While the tournament is still not tecnically over (tomorrow there will be some play-off matches to determine the tiebreaks of the lower prizes), the 19 year old Russian star Ian Nepomniachtchi is the clear winner and is therefore the new European Champion! Congrats.
Scoring an impressive 9 points in 11 rounds (undefeated!), Ian wins the first prize of 20,000 euros as well as qualification for the next world championship knock out tournament. His elo gained more than 25 points, putting him but one tournament away from 2700. It will be curious to see if the Russian Chess Federation will include the youngster on their national team at the next chess Olympiad.
As is usual in such a big tournament, there are massive pile-ups at each half point interval. The prizes are not divided, but instead are decided by tie-break matches. The exact classification will only be known tomorrow evening.
Ian Nepomniachtchi was ruthless with the White pieces at the European Championship: only allowing 1 draw in 6 games! (And in that game, against Maiorov in the 4th round, he tried to win until move 118 !) But what was especially remarkable about Ian’s White performance is that in almost all the games the opening was not very important: his opponents stood reasonably well after the opening. However, they all got slowly outplayed in the middlegame by the 19 year old Russian!
Ian’s games remind me of a cross between Karpov, Capablanca , Smyslov and Fischer: modest strategies, tactical precision, cool nerves and a tremendous will to win. He definitely has a promising future!
Here we can see Nepomniachtchi standing, watching Akopian think.
POSITION AFTER WHITE’S 5th MOVE (5.d3)
The d3-systems of the Spanish Opening don’t look like much, but contain a lot of poison. Ian does not yet seem to have made a thorough study of the main lines of the Spanish, and for a number of years was playing the Italian game instead. However, many great players have played the d3 systems at some point in their careers: among them Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Alekhine, Keres, Smyslov, Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov and Morozevich.
And I should mention that Akopian often plays d3 against the Spanish when he is White! That being said, I suspect that Nepomniachtchi will soon start playing the more modern lines.
5… d6 6. c3 g6 The fianchetto line is my favourite. 7. Nbd2 Bg7 8. O-O O-O 9. Re1
A known position in chess theory, even if a bit offbeat. Nepomniachtchi had already played this way in round four against Maiorov! And Akopian had already played (with Black) it several years ago against Morozevich.
The position is very flexible for both sides. Black’s position on the Kingside resembles a King’s Indian setup and he often plays for …f5. Or black can play in the centre (a timely …d5) Or ,as in this game, both on the Queenside and the centre!
White normally waits for Black to commit himself before deciding on an active plan. In the meantime, he can play the classic Knight manoeuvre (f1-g3/e3), throw in h3 at some point and if he wants play a later d4.
9… h6!? Akopian decides to vary from his game with Morozevich 10. Nf1 b5!?
The difference between this game and the game with Morozevich is that the Knight is already on f1 here. Not really a big difference, but Akopian must have felt confident that the Knight was farther away from his sensitive c5-square
11. Bc2 Also reasonable is 11. Bb3!?
In my understanding of the Spanish, in general it makes no difference if the Bishop retreats to c2 or b3. In the case of b3 Black can hit the Bishop with …Na5 and then play …c5, but the time lost by White (moving from b3 to c2) is then recovered by the Black Knight having to lose a tempo later returning to c6 (!). I think it is just a question of personal taste.
I should mention that one game in my database, from this position, now continued 11… Nh7 12. a4 Rb8 13. ab ab 14. d4
with an interesting game.
Akopian seems to like this active idea.
(born Armenia, 1971) is one of the world’s strongest Grandmasters alive
12. Bd2!? A waiting move
A curious move to see from a 19 year old. Ian calmly completes his development. An old game (1898) of Schlecter saw 12.Qe2
12… Be6 13. a4 Qd6 14. b4!?
Ian continues with the same general plan as Morozevich’s game with Akopian. The move b4 sets up some sort of ownership of the c5 square, sending a clear message to Black that he would like to place a Knight on that square sometime in the future!
But, ofcourse, there is no reason for Black to worry since his position is quite well developed and White has absolutely no immediate threats.
The most important observation that I can make at this point of the game is that the position is roughly balanced. It is true that Black has an easier time moving his pieces (he has more space) but White has no reason for complaining: Black has more potential weaknesses in his pawn structure (e5, b5, the c5 square, and h6) and depending on the manner that the game later develops, any one of these can become easy targets for White.
In general, the Spanish game is characterized by White playing against Black’s pawn weaknesses, and Black trying to use his space advantage to develop an initiative, usually in the center and Queenside. I recall Fischer once writing in his 60 Memorable Games of his encounter with the great Russian player Leonid Stein at the 1967 Interzonal in Tunisia, and how at one point he came to the realization that Stein’s downfall, ironically, was because the Russian’s third move (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6) created what turned out to be the decisive weakness!
I should point out that Black can now consider the active 14… d4!?,
but it seems that after 15. cd Nxd4 16. Nxd4 Qxd4 17. Qb1! Nh5 (17… Rfd8 18. Be3 Qd7 (18… Qc3!?) 19. Nd2
and the Knight will head to c5) 18. Be3 Qd7 19. g3 White has a slight positional plus.
