Colin McGourty

a month

Euro Teams 1: Top seeds Azerbaijan lose, Carlsen starts with win

Carlsen at the European Team Championship Opening Ceremony | photo: Mark Livshitz, ECU

Mads Andersen took down Shakhriyar Mamedyarov as the European Team Championship favorites Azerbaijan lost to 20th seed Denmark. Magnus Carlsen started the event in Budva, Montenegro, with a smooth win over Jergus Pechac, but his team Norway was held to a draw by Slovakia. England won, but David Howell described an incident with the arbiter at the end of his game with Baadur Jobava as "one of the most unpleasant experiences" of his career.

Alojzije Jankovic and Dragana Nikolovska commentated on Round 1.

Watch the European Team Chess Championship games: Open | Women

The European Team Championship, held every two years, is arguably the most anticipated national team event after the Olympiad. This year, 38 teams in the Open section and 32 in the Women's are competing over nine rounds of chess, with each match played over four boards.

Five-time World Champion Carlsen is playing for the first time in eight years and has already gone some way to exorcise the memory of his last event, in Reykjavik in 2015, that began with two losses in three games.

What's also evident, however, is who's missing.

The missing—Russia, Ukraine + Firouzja & co.

This is the first European Team Championship since Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine in 2022, and the Russian team is doubly ineligible to play. They're still banned from official FIDE team events, but the Russian Chess Federation also chose to switch from Europe to the Asian Chess Federation, ending an era in European events.

It's clear at a glance how big an impact that's had, since the Russian teams were almost always the favorites to win. The women converted that superiority on paper into an incredible seven titles in eight tournaments.

For five of those gold medals, Alexandra Kosteniuk was on the team, but this year she'll be playing for Switzerland, as one of the players who took advantage of the chance to switch to a European chess federation without paying a fee. Serbia has become a dark horse to win in Budva with the addition of Alexey Sarana and Alexandr Predke, Vladimir Fedoseev now plays for Slovenia, while England has former Russian Champion Nikita Vitiugov on the top board.

There's a women's Ukrainian team, but no team in the Open section | photo: Mark Livshitz, ECU

When it comes to Ukraine, however, things are more puzzling. The women's team, despite missing Anna and Mariya Muzychuk, is still competitive and seeded fourth, but in the Open section Ukraine, the defending champions (they didn't lose a single game in 2021), has chosen not to field a team at all. The federation explained the decision in a Facebook post on November 3 that also noted Alexander Beliavsky had been appointed as the new team coach.

The reasons were as follows:

The burden of participating in a number of large international tournament, which take place one after another in October-November this year, will be so gruelling that it will prevent them from approaching the European competition in the best form.

Some of the candidates for our top team serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and courageously defend our freedom at the front. We will meet them with honor and joy after the Victory.

There are also objective circumstances related to health and personal plans.

Exhaustion is very much a thing, as Hikaru Nakamura elaborated upon during the first round on his stream...

... but all the teams are in the same position, while just one likely team member, Igor Kovalenko, is known to be serving in the army.

Ukrainian GM Mikhail Golubev ran a poll on what he called a "scandalous" decision, where the options for the reason for not playing were:

1. The Ukrainian Chess Federation is dysfunctional, 2. The players are boycotting the UCF, 3. There's no money for prizes, 4. A wise, patriotic decision.

The federation vows to focus on the 2024 Olympiad instead.

Other players are absent for simpler reasons. The Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz starts on Tuesday, November 14, so that, for instance, Anish Giri was traveling to the U.S. rather than playing for the Netherlands. 

The same applies to the French team's two biggest stars, Alireza Firouzja and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who in 2021 led France to silver medals, the smallest of margins behind Ukraine. That's the tournament in which the then 18-year-old Firouzja became the youngest player ever to cross 2800.

Poland will also struggle to repeat their bronze medals from 2021, since Jan-Krzysztof Duda is playing in the Sinquefield Cup, leaving the podium wide open to a number of teams, including three-time champions Azerbaijan.

Round 1 Open: Azerbaijan beaten as top seeds struggle

The first round of a Swiss tournament such as the European Team Championship sees big favorites in all the top matchups, so that slipups are unusual. On this occasion, however, top-seed Azerbaijan was put to the sword by the team ranked 20th, Denmark.

