estonian grandmaster had been fending off Rauf Mamedov's threats throughout the game, got two pieces for a rook and could have finished the game logically with some nice geometry:  52.Ng8+ Kd8 53.Nxh6! Rxc6 54.Nxf7 Kxd7 55. Ne5+ with a won pawn endgame. But Kaido Kulaots made a "human" move bringing the knight to the center and complicated the task considerably.

52.Nd5+ Kd8 53.Bb5 Re5 54.Bc6 Re6 55.Bb5 Re5

After 55.Bc6 Re6 the position will repeat for the third time, and if 55.Bc4 Kxd7 the game is obviously drawish. White eventually made a move for a win... but for Black's win.

56.Ba4?? Rxd5, and 30 moves later Rauf converted the extra exchange into a point, winning the second game in the match after that.

Granted, the leaders weren't always lucky, so it's a hard job to say who was lucky like the first prize winner and who like the second prize winner (and who wasn't lucky at all). It's difficult to play 22 games without mistakes in such a strong tournament, so sometimes you do need help from fate.

Savchenko (2658) – Shtembuliak (2526)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 5, game 1

Boris had just moved his g pawn one step closer to its goal, but he could hardly pin great hopes on it, since White's position is pitiful. The promising Ukrainian junior Evgeny Shtembuliak successfully gained an exchange in the middle of the game versus his more renowned opponent, he played the game well on the whole and seemed to be one step away from winning.

78...Ra2+ 79.Kd1 e2+ 80.Kc1 Bxe1?

Any waiting move, like 80...Ke3!, with the subsequent capture of the b pawn, would have forced White to sacrifice either his main trump card on g6 or one of his knights, which would have been equivalent to a surrender. Now the situation is much more complicated for a blitz game: in order to win, he has to exchange the passers and then work accurately for about another 30 moves for a point.  

81.Nxe1 Ke3??

Or, instead of working, agree that there is a queen endgame on the board with Black having a pawn up, perform a couple of checks, make sure that the position is drawn, then go back to the queen endgame and start a new game.

82.g7 Ra1+ 83.Kb2 Rxe1 84.g8Q Rb1+ 85.Kxb1 e1Q+ 86.Ka2 Qd2+ 87.Ka3 Qb4+ 88.Ka2 Qd2+ 89.Ka3 Qb4+ 90.Ka2 Qd2+ 91.Ka3 Qb4+ 92.Ka2 a4 93.Qe8+ Kd2 94.Qxa4 Qxa4+ 95.bxa4 c4 96.a5 c3 97.a6 c2 98.a7 c1Q 99.a8Q Draw.

The following example doesn't require any comments at all.

Riazantsev (2666) – Navara (2786)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 5, game 1

48.Bc5 Ne5?? 49.Bxb4 Black resigned.

Lucky as they might be, all the participants running for a prize realized that they had to win everything that could be won and particularly everything that couldn't to stay competitive at least to some extent.

Petrosian (2724) – Guseinov (2686)
European Blitz Championship, round 6, game 2

White has just captured an infantryman: 54.Nxd6, and absolute material and positional equilibrium established on the board. If we remove the knights from the board, one can call for an arbiter at once and claim a draw because the position couldn't be won even in theory then! But, as experienced people say, a knight in blitz games is a bit stronger than a bishop, and if you really want it, it's also stronger then the enemy knight.

54…Ke7 55.Nc8+ Kd7 56.Nb6+ Kc6 57.Nd5 Nd2 58.Ne7+ Kd7 59.Nxg6 Ke6

After a series of leaps and bounds White has gotten to the weakness on g6, but even grabbing the pawn doesn't help him improve the position. After the moves

60.Nf8+ Ke7 61.Ng6+ Ke6 62.Nf8+ Ke7

Sergei Shipov, who once again worked brilliantly throughout the tournament as a commentator, and the audience in the hall expected a draw, but...


No draws! Tigran decides to test the Azerbaijani grandmaster for resilience.

63...Nxe4+ 64.Ke3


This is still a draw, but one needs precision, which is in short supply in blitz. The h pawn doesn't go anywhere, but after creating a remote passer – 64...Nc3 65.Kd2 Nxa4 66.Nf6 Nb2 – only Black would have had winning chances because passed pawns in a knight endgame are not to be trifled with. Going back didn't lose either: 64...Nd6, keeping the c4 pawn under the gun. After the move in the game White seizes the initiative, which can convert into a full-fledged point within seconds.

65.Nf6 Nf5+ 66.Ke4 Nxh4 67.Nxh5 Ng6?

And now it's hard to save the game. Only with 67...Kd6! 68.Ng7 Ng6 69.Kf5 Ne7+ 70.Kg4 e4 71.Kf4 e3 72.Kxe3 Ke5, and Black should obtain a draw thanks to the king's activity.

68.Kf5 Kf7 69.Ng3 Nf4 70.Ne4 Nd3 71.g6+ Kg7 72.Ng5 e4 73.Nxe4 Nb2 74.Nxc5 Nxc4 75.Ne6+ Kg8

Only three pawns remain on the board, but this is still enough to tighten the stranglehold with every move.

