2017 Russian Higher League: Volkov and Romanov lead midway

by Elshan Moradiabadi
7/7/2017 – It should come as no surprise that the mere qualification process to the world's strongest national championship is one that would fit well as the 11th of Hercules' trials. The Russian Higher League is that qualifying tournament, and brings in players rated 2700, and names such as Maxim Matlakov, the reigning European Champion, and Alexander Morozevich. The Women's section sees junior WIM Polina Shulova leading. Report and analysis by GM Elshan Moradiabadi.

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Photos by Dmitry Kryakvin

There aren’t many countries in the world in which a grandmaster’s dream might be to just participate in the national championship. While achieving the grandmaster title has become easier and the title itself has been a bit devalued (a subject of much debate, no doubt), it is still fairly safe to assume that a GM should make it to the final of a national championship if he sets his mind to it. However, this is not the case for a handful of powerhouse countries.

For example, the US championship qualification is determined by the average of Elo and USCF rating which makes it a challenge even for a solid 2625 rated player to ensure a spot. A similar story applies to China, even if the national championship there is almost devoid of the elite 2700s, but by virtue of the quickly growing ranks of grandmasters there, making it into the final is anything but straightforward. Other countries such as Ukraine, Armenia, and more, have similar tales no doubt, but there is one that stands above them all in sheer terms of difficulty, where just saying you played in the final is a point of pride and positive mark on one’s CV. You can guess its name easily enough: Russia.

Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union the title of Russian Champion suffered a blow to its prestige and the tournament was conducted in Swiss-system and knockout events until 2004.  It is perhaps not so surprising that it was the return of Garry Kasparov to its lineup in 2004 that brought back the vibe and prestige this tough event deserved and needed.

Ever since then, it is a series of Herculean qualification events that determine who will earn the right to fight for the coveted title in the subsequent Russian Super-Final. While even the most prestigious national championships can be proud to include one or more 2700 players, here the Russian qualifier alone, known as the Russian Higher League, will include past champions and a number of 2600 and 2700 players.

This is not to mention the pack of 2500-something, ultimately making Russian Higher League an almost all-grandmaster event. With only five spots to fight for, one might expect a lot of decisive results but instead we see a lot of close tactical battles ending in a draws with few decisive results on the top boards. Despite all these draws, there is no shortage of rich games that are full of dramatic, beautiful moments.

The tournament's top seed is none other than Maxim Matlakov who recently won the European championship, with a current rating of 2730 Elo, followed by Evgeny Najer (2706), who was himself European Champion in 2015. Following them are names such as the promising youngster Vladislav Artemiev with 2695, and of course the ever-popular Aleksander Morozevich, former world no. 2.

Maxim Matlakov is the top-seed with 2730, and has been in great form, winning the 2017 European Individual Championship just a month ago

Evgeny Najer, 2706 FIDE, is the second seed in this qualifier for the Russian Super Final

After five rounds however, it is not the Elos that are defining the lead but those coming with their best chess: Evgeny Romanov (2610) and Sergey Volkov (2627), the latter who was himself a former champion back in 2000, lead with 4.0/5. Both Matlakov and Najer stand at 3.5/5 while Morozevich is on a modest +1 after his loss to Romanov in the fourth round. Artemiev seems a bit out of shape as he had a huge “Swiss Gambit” after losing back to back games in rounds two and three, though he appears determined to come back after two wins in a row in rounds four and five.

15-year-old Andrey Esipenko is the youngest participant in the Open section

Here are some interesting moments from rounds four and five:

GM Evgeny Alekseev is a mysterious case of my generation. He had a fast rise to 2700, and then played a number of elite events, but the talented and well-booked Russian seemed to stop working on chess and his rating dramatically dropped more than 100 points. However, it seems that this very strong 1.e4 player is back to his elements, and in this event sits on a respectable +2 after five rounds. Here he dismantled Vladimir Potkin, a very strong theoretician though mostly a coach nowadays.

Alekseev-Potkin (annotated by GM Elshan Moradiabadi)

