ECCT 1: Firouzja world no. 4 after French debut

Alireza Firouzja beat Markus Ragger and climbed back to world no. 4 on the live rating list as he made his debut in a 3:1 victory for France over Austria in Round 1 of the European Team Championship. France, who also feature MVL, are 3rd seeds, with top seeds Russia and Azerbaijan cruising in Round 1. There were upsets, however, with England living to regret resting Mickey Adams as they lost 2.5:1.5 to Norway, while wins for Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest weren’t enough to stop Georgia holding the Netherlands to a draw.

You can replay all the games from Round 1 of the European Team Championship using the selector below.

The European Team Championship is a biennial team event that is arguably the most prestigious after the Olympiad — it certainly tends to be more fun and unpredictable than the World Team Championship. The first nine years it was held it was won by the Soviet Union, while these are the winners since:

As you can see, the Russian men’s team haven’t struggled as they have in the Olympiad, which they last won in 2002. They’ve won the European Team Championship four times since then, and three times it’s been double gold with the women’s team, who have dominated with six wins in the last seven events. 

For this year’s 9-round event, which is taking place in the Terme Čatež Spa Complex in Slovenia, the Russian teams are again top seeds in both events, and another pattern continues. While the women’s team is largely unchanged — Aleksandra Goryachkina, Kateryna Lagno, Valentina Gunina and Alina Kashlinskaya all played in 2019, with only 20-year-old Polina Shuvalova replacing Olga Girya — the men’s team has been transformed. Only Kirill Alekseenko and Daniil Dubov remain from 2019, with Alexander Grischuk, Vladislav Artemiev and Andrey Esipenko replacing Dmitry Andreikin, Nikita Vitiugov and Maxim Matlakov. 

Both teams got off to winning starts, with the men’s team adopting the “draw with Black, win with White” strategy against Greece, while the women, who have a big rating advantage over all their rivals, blew the Czech Republic away 4:0. Andrey Esipenko’s win was somewhat puzzling, since Andreas Kelires would very much still have been in the game after 23…fxg6, but instead sacrificed a piece. 

It’s not clear what he missed, but after blitzing out 24.cxd3 Qc2+ 25.Ka1 e4 he sank into a long think after 26.Rb1, one of a few perfectly adequate defences for White. Andrey cruised to victory. 

2nd seeds Azerbaijan have historically been Russia’s toughest opponents in the European Team Championship, winning half of the last six events, and with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Teimour Radjabov on the top two boards they promise to be formidable again. There was some controversy about Board 4, with Vasif Durarbayli complaining on Facebook that he wasn’t picked despite winning this year’s Azerbaijan Championship. He noted that he would understand if it was purely decided on rating, but that he wasn’t picked for the 2019 European Team Championship when he would have qualified by rating.

Nijat Abasov, who finished joint second in the Azerbaijan Championship, got off to a good start, however, as Azerbaijan defeated Italy 4:0. 33.Qf8 by Francesco Sonis would be close to equalising, if not for the slightdrawback of allowing mate-in-3.

33…Qa1+! 34.Kc2 Nd4+! 35.Kd3 Qf1# was checkmate. 

The most anticipated team in the European Team Championship, however, is that of France, who have 18-year-old wunderkind Alireza Firouzja making his team debut in their colours alongside Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Etienne Bacrot is the last survivor from the French team that won silver in 2001 and bronze in 2005, with this year’s 3rd seeds clear contenders to pick up their first medals in 16 years. 

If Alireza, fresh from winning the Grand Swiss, was feeling any pressure, he didn’t show it, as he ground out a win with the black pieces against the formidable Austrian no. 1 Markus Ragger. When queens were swapped off Black was already better, with his 26…b5! posing problems.

27.axb5 cxb5 28.Nxa5 looks to have best, though White needs to have calculated carefully that he’s not getting mated by the combination of black rooks on the e-file and the black bishop covering the h2-square. 

Instead in the game Markus collapsed with 27.Nd2?! Rxe5 28.Rxg4 Re2 29.Nf3 c5! and Black soon had an overwhelming advantage, though the game stretched on to move 59. 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave made quicker work of Valentin Dragnev, who lost his way in a complicated endgame.

Another hungry team are 4th seeds Poland, who with Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Radek Wojtaszek on top boards will be hoping to earn Poland their first ever European Team Championship medals. A convincing 3.5:0.5 victory over Sweden included Duda playing his first classical game since winning the World Cup. He crushed now 51-year-old Tiger Hillarp Persson with a classic kingside pawn storm against the Sicilian, though perhaps it was the precision of Jan-Krzysztof’s conversion that was most impressive. 