76.Kf6 Nb6 77.Nc5 Nd5+ 78.Ke5 Nb6 79.Kf6 Nd5+ 80.Kg5 Nb6 81.Kh6 Nd5 82.Nd7 Kh8 83.Ne5 Kg8

83...Ne7! didn't lose at once, after which Tigran Petrosian would have had to demonstrate miraculous skills of horse dressage and king manoeuvering: 84.Nf7+ Kg8 85.Nd6! Kh8 86.Ne8! Nf5+ 87.Kg5 Ne3 88.Kf6 Kg8 89.Nd6 Nd5+ 90.Kg5 Nc3 91.Nf5 Nxa4 92.Kf6 with a win. But now White uses the e7 square for a very "modest" goal: to deliver a clean checkmate.

84.Nc6! Kh8 85.Nxa5 Nb6 86.Nc6 Nxa4 87.Ne7 with the inevitable 88. g7#.

Aleksandrov (2540) – Navara (2786)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 6, game 2


What's this? Does David give away a heavy piece again? Yes. But this time the sacrifice is absolutely accurate and is worth a legitimate place in new editions of the book Kogda ne Zhal Pherzya (Sacrificing the Queen).

31.fxg3 Nf4++ with checkmate after 32. Kf3 Ng2# or 32.Kh1 Rh6+ 33.Kg1 Rg2#.

Round seven started in a relaxed working atmosphere and finished with an interesting observation: it turned out that neither Nigel Short nor Alexander Motylev were in the pairings! While Alexander was rather depressed without any appetite for playing from the outset, the reason for the British guest's quitting the tournament remained a mystery to me for a long time. When I came back home, I learned about the unbelievable psychological blow Short had suffered in the fifth round. His opponent Taras Fomin, after losing in the first game, decided to come back at any cost with Black in the second and opted for Gunderam Defense, quite suitable for this task: – 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Qe7!? – and won! Even after playing through another round, Nigel Short performed poorly, unable to come back from the Gunderam blow, and quit the tournament. Anything can happen at blitz championships! (This tournament episode made Kirillos Zangalis, the Russian Chess Federation's PR Director and a friend of mine, experience a broad range of emotions, and he really insisted that the author include Fomin's achievement in this report – Dmitry Kryakvin).

The poor Nigel Short after Gunderam―Fomin's attack


But, as a classical Russian saying goes, "the squadron overlooked the missing soldier". Fewer and fewer games remained before the end, and Caissa kept kissing her favorites on the forehead.   

Bocharov (2678) – Savchenko (2658)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 8, game 1

Not so long ago the formidable Siberian player Dmitry Bocharov shined at the Berlin blitz championship, and now he is trying to checkmate Boris Savchenko. The line looks simple, but we should consider that Boris seems to have bought a subscription for the entire 22 blitz games from Fortune herself.

38.Rxf6+ gxf6 39.Qh7+ Kg5

40.Rd5+ f5 41.Rxf5#, as I would have written in a review of any classical tournament, moving on to the next battle. But blitz has its own charms. The battle is raging on.

40.Qh4+?! 40...Kg6 41.Qxg4+? (it's not too late to get back to the checkmate by 41.Qh7+) 41…Ng5 42.f4

Such a conversion method is possible too. The check with the pawn is pretty unpleasant, and Black can't defend from it without losses. Unless he is Boris Savchenko.

42...Qe6 43.Qxe6??

The queen is a strong piece, it may always come in handy: 43.f5+! Qxf5 44.Rg7+ Kxg7 45.Qxf5, and White would have had too many extra pawns. But now White has to forget about winning, it seems.

43...Nxe6 44.Rxb7 Nc5 45.Rxa7 Rxe3 46.b4 Ne4 47.b5 Kf5 48.b6 Rb3 49.Ra5+ Kg4 50.Ra4 Rb1+ 51.Kg2 Rb2+ 52.Kg1 Kf3 53.Rb4 Rg2+ 54.Kf1

Little by little, White has reached a lost position. A couple of precise checks: 54...Rf2+! 55.Ke1 (55.Kg1 Nd2! with checkmate) 55...Re2+ 56.Kd1 Nc3+ 57.Kc1 Na2+, an extra rook, an extra half a point in the table... But Fortune is a pettish lady, and sometimes it's important not to overstep the mark, like Savchenko did. An engrossing draw!

54…Nd2+? 55.Ke1 Ke3 56.Kd1 Kd3 57.Kc1 Kc3 58.Kd1 Kd3 59.Kc1 Kc3 60.Kd1 Kd3 Draw.

To the delight of the local fans, Sergei Zhigalko led the tournament in the second half. The audience in the viewing hall greeted every win of their idol with a storm of applause. Sergei really played very well, but sometimes he failed to win because of that: you can't always find the best move very quickly. You ponder for 30 seconds here and a minute there, and suddenly there are 3 seconds remaining on the clock, with the opponent lacking material but having more than enough time.