[Event "Russian Higher League"] [Site "Sochi"] [Date "2017.07.06"] [Round "5"] [White "Alekseev, Evgeny"] [Black "Potkin, Vladimir"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B48"] [Annotator "GM Elshan Moradiabadi"] [PlyCount "59"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventCountry "RUS"] 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. Be3 a6 {Potkin is kind of addicted to the Sicilian Taimanov.} 7. Qf3 {This is the latest trend. Alekseev should have a good knowledge of this move as he has played 1.e4 all his career.} d6 (7... Nf6 8. O-O-O Be7 (8... Rb8 9. Be2 d6 10. Qg3 Nxd4 11. Bxd4 e5 12. Ba7 Ra8 13. Be3 b5 14. f4 Bb7 15. fxe5 Nxe4 16. Nxe4 Bxe4 17. Bd3 Bxd3 18. Rxd3 dxe5 19. Rhd1 f6 20. Qh3 Qc8 21. Rd8+ Qxd8 22. Rxd8+ Kxd8 23. Qe6 Kc7 24. Qb6+ Kc8 25. Qc6+ Kb8 26. Bb6 Ra7 27. Bxa7+ Kxa7 28. Qc7+ Ka8 29. Qb6 b4 30. Qxa6+ Kb8 31. Qc6 Be7 32. Qd7 Bd8 33. Qxg7 Re8 34. Qd7 Rg8 35. Qd5 Rh8 36. Qd6+ Kc8 37. Qxb4 Bc7 38. Qe7 Kb7 39. Qxf6 Re8 40. Qf7 Rd8 41. Qxh7 Kb8 42. c3 {1-0 (42) Nepomniachtchi,I (2767)-Adhiban,B (2666) Doha 2016}) 9. Be2 O-O 10. g4 {and then the queen goes behind the pawns.}) 8. O-O-O Bd7 9. Qg3 b5 $4 { but this is a blunder.} (9... Nf6 10. f4 {and only now} b5) 10. Bxb5 $1 { This typical piece sacrifice destroys Black.} Nf6 (10... axb5 11. Ndxb5 Qb7 12. Nxd6+ (12. Qxd6 $2 Rc8 (12... Nf6 {and Black seems to be alive!} 13. Nc7+ $4 Kd8 $19) 13. Bc5 Nce7 14. Qd3 {1-0 (14) Ragger,M (2700)-Maiwald,J (2448) Germany 2017}) 12... Bxd6 13. Rxd6 $16) 11. Bxc6 Bxc6 12. Nxc6 Qxc6 13. f3 { White is a pawn up and completely winning.} Be7 14. Qxg7 Rg8 15. Qh6 Rg6 16. Qh3 Rb8 17. Bd4 Bf8 18. Rd3 Bh6+ 19. Kb1 Nd7 20. g3 Nc5 21. Rdd1 a5 22. f4 Qb7 23. b3 a4 24. Bxc5 dxc5 25. Nxa4 Qxe4 26. Nxc5 Qc6 27. f5 Qxc5 28. fxg6 Bg7 29. Qxh7 Kf8 30. Rd7 1-0

In the next game. Sergey Volkov came up with a fantastic piece sacrifice that his opponent never saw coming even after he had taken the piece. What awaited him was a nasty wakeup call.

Rozum - Volkov (annotated by GM Elshan Moradiabadi)

[Event "Russian Higher League"] [Site "Sochi"] [Date "2017.07.06"] [Round "5"] [White "Rozum, Ivan"] [Black "Volkov, Sergey"] [Result "0-1"] [Annotator "GM Elshan Moradiabadi"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2r1r1k1/2P3pp/p1q1pp2/4B3/2pRn3/4P3/P1Q2PPP/R5K1 b - - 0 24"] [PlyCount "49"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventCountry "RUS"] {[#] In a complicated battle in Volkov's pet opening, the veteran got the better of his young opponent to clinch shared lead.} 24... c3 25. Bf4 (25. Qxe4 Qxe4 26. Rxe4 fxe5 27. Rc4 Re7 28. Rxc3 Rexc7 29. Rxc7 Rxc7 30. g4 {is a primitive draw.}) 25... e5 26. Rxe4 {looks like a draw will be ensued but Volkov has a cold shower prepared.} Rxc7 $1 {A great piece sacrifice.} 27. Bg3 $2 {Rozum does not see the magnitude of trouble and loses a decisive tempo} ( 27. Bxe5 fxe5 28. Rb4 Rd8 29. Rc1 {and White has drawing chances.}) 27... Rb8 28. f3 $2 {The last mistake but white is already losing.} Rb2 29. Qc1 Qb5 $1 { a multi-purpose move with threats of c2 and Qe2.} 30. Be1 c2 31. Kf2 Rb1 { And this is the end of it!} 32. Rxb1 cxb1=Q 33. Qxc7 Qxa2+ 34. Kg3 Qf7 35. Qc3 h5 36. h4 Qe2 37. Kh2 Qfa2 38. Qc8+ Kh7 39. Qf5+ Kh6 40. Qh3 Qxe1 41. Qc8 Qf7 42. Qh8+ Kg6 43. Rg4+ hxg4 44. fxg4 f5 45. Qh5+ Kf6 46. Qxf5+ Ke7 47. Qxe5+ Kd7 48. Qd4+ Kc8 0-1

In an encounter between the leader and the top seed, Maxim Matlakov had everything in control to take down Romanov (once again!) but the resourceful Evgeny Romanov managed to swindle Matlakov and score an important half point.

