Russian Team Championship gets underway
Top-level chess returns with a vengeance this week as the Russian Team Championship sees Morozevich, Karjakin, Svidler, Caruana and Shirov among over twenty 2700+ GMs in action. The controversial new format – a 7-round Swiss – should guarantee excitement and unpredictability. In the run-up to the tournament representatives of the leading teams talked about their hopes for the event and gave their views on the format.
The Russian Team Championship is again being held near the Black Sea resort and 2014 Winter Olympics city of Sochi, though this year’s venue is a first: the Akvaloo water park in Loo (that's two syllables in Russian!). The men’s event is a 7-round Swiss with 18 teams. Each team has eight players, with six taking part in each round and no more than three non-Russians allowed to play at one time. As well as fighting for medals the top-4 teams will also qualify to represent Russia in the next European Club Cup. Play begins at 15:00 local time (12:00 London, 13:00 Paris, 07:00 New York) and, despite the problems at the recent European Championship, zero tolerance of lateness and Sofia Rules (no draw offers in less than 40 moves) appear to be in force.
Although much has changed for this year’s event the genuine title contenders are the usual suspects. Below you’ll find the low-down on each of the five teams, with quotes from team representatives including Peter Svidler and Alexander Khalifman. All the quotes are taken from Evgeny Atarov’s preview of April chess events at ChessPro, where the Russian journalist asked about the teams’ goals and also their views on the new format. Note that in years past the incredibly strong Russian Team Championship consisted of more than one league, with promotion and relegation. Last year many teams dropped out and it was only possible to scrape together a single league of 12 teams, who played a round-robin.
1. ShSM-64 (average rating: 2708)
Fabiano Caruana: 2767
Wang Hao: 2733
Peter Leko: 2720
Anish Giri: 2717
Alexander Riazantsev: 2710
Boris Grachev: 2705
Vladimir Potkin: 2669
Evgeny Najer: 2640
Wang Hao and Giri are back to defend their title | photo: Maria Bolshakova
The only change to the line-up of the winners from the previous two years is Peter Leko replacing Boris Gelfand. ShSM-64 was originally set up by the “64” Chess Magazine, whose editor, Mark Glukhovsky, is team captain. The “ShSM” refers to the Moscow Chess Team, with which “64” merged for financial reasons.
Team representative GM Alexander Zlochevsky:
Team goals: Our goals don’t change from year to year, and the line-up allows us to fight for the very top places. We’ve been Russian Champions for the last two years – and last year along with the women’s team we actually completed a golden double. We don’t want to rest on our laurels… After all, no-one’s managed to become Russian Champions for three years in a row, so why shouldn’t we try and win again and make it a hat-trick?!
Of course it’ll be difficult for us to replace Gelfand – Boris was always pivotal and our team leader. He’s especially good in team events. I’d like to wish him success in his match against Anand and I hope he’ll return to the line-up for the European Club Cup. However, Leko, who’s going to replace Gelfand in Loo, also isn’t a bad option at all. I don’t have any doubts about Caruana’s form despite his playing without a break since the start of the year. Previous tournaments have taught me that sitting “on the bench” is even harder than playing constantly.
Thoughts on the new format: There were doubts. Everyone’s perfectly familiar with the Swiss system from the European Cup – it introduces a significant element of chance and a team can often “keep a low profile” and then claim an undeservedly high place. Besides, I think seven rounds is a little low to determine the best team… On the other hand, however, the flaws of the round-robin system were also clear to everyone – when teams of a different class met the result was obvious and half the matches turned into a pure formality. Now if you could only have the strongest teams playing each other that would be of interest to everybody.
But what’s the point discussing the regulations – you have to play. The Swiss system is at least good in that it allows the young to test their strength against the giants!
2. Ekonomist-SGSEU (average rating: 2705)
Alexander Morozevich: 2765
Evgeny Tomashevsky: 2736
Ian Nepomniachtchi: 2718
Alexander Moiseenko: 2706
Pavel Eljanov: 2704
Dmitry Andreikin: 2689
Evgeny Alekseev: 2673
Michael Roiz: 2652
The team of the Saratov State Socio-Economic University are perennial contenders in major team events, and have twice won the European Club Cup. Alexander Morozevich is the major new addition – you might remember he “auditioned” for the role by dominating the Saratov Governor’s Cup last October, beating no less than four of his future teammates!
GM Evgeny Tomashevsky:
Team goals: Our collection already includes two European Cups and every place in the Russian Championship standings from second to sixth, so only one goal can interest the players and management for the upcoming tournament – first place… Given the strength of the tournament a medal won’t be considered a great failure for us, and qualifying for Europe is the worst case scenario. I don’t even want to talk about other possibilities.
It’s clear we’ve got everything we need to achieve our aims: a tried and tested line-up, and one enhanced by a superstar. We’ve only made a single substitution, but what a substitution! In place of Ni Hua we’ve got Morozevich. With all due respect and gratitude to the Chinese player for his years in the team we consider that a serious reinforcement. We’ve got the support of the management and an excellent captain – all the components for success… But there are another four teams (at the very least) who can boast the same, so in order to win we need the majority of players to be in good form. And some luck.