This is why most experienced blitz players on the top boards did their best to make natural and solid moves, sometimes even too fireproof, in order to avoid blunders and preserve the precious time. But as soon as you looked several dozens of boards down, all principles of rational chess paled into insignificance and only pure blitz remained. That very blitz that requires no comments or analysis, but just viewing.

Sharafiev (2509) – Kochetkov (2338)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 9, game 1

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 c5 3.d5 b5 4.Bg5 Qb6 5.c3 a6 6.a4 Bb7 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.e4 

8...g5!? 9.axb5 Qg6 10.Nbd2 Bg7 11.bxa6 Nxa6 12.Qb3 Bc8 13.h4 g4 14.h5 Qh6 15.Nh4 e6 16.dxe6 fxe6 17.Nc4 0–0 18.Nb6 Qf4 19.Nf5!? Qxe4+ 20.Ne3 g3 21.Nxa8 gxf2+ 22.Kd2 Qxa8 23.Qa4 Bh6 24.Rh3 Qd5+ 25.Kc2 Qg5 26.Ng4 

26...Nb4+! 27.cxb4 Qxg4 28.bxc5 Qf5+ 29.Kb3 Bb7 30.Rg3+ Kh8 31.Qd4+ e5 32.Qd3 Qe6+ 33.Kc2 Bf4 34.Rh3 e4 35.Qc4 Bd5

I will say a few words, however. For 35 moves, Azat Sharafiev and German Kochetkov indulged the audience with unorthodox chess solutions, and after 36.Qd4+ Be5 37.Qe3 Bf4 38.Qd4+ Be5 39.Qe3 Bf4 40.Qd4+ Be5 41.Qe3 Bf4 a peaceful handshake would have been an absolutely logical conclusion of the game. Alas, Azat "went overboard": 42.Qxf2?, and the handshake happened indeed, albeit not a peaceful one at all: 42...e3! 43.Qe2 Bb3+ 44.Kc1 Qc4+!! 45.Qxc4 e2+ 46.Qxf4 e1Q#. Checkmate on the board! Many thanks from me personally for the interesting game.

But let's get back to the top boards. Two rounds before the end, Sergei Zhigalko continued to lead, but the modest half a point in the match versus Rauf Mamedov made the tournament situation extremely tense. Mamedov caught up with Zhigalko: they had 16 points out of 20, but suddenly the 16-point group also included Vladimir Belous, Boris Savchenko (how without him?) and Mykola Bortnyk, whose brother Olexandr was completely routed by Savchenko, so that Mykola had to perform unbelievable tricks to stand up for his family.

Bortnyk (2627) – Ponkratov (2687)
Blitz European Championship 2015, round 9, game 2

In this position, the operators' team produced Mykola and Pavel's game on the big screen, and Sergei Shipov, after calculating the pieces carefully, found that Black was a piece up. "Pavel, you won't forgive yourself if you don't win this one!" said Shipov, and Ponkratov, as if hearing those words, made the move 32...Rd4 after half a minute's thinking. While Sergei ruminated whether those thirty seconds would suffice for the young grandmaster from the Urals to convert the extra pawn, the elder Bortnyk calmly calculated the overwhelmingly strong blow: 33.Rexe6! After shaking his head a little, Pavel captured the rook, finding himself two pawns down after 34.Qd7+ Kg6 35.Rxd4.

It was about time to resign, and this was what happened after 35...Qe5 36.Rd1 g4 37.Qd4: White centralized his forces, counterattacked, moved into the endgame and converted the extra material confidently. But even after such a stroke of fate Black had an escape! He should have cast all the bad thoughts aside, harnessed his willpower and discovered that after 36…Qe4! there is no queen exchange 37.Qd3 due to the unpleasant move 37…Rh1#. The only move, 37.f3 Qe3+ 38.Kg2 Qe2+ 39.Kg1 Qe3+, led to a perpetual check: the black king is not completely safe either and no serious threats can be posed against his white counterpart. As we know, the game followed another track and added a fifth participant on the leaders' list.

Olexander Bortnyk's brother versus the Urals' youngest grandmaster

Just behind the "Magnificent Five" were Alexander Riazantsev, Zaven Andriasian and Boris Grachev; further behind them, but also within a shooting distance were Baadur Jobava, Dmitry Bocharov, Mikhail Demidov, Evgeny Alekseev, Alexander Zubov, Markus Ragger, Aleksandr Rakhmanov... More than a dozen contenders for the medals! The drawing of lots brought together Mamedov and Belous, Savchenko and Zhigalko, Mykola Bortnik and Alexander Riazantsev. The events developed absolutely differently in all those micro-matches. 

Rauf Mamedov, feeling that the first place was within reach, chopped Vladimir Belous to pieces. Rauf pressurized his opponent from the opening, and then the blows poured like hail. Vladimir could have saved the first game, but didn't believe his luck. 

Mamedov (2769) – Belous (2618)
European Blitz Championship 2015, round 11, game 1

It seemed at some point that Belous had to resign immediately, but Black almost regained equilibrium by finding the only moves. The pin is certainly dangerous and it seems that the simple move

26...Ne6! can't help it due to 27.f4, but then some magic comes into play: 27…Rd8! 28.Nb1 Ng6! 29.Bc4 (29.f5? Nh4+) Rd6, and Black gets off with nothing more than a fright. Belous found what initially looked just as strong: 26...g5?, but the tactics wasn't in Black's favor: 27.Bxg5!, and there is no 27...Rg8 because of another pin ― a diagonal one: 28.Rxe5+! Ne6 29.Rxe6+! He had to hunker down with 27…Ndf7, but there was no more intrigue in the game, and White won fairly easily.

The scenario was different on the second and third boards. It appeared that the fight between the darling of fortune and the darling of the local fans would be a draw: Boris Savchenko won the first game quickly and confidently, but Sergei Zhigalko gave tit for tat, gaining a huge edge in the second game just as quickly. He chased the black knight to a1, could easily have had an extra piece in the endgame several times... but dropped the flag.  

What a tragedy! Sergei Zhigalko has forgotten about time and loses to Boris Savchenko

2-0, and the last theoretical contender for the gold was Mykola Bortnyk, even though he only fought for the top three after a quiet starting draw with Riazantsev. He fought fairly well anyway, resolving all the opening issues as Black and even seizing the initiative, but a couple of imprecise moves in time trouble, and Alexander Riazantsev's two knights proved to be stronger than the Ukrainian master's rook. Riazantsev was in the third place after an important win, but shared it with Dmitry Bocharov, who managed to whitewash Baadur Jobava after the latter went a bit too far in the second game instead of performing a perpetual check.

There were no tie breaks either for the first or for the third place. The final standings, which appeared several minutes after the last blitz game was over, indicated the following three prize winners: Rauf Mamedov, Boris Savchenko, and Alexander Riazantsev. I would have loved to share the delight of those players when they stood on the pedestal, but unfortunately I couldn't wait for that moment. For a very natural reason: the closing ceremony started at about 11 p.m., whereas it was scheduled to begin at 8.45 p.m. Judging by the abundance of participants waiting in the playing room, and the description of the closure by Vladimir Belous, the prizes weren't handed out in advance, and some players started to suspect that there would be no closure at all. Little by little, high-ranking officials appeared on the stage and the winners finally began to receive the long-awaited envelopes. Given that blitz is a grueling thing, and very rapid on top of that (a word of praise to the organizers: the rounds passed incredibly quickly for such a number of people), I felt hungry and after looking for at least some kind of snacks I dropped on my pillow face down at half past one in the morning. And I didn't even see the closing ceremony to the end! It's frightening to imagine at what time the main prize winners fell asleep. And by ten in the morning, we had to be sitting at the table and wait for the second part of the show: the European Rapid Chess Championship.

Boris Savchenko (with the secret of his wins), Rauf Mamedov and Alexander Riazantsev 

Rapid chess

There were even more those who wanted to fight for the European crown in rapid chess than in blitz. The total number of participants just fell short of 700 (even though many more had been announced), but 693 is also an impressive number. There were no changes on the favorites' list except for Konstantin Sakaev and Vadim Zviagintsev, who joined the blitz event, and the highest rated rapid chess player was Ernesto Inarkiev (2760), followed by Sergei Zhigalko (2752) and Gadir Guseinov (2739). While Ernesto won the first game easily (his blitz performance had been unsteady, and he even played versus this article's author in round 10), Sergei and Gadir had trouble countering young Polish players. Zhigalko was unable to defeat Maciej Koziej, and Guseinov was completely outplayed by the 13-year-old Radoslaw Psyk, and it seemed that a sensation would happen as early as in round one.     

Guseinov (2739) – Psyk (1940)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 1

If there's a young talent sitting in front of you who is barely higher than the table, and suddenly he gives away a piece in a single move, don't celebrate the victory too early. Perhaps you've already been outsmarted.

43...Kc3! 44.Rc7 Kd2 45.Rxc6 e3+ 46.Kg2 Re8 47.Rf6 e2 48.Rf2

The talented Polish boy has been playing this game in an extremely strong and orderly manner until this moment. One precise move 48...Kc3!, and White will not only have to give away a rook for a pawn by playing 49.Rxe2 Rxe2+ 50.Kf3 Rxc2, but also say goodbye to the entire queenside, and probably the chances to save the game as well. The move in the game neither loses, of course, nor lets victory slip away, but mistakes are known to rarely occur alone.

48…Ke3? 49.Rxe2+ Kxe2 50.Bf5 d4?

This mistake is much more serious, but it doesn't lose the point either. The king should play in the endgame, and if it can't grab a bite on the queenside, it should make up for this on the queenside: 50...Ke3!

51.g4! hxg4 52.Kg3 


Three mistakes in a row against Gadir Guseinov is too much. The g4 pawn will fall anyway, but the rook is on a light square and besides can be attacked by the passing h pawn. By moving into a higher gear ―  52...Kd2! 53.h5 Re5 54.Kxg4 Rxf5! 55.Kxf5 Kxc2 56.h6 d3 57.h7 d2 58.h8Q d1Q ― Black would have had the time to snatch two pawns and get a technically won endgame. In the actual game, he can only hope for a draw, but Gadir, as an experienced hunter, has already felt the smell of blood.

53.h5 Ke3?

Finita la comedia. Radoslaw finally remembers that the king can help him, but at a most inappropriate moment. He should have rectified the mistake made on the previous move and prevented White from promoting the pawn with full comfort: 53...Rh8 54.Kxg4 Kd2 55.Kg5 Rg8+ 56.Bg6 d3! 57.cxd3 Kc3 58.Kf6 Rd8! (the only way: the king doesn't have the time to be distracted by the d3 pawn) 59.Bf7 Rxd3 60.h6 Rh3 61.Kg7 Rg3+ 62.Kf6 Rf3+ with a perpetual check. Black's maneuvers allowed Guseinov to leave the table with his first point in the tournament table and only a slight fright in the heart.

54.h6 Rf8 55.h7 d3 56.Bxd3 Kd4 57.Kxg4 Ke5 58.Kg5 Rc8 59.Bc4 Rh8 60.Kg6 Rd8 61.Kg7 Rd7+ 62.Bf7 Rd8 63.h8Q Black resigned.

The leaders' staggering game could be explained by the concise expression "haven't woken up yet" ― and indeed, this was exactly the case for Igor Kovalenko, who hadn't literally woken up, being certain that round one would begin an hour later! It became clear that the favorites would be struggling, which was confirmed in the very next round: Ernesto Inarkiev lost to Pavel Kolmakov with a modest rating of 2191. However, the more experienced participants were generally able to defeat their opponents, and sometimes with great style. 

Milov (2644) – Aronin (2150)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 2

White's advantage is obvious, but does he have anything tangible? It's much more pleasant to decide the matter at once than run the risk of being without the attack and the pawn at the same time. Vadim Milov decided to restore the material balance first, at least for a moment.

23.Rxg7! Kxg7 24.Rg1+ Kh8 25.Qc1 Kh7

The rook has been given away, and what next? A draw by repetition after 26.Qc2? Not the most attractive option, thanks. But once you find the only piece that doesn't participate in the attack, all the questions drop away.

26.Ng5+! hxg5 27.Qxg5, and there's no escape from the abundant mating threats.

Jobava (2727) – Veremeichik (2345)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 3

Although the black pieces are very passive, there's not much time to lose, and Baadur Jobava heads straight for the enemy king.

24.Nde4! b6 25.Nf6+! gxf6 26.exf6 Nxg6 27.Rxg6 Qf7 28.Rdg1 Nd6 29.Bd4 Nf5 30.Qd3 Nxd4 31.Qxd4 Rf8

It seems that Black has fended off the attack and is threatening to trap his opponent's guest on f6 into a box. Which means that White has to protect this guest at any cost. The g1 rook doesn't have the time, so it's the knight that will have to do the work ― the principle "Play with all your pieces" in action again!  

32.Nxd5! Qd7 (32...cxd5 33.Rg7 Bxf6 34.Qa4+) 33.f7+!

The final touch, after which all of Black's endeavors are reduced to nothing. 

33…Qxf7 34.Qc4 Rc8 35.Rxe6+ Kd7 36.Rgg6 Bg5+ 37.Kb1 Qxe6 38.Nxb6+ Black resigned.

The following game could enlarge the game collection of those who love to step around the Sofia rules somewhat. Everyone has already learned about queen sacrifices in the Queen's Gambit Accepted and Ruy Lopez, so it's time to diversify the repertoire. 

Polivanov (2472) – Bocharov (2674)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 4

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Bg5 h6 5.Bh4 Bg7 6.f4 c5 7.dxc5 Qa5 8.Qd2 Qxc5 9.0–0–0 Nbd7 10.Nf3 0–0 11.Bd3 a6 12.Rde1 e5 13.f5 g5 14.Bf2 Qa5 15.Be3 d5!? 16.Nxd5 Qxa2 17.Ne7+ Kh8 18.c3 Qa1+ 19.Bb1 Nxe4 20.Qc2 Nef6 21.h4 g4 22.Ng5 b5 23.Rd1 Bb7

All the white pieces are eyeing the king, and Anatoliy Polivanov starts what seems to be a decisive attack.

24.Rxd7! Nxd7 25.f6! Nxf6 26.Rf1

Black may not survive a strike on f6, so Dmitry Bocharov tries to throw the powerful battery off course: 26…Qa4!

It's not so easy to find a haven for the white queen. There is no question of an exchange, of course: after 27.Qd3 Qc4! Black rebuffs the attack; a longer jump of the queen ― 27.Qf5 ― renders the white queen jobless; and leaving the b1-h7 diagonal is equivalent to capitulation. So why leave it?

27.Qg6!! fxg6 28.Nxg6+ Kg8 29.Ne7+ Kh8 30.Ng6+ Kg8, and a draw ensued. 