Matlakov - Romanov (annotated by GM Elshan Moradiabadi)

[Event "Russian Higher League"] [Site "Sochi"] [Date "2017.07.06"] [Round "5"] [White "Matlakov, Maxim"] [Black "Romanov, Evgeny"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [Annotator "GM Elshan Moradiabadi"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r3r1k1/pR2b1pn/3p4/2pP3q/2P1PB2/2N5/P4PQ1/3R2K1 b - - 0 28"] [PlyCount "39"] [EventDate "2017.??.??"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventCountry "RUS"] {[#]} 28... Rab8 29. Rxb8 (29. Rxe7 Rxe7 $1 30. Bxd6 Rb6 {And Matlakov may have found this too messy but Stockfish and friends think that White is just winning.} 31. Bxe7 Rg6 32. Rd3 Rxg2+ 33. Kxg2 Nf8 34. Bd6 $1 Ng6 35. Bg3 { and White's pawns are unstoppable.}) 29... Rxb8 30. Rd3 Rf8 $2 (30... Rb4 { is much better.}) 31. Rh3 Bh4 32. Be3 Rf6 33. Kh1 Rg6 34. Qf3 Rg4 35. Bf4 (35. e5 $1 Qg6 36. exd6 {would have given Matlakov excellent winning chances.}) 35... Qg6 36. Bg3 Bf6 {Now Black has enough compensation.} 37. Nb5 Rxe4 38. Nxd6 Re1+ 39. Kh2 Qb1 40. Bf4 Ng5 41. Bxg5 Be5+ 42. Bf4 Bxf4+ 43. Qxf4 Rh1+ 44. Kg3 Rg1+ 45. Kh2 Rh1+ 46. Kg3 Rg1+ 47. Kh2 (47. Kf3 {would lose to} Qd1+ 48. Ke4 (48. Ke3 Re1#) 48... Rg4) (47. Kh4 {is just mate after} Qh7+) 47... Rh1+ 1/2-1/2

Open standings after five rounds

Rk
SNo
 
Name
Rtg
Pts.
 TB 
1 15 GM Romanov Evgeny 2610 4,0 15,0
2 11 GM Volkov Sergey 2627 4,0 12,5
3 2 GM Najer Evgeniy 2706 3,5 16,0
4 1 GM Matlakov Maxim 2730 3,5 15,0
  16 GM Alekseev Evgeny 2607 3,5 15,0
6 8 GM Zvjaginsev Vadim 2649 3,5 14,5
7 12 GM Shimanov Aleksandr 2623 3,5 14,0
8 27 GM Levin Evgeny A. 2524 3,5 13,5
9 25 IM Moiseenko Vadim 2548 3,5 13,5
10 9 GM Dreev Aleksey 2647 3,5 13,5
11 6 GM Dubov Daniil 2658 3,5 13,0
12 7 GM Sjugirov Sanan 2649 3,5 11,0
13 18 GM Ponkratov Pavel 2603 3,0 15,5
14 4 GM Motylev Alexander 2680 3,0 15,5
  24 GM Rozum Ivan 2573 3,0 15,5
16 28 FM Esipenko Andrey 2523 3,0 14,0
17 42 FM Duzhakov Ilya 2421 3,0 13,5
18 31 IM Triapishko Alexandr 2506 3,0 13,0
19 3 GM Artemiev Vladislav 2695 3,0 13,0
20 17 GM Oparin Grigoriy 2605 3,0 13,0

Click for complete standings

In the women's section, things are a bit different. The number of draws is much smaller but most of the leaders are expected figures. However, two players should be noted in here: WIM Polina Shuvalova is leading with 4.5/5 while Bibisara Assubayeva, the sensational figure of the European Open championship, has a formidable 3.5/5 with good chances to clinch a seat in the final!

WGM Olga Girya is the top seed in the Women's event with 2502 FIDE

WIM Polina Shulova, the Russian Girls's under-21 champion, is leading the Women's section in the Russian Higher League with 4.5/5

The ever-photogenic IM Alina Kashlinskaya

13-year-old WFM Bibisara Assaubayeva together with her mother, Liana

Women's standings after five rounds

Rk.
SNo
 
Name
Rtg
Pts
 TB 
1 7 WIM Shuvalova Polina 2383 4,5 14,0
2 4 IM Nechaeva Marina 2408 4,0 16,0
3 3 IM Kashlinskaya Alina 2438 4,0 15,5
4 2 IM Galliamova Alisa 2459 3,5 15,5
5 1 WGM Girya Olga 2502 3,5 15,0
6 11 IM Vasilevich Tatjana 2365 3,5 14,5
7 6 WFM Assaubayeva Bibisara 2386 3,5 14,5
8 20 WIM Tomilova Elena 2298 3,5 14,0
9 13 IM Ovod Evgenija 2363 3,5 13,0
10 12 IM Savina Anastasia 2364 3,5 12,0
11 10 WFM Gritsayeva Oksana 2372 3,5 12,0
12 14 IM Charochkina Daria 2350 3,0 14,0
13 25 WFM Chernyak Viktoria 2251 3,0 14,0
14 18 WIM Dordzhieva Dinara 2308 3,0 13,5
15 15 WGM Belenkaya Dina 2323 3,0 13,0

Click for complete standings


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Elshan Moradiabadi is a GM born and raised in Tehran, Iran. He moved to the US in 2012. Ever since, he has been active in US college chess scenes and in US chess. is a veteran instructor and teaches chess to every level, with students ranging from beginners to IM. He can be contacted for projects or teaching.
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Johanath Johanath 7/9/2017 04:35
Thank you for the article. Just wondering if Alexander Morozevich is actually playing? Checking on the score table, he doesn't seem to be on it?
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