Teimour Radjabov and his teammates taking draws put all the pressure on Mamedyarov | photo: Mark Livshitz, ECU

In hindsight, the decision to take three relatively quick draws against much lower-rated Danish opposition was a mistake, but when Mamedyarov launched a powerful sacrificial attack on the remaining board, it looked as though it would pay off. Andersen didn't collapse, however, and when Mamedyarov picked the wrong path, the tables soon turned until there was nothing left for him to do but resign.

That's our Game of the Day, with annotations by GM Rafael Leitao below.

Azerbaijan wasn't alone in its suffering, with the second-best team on paper only managing to scrape a 2-2 draw. Romania has found the sponsorship to attract star names such as Richard Rapport (from Hungary) and Kirill Shevchenko (from Ukraine), while Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu has returned from a period when he represented Germany. In Round 1, however, Rapport was rested and Bogdan-Daniel Deac needed to dig deep to rescue a 97-move draw against Austrian GM Valentin Dragnev.

Carlsen starts fast, Norway not so much

In 2015 Magnus Carlsen sat out the first two rounds, but this time it seems he correctly guessed that his team, eighth-seed Norway, would need his help against 27th-seed Slovakia. There was also some unfinished business, since in last year's FIDE Chess Olympiad, Carlsen had faced the same young opponent, Jergus Pechac, and spoiled a good position out of the opening so that he was forced to make a draw in the end.

The win saw Carlsen cross back above 2830, 37 points clear of second-place Caruana | photo: Mark Livshitz, ECU

This time there was no mistake, with some help from Pechac willingly rushing into trouble when he grabbed a pawn on b2.

That was only enough for a disappointing draw for Norway, however, since Aryan Tari was beaten by 21-year-old Viktor Gazik on Board 2. 

Howell hits out at "harassment" from arbiter

The other favorites found a way to win, though the next three matchups were won by the smallest of margins. Germany had an 83-move win by Alexander Donchenko to thank for beating Sweden, while Armenia's victory over host Montenegro felt ominous—three rock-solid draws and a win for a player who seems to perform 100 rating points better in team events, Gabriel Sargissian. Can Armenia follow up silver in the 2022 Olympiad by winning its first European Team Championship since 1999?

Can Sargissian power Armenia to another team triumph? | photo: Mark Livshitz, ECU

Another team with potential is England, since as well as Vitiugov it has World Senior 50+ Champion Michael Adams waiting in the wings. In round one, however, the focus was on David Howell, who had teased his location in the run-up to the event. 

Round 1 would turn out to be no fun at all for the Englishman. His Georgian opponent, Baadur Jobava, did Jobava things, but Howell, playing with the black pieces, navigated all the complications and emerged with a better position and an advantage on the clock. Then in time trouble, he spotted the winning tactical jab 26...e6! only to take a draw at the end when it turned out there was a path to victory.

That was far from all for the game, however, since Howell felt the conduct of the arbiter at his board had been both incompetent and potentially harassment.

Few details have yet emerged, though it appears Jobava had tried to claim a draw by repetition without following the correct procedure for indicating his intended move. Howell was down to just seconds when he made his final moves.

Howell and Jobava before it all went wrong | photo: Deutscher Schachbund

There was a happy ending for England, at least on the chessboard, as Luke McShane managed to grind out a win in what had seemed destined to be a drawn endgame against Nikolozi Kacharava. That gave England a 2.5-1.5 victory and a full two match points.

Round 1 Women: Georgia favorites, Anna Cramling with upset win

The Women's event was much more what we expected in Round 1, with the favorites winning on all the top tables except for third-seed Germany being held to four draws by 19th-seed Greece. Georgia, the reigning Women's World Team Champions, finished runner-up to Russia in the last three European Team Championships. They'll now be looking to go one better, and they started relatively smoothly with a 3-1 win over Israel.

Georgia took on Israel at the top table | photo: Mark Livshitz, ECU

One of the feel-good stories was 60-year-old Pia Cramling leading the team on which her 21-year-old daughter, WFM Anna Cramling, also plays. In round one Poland scored a 2.5-1.5 victory, thanks to wins for Oliwia Kiolbasa and Michalina Rudzinska, but Anna pulled off a dramatic win over a player rated over 200 points above her.

The big turning point came with the move 33.g4!?.

After the first round, 16 teams in the Women's and 20 in the Open have 2/2 but if they want to stay perfect, they'll have to beat another team on the same score in round two.

Watch the European Team Chess Championship games: Open | Women


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