The rounds went on and on, but before the fifth round there remained as many as 26 players who had scored 100% of the points. Viewing the leading pack's new games I expected to find a plethora of beautiful ideas and strikes. All of this was there, of course, but what astonished me the most was the presence of the same theme in as much as three (!) games of the fifth round: a knight sacrifice with diagonally-moving pieces joining the fray. Just see this: 

Jobava (2727) – Sakaev (2621)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 5


Andriasian (2577) – Navara (2717)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 5


Ponkratov (2681) – Aleksandrov (2552)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 5


After that these games followed different tracks. Only David Navara was able to win; Konstantin Sakaev, despite a huge edge, actually lost in the end; whereas Aleksej Aleksandrov decided to contribute to this whirlpool of sacrifices by making one in response: 15…Bxf2! and proved to be stronger than Pavel Ponkratov in the ensuing fight. Coincidences like that do happen in chess tournaments! 

The rapid championship participants were scheduled to play seven games on the first day. Many players, including the author of this article, had suffered several painful losses or gotten bogged down in draws and were looking forward for Chief Arbiter Andrzej Filipowicz to finally announce the start of the long-awaited round seven in order to finish their game quickly and have their well-deserved dinner. But the seventh round took long in coming, and soon they showed the reason for the delay on the large screen in the playing hall. The outcomes of all the games had been recorded long ago, and only Nikolai Shukh kept trying tirelessly to outplay Boris Grachev in a bishop endgame with an extra pawn. But all the attempts were in vain: Boris was demonstrating with an imperturbable face that his bastions were impenetrable. During the time Nikolai spent to find just any idea, one could finish not just a cup of coffee, but a cup of fresh coffee brewed from grains that had also grown during the game. When the participants were already preparing to leave the Sports Palace after 11 p.m., a draw was finally registered in the game, after which the viewing hall burst into a storm of applause that was even louder than the one for the three prize winners at the closing ceremony. I wonder if anyone at all would have clapped had Shukh converted the extra pawn? I have no answer to this question, but I do have an answer to another one.        

Kochetkova (2325) – Goganov (2587)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 6

Question: does 40.a7 win?

I'll add at once: both 40.Bd5 and 40.h3 don't reduce White's advantage in the least. But what about this particular pawn push? It seems that Black doesn't have much choice: 40…Nf2+ 41.Rxf2 Qxf2. White can't queen the pawn immediately as the check on e1 is pretty unpleasant, so let's protect this square: 42.Qa5!

Moving the queen back, for example 42…Qc2, in order to deliver the check along the first rank anyway is too slow: White will just create a luft ― 43.h3 and after a couple of moves will start to convert accurately the extra bishop into a win. 42…Re8 is not a cure-all either: after 43.a8Q the rook is pinned. Would it seem that the answer to the question under the diagram is "yes"? Nothing of the kind! Alexei Goganov, who had to find an answer to this question right at the board, dumbfounded Julia Kochetkova with the correct answer and went off to see the Shukh vs. Grachev game.

42…Ra8!! 43.Qc3 (43.Bxa8 Qf1#) 43…Re8 44.h3 Qxa7 White resigned.

Of course, such a delay in the concluding Saturday round did affect the participants' fighting spirit. Ivan Popov and Sergei Zhigalko signed a draw even before the 20th move, while Dmitry Bocharov, when he saw an opportunity for a perpetual check, didn't even count anything else, even though he could have simply checkmated Ilia Smirin. 

Bocharov (2674) – Smirin (2613)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 7

After 30.Rxh7+ Kxh7 31.Qf7+ Kh8 32.Qf6+ Kh7 33.Qf7+ Kh8 34.Qf6+ Kh7 35.Qf7+, Bocharov and Smirin could have played another lengthy game, but it's not necessary to capture the knight too early if you can squeeze it a little more:  30.Nf6! The lines are simple and sometimes beautiful: 30...Nf8 31.Rxe5 dxe5 32.Nxh5; 30...Rxg5+ 31.hxg5 Nxg5 32.Ree7!; 30...Nxg5 31.hxg5 Rxg5+ 32.Kh3 with checkmate in several moves.

Bocharov ― Smirin. Was there checkmate?

I am almost sure that but for the exhausting encounter in the previous round (purely for reference: Grachev won fairly quickly in round 7, whereas Shukh was unable to put up a proper fight against Michael Roiz), Bocharov would have calculated these lines in a fraction of a second, but in this situation... Some chess players, however, played the final round with the same vigor and inspiration as all the others before it. Klementy Sychev, a young Moscow master, was able to save a most unpleasant queen and pawn versus queen endgame against Vadim Zvjaginsev, who honestly used all his 50 moves yet to no avail. That was really a hero's feat, but it has to be said in all fairness that Zvjaginsev had a direct win at least several times. We will come back to Klementy on the next playing day, however: the chess Saturday had exhausted itself and left only two players with 7 wins out of 7 behind: Tigran Petrosian and Baadur Jobava.

The whole Old World got glued to their screens, looking forward to seeing a Georgian-Armenian encounter for the only 100% result. Only Baadur Jobava didn't hurry to join the battle. Five minutes out of the allowed 15 had already been elapsed, but not a single move was made on the screen. Broadcasting issues? No, Sergei Zhigalko had already started to lay pressure on Nigel Short at the next board. And here came Baadur himself appearing at the board: he made a couple of moves nonchalantly, caught up with Petrosian on the time left, and then simply pushed his Armenian colleague into terrible time trouble!