Thoughts on the new format: In contrast to the round-robin system the role of chance increases in a Swiss – direct rivals can get an edge over each other if they get luckier with the draw. However, we consider the change of format a necessary evil: after peaking in 2008 by 2011 the league was gradually finding itself in a difficult situation – the financial crisis had a serious impact on the desire to invest money in chess. Only the toughest survived – those whose sponsors were very rich and/or really loved the game. And therefore as a temporary measure in order to attract new (and old) teams to take part the Swiss system is perfectly reasonable: it’s much more pleasant to send a team to the Russian Championship rather than its lower divisions… It’s important this temporary measure doesn’t become standard, and that when the competition revives and the number of teams taking part increases we return to the round-robin system as soon as possible.
Evgeny Tomashevsky (left) and Alexander Moiseenko analyse a game at last year's event | photo: Maria Bolshakova
3. Tomsk-400 (average rating: 2695)
Sergey Karjakin: 2766
Ruslan Ponomariov: 2727
Ernesto Inarkiev: 2695
Alexander Areshchenko: 2688
Viorel Bologan: 2687
Alexander Motylev: 2683
Igor Kurnosov: 2657
Denis Khismatullin: 2656
One of the giants of the Russian Championship, since 2004 (when the Siberian city of Tomsk on the Tom River celebrated its 400th anniversary) Tomsk-400 have won the event on no less than four occasions.
GM Viorel Bologan:
Team goals: It seems to me that finishing among the medals in such a strong tournament will be a decent result, but we’ll undoubtedly be fighting for nothing other than first place!
Thoughts on the new format: Perhaps the innovations were forced, but they clearly haven’t improved the Russian Championship. In my view they should do everything they can to return to the old system in future – with two leagues and round-robins.
4. St. Petersburg Federation (average rating: 2690)
Peter Svidler: 2744
Leinier Dominguez: 2730
Nikita Vitiugov: 2709
Sergei Movsesian: 2702
Zahar Efimenko: 2695
Vadim Zvjaginsev: 2683
Maxim Matlakov: 2632
Ildar Khairullin: 2626
The St. Petersburg Chess Federation are the reigning 2011 European Club Cup Champions, and boast a good mix of youth and experience. Vassily Ivanchuk is absent from this year's Russian Championship.
GM Peter Svidler:
Team goals: Our captain, Volodya Bykov, has great plans! We’re travelling to Loo to win, just as we have every year recently. It’s a long time since we’ve managed, and we want it. I wouldn’t say we’re going to play with the motto “victory or death” – that kind of mood isn’t for us. But, as far as I can tell from conversations with Bykov, he’s thought about this seriously and thinks it’s high time! Will we have what it takes without Ivanchuk? That’s something we’ll find out on location. We went our separate ways, so now it’s up to me “to firm up” the first board… The empty place will be taken by Dominguez. The backbone of the team remains unchanged.
Thoughts on the new format: We’ll see how things go. I don’t really understand why the RCF took the decision. I also think – after conversations last year – that the teams from the second league won’t be entirely satisfied with the decision because many of them came to win their league, not promotion. For them the title of victor mattered (maybe so they could report back to their sponsors), but now they’ll have no chance of fighting for victory in the overall standings… It’ll still be only the same 4-5 teams fighting to win.
Ruslan Ponomariov left it late to beat Vassily Ivanchuk last year | photo: Maria Bolshakova
5. Yugra (average rating: 2653)
Dmitry Jakovenko: 2729
Vladimir Malakhov: 2705
Alexei Shirov: 2701
Alexey Dreev: 2698
Sergei Rublevksy: 2686
Anton Korobov: 2679
Alexei Pridorozhny: 2524
Nikolai Kabanov: 2502
The team based in the Yugra region of Russia (well-known to chess fans for Khanty-Mansiysk) finished runners-up in the European Club Cup in 2010.
Team captain GM Alexander Khalifman:
Team goals: I’m within my rights to respond with a banality: we want to play as well as possible.
Thoughts on the new format: I don’t know all the reasons that led to the decision, so I don’t want to start moaning about it. To be honest, I don’t see any plusses, only minuses. The format of the European Cup has long attracted criticism, and deservedly so, although with 60 teams it really isn’t easy to come up with something adequate. I don’t know why they want to adopt the same unfortunate system in Russia.
The remaining 13 teams are unlikely to challenge the leaders, but it’s worth noting that the Moscow-based Navigator features two 2700 GMs on the top boards - Emil Sutovsky and Krishnan Sasikiran. There’s a big rating drop to their third board, but no drop in interest, as the 15-year-old Daniil Dubov (2536) is Russia’s youngest grandmaster. Another curiosity is Natalia Pogonina playing in the men’s (open) event for Rakita Chess Club - she'll have a tough challenge today as the pairings have her coming up against Michael Roiz of Economist-SGSEU.
A year ago Natalia Pogonina played alongside Kateryna Lahno for ABC, one of the teams which hasn't returned this year | photo: Maria Bolshakova
The women's event
The Russian Women’s Team Championship is being held in parallel. It features only seven teams of five players (four will play in each round), and will be a 7-round all-play-all event. Ladya-Kazan (average rating: 2468), with Natalia Kosintseva (2535), Valentina Gunina (2511), Alisa Galliamova (2490), Natalia Zhukova (2435) and Daria Charochkina (2371) are the clear favourites, although reigning champions ShSM-RGSU (2370) and Yugra (2354) might give them a run for their money. The other teams will at least have a head start - the women's pairings have the favourites sitting out the first round.
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