Tiger has just played a combination to capture the white queen on g2 and is now dreaming of playing with three pawns for a piece. After 27.Rxg2 hxg6 White would be much better anyway, but Duda calmly played the zwischenzug 27.gxh7! instead, leaving the g2-bishop pinned. After 27…Kh8 28.Rxg2 Duda quickly wrapped things up.

The day’s surprises came on tables five and six.

England, bronze medalists in Batumi in 2019, lived to regret resting Mickey Adams for Round 1. Traditionally the job of the player on Board 1 is to play solidly, but Mickey’s replacement Luke McShane instead went for a piece sacrifice on move 11 with 11…Ng4!?

12.h3 was met by 12…Qg6, which must have been the plan, since if the knight simply retreats Black gets bulldozed off the board by the advancing white pawns. After 13.hxg4 Black certainly did get some compensation, but in the end the piece proved too much. 

It was a great day for Johan-Sebastian, who’s had a very hard time off and on the board recently.

Gawain Jones overcame Frode Urkedal in a tricky endgame, but England lost 1.5:0.5 on the bottom two boards, with the key being a miss for David Howell after his Grand Swiss heroics. He’d already weakened a position which should have been a fortress, when he missed a chance for a last reprieve.

37…Rxa3! would have saved the day, since White has nothing better than 38.bxa3 Rb1+ and David would pick up the queen on e1. Instead after 37…Kh7 there was no way back, with Lars Hauge finding the most forceful sequence 38.g6+! Bxg6 39.Qh4+! Kg8 40.Rg5! and 40…Rxa3 now ran into 41.Rxg6 Ra1+ 42.Kd2 Qf5 43.Qd8+ Kh7.

A draw by repetition? No! Lars played 44.Rh6+! gxh6 45.Qh8+ Kg6 46.Rg2+ Kh5

47.Rg5+! Qxg5 48.fxg5 Rxb2+ 49.Ke3 and while Black can only give some spite checks, White can hunt down the black king. Lars went on to clinch victory in 64 moves. David will be trying to adapt to the new time control fast after the luxury of very long thinks in the Grand Swiss. In this game he was down to 11 seconds by move 28, which perhaps explains the missed opportunity.

It would be a great day for the Norwegian teams, since the women’s team also pulled off an upset, defeating the much higher-rated Serbian team 2.5:1.5.

The other match upset in the open saw 6th seeds the Netherlands held to 2:2 draw despite wins for Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest on the top boards. 

Giri got to win a piece early on.

It seems likely it was a sacrifice by Baadur, but for it to be convincing it looks as though 10…h5! 11.f5 hxg4! 12.fxg6 (or 12.fxe6 Nxe5!) was needed, and Black has compensation. Instead after 10…Nc6 11.Nxc6 bxc6 12.f5 it was always an uphill struggle for Black. 

At times Black’s compensation almost seemed enough, but in the end Giri eased to victory, with Laurent Fressinet quoting a referring to a famous verbal spat from 2014, when Giri hadn’t been convinced about his opponent’s “huge attack” and Jobava uttered the phrase, “I’m not the guy you can ironic!” 

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, however, including Anish beating Baadur in the final of the Mr Dodgy Invitation 2.0, when the mutual respect was obvious.

The two wild games on the bottom boards could have gone either way, but in the end they went in favour of Luka Paichadze and Levan Pantsulaia of Georgia. 

The top five favourites all scored comfortable wins in the Women’s European Team Championship, but 6th seeds France fell to Sweden, with 58-year-old Pia Cramling defeating Pauline Guichard on top board. This was the last chance for Pauline.

Pia has just taken a rook on g8, and after 24…Rxg8? 25.Nxe4! she had everything under control. Instead 24…exf3! should have been played first — the bishop can’t leave g8, since e.g. 25.Bc4 runs into 25…Ng4! attacking the queen and threatening mate on h2. 25.Nxf3 would be forced, and after 25…Rxg8 Black retains great pressure on the white position.

There are very few really weak opponents in the European Team Championship, and already in Round 2 we’re going to have Grischuk-Navara (Russia vs. Czech Republic), Firouzja-Saric (France-Croatia) and Jobava-Adams (Georgia-England) among the pairings to look forward to. 

Tune into all the action live here on chess24 from 15:00 CET: Open | Women 

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