Jobava (2727) – Petrosian (2657)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 8

Tigran has been making the last several moves on the 10-second increment; Jobava has two minutes more, so when Baadur delivered a smashing blow in the spirit of the fifth round, only genuine Armenian fans doubted the outcome of the game.

25.Ne6! fxe6 26.Bxe5 Qc5+ 27.Kh1 exd5 28.Bxf6 Rf8

With just a few seconds left, Petrosian has found an opportunity to make his opponent's life as hard as possible. Even despite the starting handicap of five minutes, Baadur has enough time to find a precise way of keeping the fairly gained extra piece. But apparently Caissa doesn't favor those who are late, and withheld a beautiful winning idea from Jobava.


It seems necessary to get on g6, but one doesn't feel like leaving the c4 bishop in distress. Both goals can be reached with 29.Qe4!! An improbably beautiful decision: getting rid of a pin in order to get under another one! White has two bishops under attack, and each can be captured in two ways, but all the captures lose immediately:

29...Bxf6 30.Qxg6+ Bg7 31.Bd3 Rf2 32.Rxf2 Qxf2 33.Qh7+ Kf7 34.Rf1, winning the queen;

29...Rxf6 30.Rxf6 Bxf6 31.Qxg6+ Bg7 32.Bxd5+ Rxd5 33.Qe6+ with a prompt checkmate;

29...Qxc4 30.Qxc4 dxc4 31.Rxd8 with an extra queen in the endgame;

29...dxc4 30.Qxg6! Rxf6 31.Rxd8+, and Black can stop the clock with a clean conscience;

and even the attempt to protect the rear 29...Kh7 is refuted by the elegant 30.Qxg6+! Kxg6 31.Bd3+ Kf7 32.Bd4+ Ke6 33.Bxc5.

In response to the quite expected queen attack in the game, Tigran grabbed the bishop 29...Qxc4! and forced White to look for precise winning moves again. Of course, it's not so easy to switch to seeking refined in-between moves like 30.b3! Particularly on a Sunday morning. And a direct attack could leave White with nothing but ruins. 

30.Qxg6? Rxf6! 31.Rxf6 Qxh4+ 32.Kg1 Qxf6 33.Qxh5, and Baadur didn't even wait for Black's move and resigned. Tigran Petrosian was a whole point ahead of his nearest pursuers, and Jobava never came back from the heavy blow and lost another two games in a row, finishing the tournament on a minor note. A single precise move often decides so much!

Fortune left Baadur Jobava on the second rapid event day

In the next round, Tigran Petrosian slowed down, playing a quick draw with his compatriot Hrant Melkumyan, and his pursuers led by Ilia Smirin made advantage of that immediately. After a draw in the first round, his thoughts were disrupted with a question of his opponent for the second round: "Hello, what's your last name?" Personally, I found it a shame that Ilia Smirin, a legendary chess player, wasn't recognized in his home country any longer, and I rooted for the grandmaster sincerely, wishing that he would make it to the top boards and prove his full worth once again. Ilia succeeded in that completely: he defeated Gadir Guseinov with flying colors in the ninth round and beat the leader in the tenth, scoring the coveted ninth point out of 10 and making it for the first place. But not a pure place: Ivan Popov, who, with some luck, had defeated David Navara, also gained 9 points out of 10.

Navara (2717) – Popov (2658)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 10

The initiative shifted between White and Black in the game until the position became absolutely equal. David, who had put up with a draw, decided to constraint the black king with 34.h4?? in the end and became a victim of an old saying: he who digs a pit for others falls in himself.

34…h5+! 35.Kxh5 Rg3, and the mousetrap snapped shut. It was the ill-fortunate h4 pawn that prevented the white king to escape from checkmate.

Before the final round, five players lagged behind Smirin and Popov by half a point: Tigran Petrosian, Nigel Short, Hrant Melkumyan, Klementy Sychev, and Vladislav Kovalev, who gained the right to represent Belarus in the fight for the prize places in a private encounter with Sergei Zhigalko. The group of those with 8 points included as many as 12 players: there were more than enough challengers for medals! The drawing brought together Short and Melkumyan, Petrosian and Sychev, and Kovalev and Navara, while Popov and Smirin set off for the first board to decide the fate of the gold.

Popov – Smirin (2613)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 11

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.c4 Nf6 6.Nc3 Qc7 7.Be2 Bb4 8.Qd3 Nc6 9.Nxc6 dxc6 10.a3 Be7 11.f4 e5?!

It's clear that Smirin wants a battle, but such a blow in the center looks premature in this position. Castling seems much safer from a cozy home armchair.

12.Qg3! g6 13.fxe5 Nd7


14.Bh6 would have been a bit more subtle, forcing the black rook to leave its position. The Bf4 move looks strong and natural, but of course Black will not leave the black bishop unscathed.

14…g5! 15.Be3 Nxe5?!