A reasonable enough move
Black has the idea of re-deploying his Knight to b6 and later to c4, if the opportunity arises. This is a common manoeuvre in this kind of position
Also possible is 15. ed, opening up the e-file. However, Ian has a different idea in mind. He envisions playing a later Ne3 putting pressure on d5. He does not fear the exchange on e4 (opening the d-file) because this does not reduce his chances of playing against Black’s weaknesses.
At this point I want to draw your attention to a waiting policy with the Black pieces: 15… Rfd8 16. Ne3 Ne7!? (diagram,right)
Black’s pieces are well coordinated and centralized.
However, Akopian prefers a more direct strategy:
16. de Nb6
So it appears that Akopian has his mind set upon occupying c4 with his Knight. At first sight this seems obvious, and good, but as we shall see the Knight will not be able to stay there for very long.
17. a5!? Nc4 There is no point to returning to d7
A critical moment. Ian did not want to play the obvious 18. Qc2!?(
with the idea of moving his Rook to the d-file) because he wanted to avoid the complications arising from 18… Bg4!?
(18… Rad8 19. Rad1 Qe7 20. Ne3 is just good for White) But curiously, he would actually get the better of it after 19. Bxc4 bc 20. Ne3 Bxf3 21. gf Qf6 (diagram,right)
After 22. Nd5! Qxf3 23. Re3! Qh5 24. Rg3!
White has the better chances, for example 24… f5?! 25. Qa2!
I have noticed in the young Nepomniachtchi’s games that he avoids unnecessary complications. Not that he is afraid of complex positions and double edged fights, but instead , like Karpov when he was younger, if there is a simpler course of play that also seems interesting then he prefers it.18. Ne3 !?
Ofcourse the Knight can not be allowed to sit on c4 for long!
White will not be better after 18… Nxd2 19. Nxd2 Ne7 20. Bxe6 Qxe6 21. Nb3 and the Knight jumps into c5.
But Akopian should now consider simplifying with 18… Nxe3! 19. Bxe3 Qxd1 20. Bxd1 Rfd8 (diagram,right) The position has become simpler and Black’s position seems very reasonable. Perhaps Akopian was worried about White’s long term threat of moving his Knight to c5 (where it would exercise a lot of pressure), but it is not clear if White can really make that transfer: 21. Rc1 Rd7 22. Nd2?! Rad8 23. Nb3? Rxd1! with a big advantage for Black!
Now Black’s position becomes a bit difficult to play
I think that Akopian misjudged his chances here. He must have thought that his control of the d-file would lead to something. There now comes a massive exchange of pieces on c4:
19. Nxc4 Bxc4[19… bc 20. Ba4 is also pleasant for White]20. Bxc4 bc 21. Be3!
Now Black should not …Qd3 because White’s 22.Qa4 hits the Black Knight and forces Black to retreat.
21… Qe6 !?
Akopian is counting on his …Rd3 to give him chances. Even so, if White now plays 22. Qc2!? Rd3 23. Red1 Rad8 24. Ne1! Black’s long term problems will not have been eased. Exchanging Rooks would be good for White. The weaknesses on a6, c5 and especially c4 are permanent.
INSTEAD, NEPOMNIACHTCHI PLAYED DIFFERENTLY
It transpires that White’s b5 (creating a passed a-pawn) can actually be quite dangerous for Black
22… Rd3!? According to plan
Ian realizes that he will need his Rook on a1 to help support his a-pawn later! Such confidence…
This is the critical point in the game. Black has willingly agreed to allow his pawns to be weakened on the Queenside in return for some activity. Fair enough. But here on this move, or on any of the next half dozen moves, Black must play …f5 to help create threats against White’s e-pawn and the White Bishop. Structural weaknesses can only be compensated by dynamic play!
For example, 23… f5!? 24. Ne1 (24. b5 fe 25. Nd2 (25. Ne1 ab 26. Qxb5 Rdd8 27. a6) 25… Nd4 is very wild) 24… Rdd8 25. b5?? ab 26. Qxb5 f4 and Black even wins!
I think that with best play on both sides White will keep a slight edge, but Black would not be in any great danger of losing, or atleast he would have still excellent fighting chances should the worse eventually happen. It is Akopian’s lack of sense of urgence in this position (and for the next handful of moves) in delaying his natural counterplay (with …f5) that leads to his downfall. Before he realizes it, he will be already lost.
From this point on, Ian is relentless
24… ab 25. Qxb5
The a-pawn is much stronger than it first appears! It’s advance will soon paralyze the Black Rook. Karpov , in his youth, was also very fond of creating and advancing his passed pawns.
25… Rb8 26. Qa4 Ra8
Why not …f5!?, Mr. Akopian?
After White’s next move the game is lost.
Threatening a7 or Qb7. Impossible now is 28… Rb8 because of 29. Qxb8! Nxb8 30. a7 and the pawn Queens!
Nepomniachtchi has just moved his Queen to b5 and gives Akopian ‘the stare’
28… Qc8 There is nothing better
Black is completely paralyzed! Just look at the sorry figures that the Black Queen and Queen Rook make! Now White just cleans up, beginning with the pawn on c4. I will not give any more moves: please see the rest of the game with the pgn-Viewer above.
Nepomniachtchi won easily and Akopian resigned on move 41. A remarkable victory for the young Russian: he fully exploited his opponent’s small mistakes.
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS