Alexey Sarana took down long-term leader Anton Korobov | photo: EICC2023
Alexey Sarana snatched the sole lead in the European Championship in Vrnjacka Banja, Serbia with two rounds to go after beating Anton Korobov in Round 9, making it a perfect 5/5 with the white pieces for the 23-year-old. Korobov is joined half a point behind by Etienne Bacrot and six young players: Kirill Shevchenko, Andrey Esipenko, Benjamin Gledura, Valentin Dragnev and David Paravyan.
When we last reported on the European Championship, 37-year-old Ukrainian GM Anton Korobov had raced to 5/5. In Round 6 he finally took his foot off the gas with a 20-move draw against Thai Dan Van Nguyen, allowing Greek IM Stamatis Kourkoulos-Arditis to catch him. That wasn’t for long, however, since Anton generated fire on board and won their head-to-head clash in Round 7 to regain the sole lead.
In terms of hair it was a draw, but Korobov won the battle on the board | photo: EICC2023
An 8-move draw in Round 8 for Korobov, however, allowed Alexey Sarana, a 23-year-old Russian Grandmaster who left Russia and condemned the invasion of Ukraine, to move within half a point by scoring the only win on the top 11 boards.
Alexey is renowned for his play with the white pieces, including memorably beating Hikaru Nakamura and Magnus Carlsen in consecutive games with White on the final day of the 2022 World Blitz Championship. He showed his prowess again with a nice squeeze against Yuriy Kuzubov, who might originally have hoped to set up a blockade with his knight… only to realise he would lose the piece in the centre of the board.
Alexey then again had the white pieces in Round 9, against leader Korobov, and once again he made it look easy, winning one pawn, then another, and smoothly converting his advantage. That’s 5/5 with White for Sarana!
The European Championship is a gruelling 11-round event with no rest day, so that it’s perhaps no surprise that younger players are moving to the top as the events reaches its conclusion.
Apart from Korobov and Etienne Bacrot, the group of players on 7/9 is dominated by young stars, with the oldest 25-year-old David Paravyan. 24-year-old Austrian GM Valentin Dragnev beat Ukraine’s Vasyl Ivanchuk and Ruslan Ponomariov in consecutive rounds, with 27.cxd5? a huge mistake by Ruslan (27.Rg2, 27.Rd2 or 27.Qc2 would all have preserved a big edge).
Dragnev pounced with 27…Na4!, which wins on the spot, since after 28.bxa4 it’s mate-in-2: 28…Rb4+! and 29…Qb2# against whatever White plays.
Kirill Shevchenko found a beautiful queen sacrifice | photo: EICC2023
23-year-old Benjamin Gledura and 20-year-olds Andrey Esipenko and Kirill Shevchenko are all unbeaten, with Kirill, who recently won the Romanian Championship after switching from Ukraine to further his career, perhaps getting to play the move of the tournament so far.
There was no longer a defence, but Mikhail’s rook move allowed the beautiful 34…Qxd2+! 35.Bxd2 e3+!
36.Bxe3 allows 36…Ne4+, winning the queen on f6, but there’s no escape, since 36.Kxe3 runs into another fork, 36…Nd5+. You also can’t try to play on with 36.Ke1, since 36…exd2+ 37.Kxd2 Ne4+ again wins the queen.
Among the players on 6.5/9 and well-placed to qualify for the World Cup is the still unbeaten 54-year-old Boris Gelfand, while the race to win the women’s top prize is being led by 22-year-old Serbian WGM Teodora Injac, who has lost just one game and currently has 5.5/9 points.
Teodora Injac has been a local hero so far | photo: EICC2023
There are four female players on 5/9 — Irina Bulmaga, Aleksandra Maltsevskaya and not just Aleksandra Goryachkina, but her much younger sister Oksana, who was born in 2010.
Oksana Goriachkina is stealing her big sister's limelight | photo: EICC2023
Rated just 1759, she’s so far picked up 150 rating points, though a forfeit win in Round 9 means she’ll have a tough game in Round 10.
There are also tough match-ups on the top boards in the penultimate round, with Esipenko-Sarana, Shevchenko-Gledura, Bacrot-Paravyan and Dragnev-Korobov.
Will the players fight for 1st place, or be content with quick draws to almost guarantee one of the 23 World Cup places? In that context, it’s worth noting that Alexey Sarana already secured a place in the 2023 World Cup with a bronze medal in the 2021 European Championship, so he can afford to push for more.