And again a decision dictated by the final round's requirements. Had the queen had taken the pawn ― 15…Qxe5, the game would have probably ended in a draw, but Black would have hardly had any chances for winning. The knight move looks risky, but the ensuing complicated game gives good chances for a sudden comeback and the champion status.

16.Bd4 f6 17.Bh5+ Kf8 18.0–0 Kg7 19.h4

If 19.Bxe5 fxe5 20.Rad1 Be6, it's certainly not a position sought by White, so Ivan continued to exert pressure.


The opponents are worth each other: Ivan is attacking methodically, while Ilia is defending ingeniously. After 20.hxg5 Kh8 21.Be3 Be6! the complications mentioned earlier began. Unfortunately for Smirin, Ivan Popov can also find incredible hidden reserves in a position. And one of them brought Ivan the European rapid chess crown.


One can't put up with such a thorn in the flesh, and Smirin has to remove the foreign body.

20…Kxf7 21.Bxe5 Qb6+ 22.Kh1

Black's position is close to critical. Staying idle is lethal; Smirin understands this all too well and grabs at a straw, sacrificing a whole rook to put his queenside into play.

22…Rg6 23.h5 Be6!?

Watching this position online, I already imagined how the game would finish, but I couldn't find the most precise win here. After seeing the fascinating line 24.hxg6 hxg6 25.Bb8!?, I stopped the calculations because Ivan had found a way of converting his edge.

24.c5!? Qxc5 25.hxg6+ hxg6 26.Bxf6 Bxf6 27.Qc7+ Qe7 28.Rxf6+! Kxf6 29.Rf1+ Bf5 30.Qxe7+ Kxe7 31.exf5. White has a pure extra piece, and after a couple of moves Ivan Popov left the table with the title of the European rapid chess champion! 

Ivan Popov, the European rapid chess champion, gives an interview

The main contender for the silver was Hrant Melkumyan, who outsmarted Nigel Short in an equal endgame. Even though chess legends did demonstrate boundless reserves of talent, they weren't very lucky in the last round, unfortunately. Vladislav Kovalev was beaten by David Navara, and struggle sparked anew on the third board: the medals were at stake!   

Petrosian (2657) – Sychev (2440)
European Rapid Chess Championship 2015, round 11

As I promised, we'll go back to Klementy Sychev. After winning three games in a row on Sunday, Klementy decided against taking any chances and forced a perpetual check. 

27...Qxe1+! 28.Kxe1 Rxe3+ 29.Kf2 Re2+ 30.Kg1 Re1+ 31.Kf2 Re2+

But is it surely a perpetual check? What if the king moves forward?

32.Kf3 Re3+!

The rook can't be taken because of the knight fork, and White has only one way of escaping the perpetual check which puts him on the brink of failure.

33.Kf2 Re2+ 34.Kf3 Re3+ 35.Kf2 Re2+ 36.Kg1 Re1+ 37.Kf2 Re2+ 38.Kg1 Re1+ 39.Bf1?!

And Petrosian goes for it! It's an extremely risky decision, but chess players have taken even more stunning decisions when there is a chance for a medal.

39…Rxf1+ 40.Kg2 Re1 41.Qb8+ Kf7 42.Qh8 Bc6+ 43.Kf2 Re8 44.Qxh7+ Kf6 45.h4 Nd5 46.h5 gxh5 47.Qh6+ Kf7 48.Qxh5+ Ke6

Playing such a position with Black in a time trouble skirmish is pure joy. Sychev, who had a minute on the clock, decided to add a couple of dozens of  seconds to the time left, delivered the moves 49.Qe2+ Kf7 50.Qh5+ Ke6 51.Qe2+ Kf7 52.Qh5+ Ke6 in a flash, but after Petrosian stopped the clock he realized that he didn't need the time stashed: after 53.Qe2+ the position repeated for the third time! Of course, the resulting eighth place is also a great achievement for a Moscow junior player, but when the victory was so close... We can only hope that Klementy will have further achievements and prove his worth next year.

After registering the threefold repetition, Petrosian also assured Melkumyan's second line in the table and started waiting for the final lists: there were as much as eight contenders for the bronze. In the end, the Minsk medal went to... Vadim Razin, who didn't even have an international title. Razin, who played the entire tournament in a strong and steady manner but mostly remained in the shadow, bypassed Navara, Smirin, Petrosian, Sychev, Ragger, Fedorov and Matinian. A remarkable achievement of the 25-year-old Ukrainian! 

I wasn't able to stay for the awarding ceremony: the newly acquired tickets didn't leave me any time gap. Perhaps this was why I only brought a few magnets to Tyumen, those I bought in a shop on Saturday evening. And, of course, some really unforgettable impressions. I don't want to drag this article on with some senseless lyrics, so I will give you once again a list of the three winners in each discipline and take my leave. See you at the European Championship 2016 in Estonia!

European Blitz Championship 2015. The three medal winners:

1. Rauf Mamedov
2. Boris Savchenko
3. Alexander Riazantsev

European Rapid Chess Championship 2015. The three medal winners:

1. Ivan Popov
2. Hrant Melkumyan
3. Vadim Razin

All the photos except for the winter views of the Koltsovo airport were made by Elena Klimets