My Aeroflot – a personal report

2/26/2005 – The Aeroflot Open is over, but its effects can still be felt. Hundreds of player attended, and new sponsors are coming in to continue the tradition in the coming years. Misha Savinov, who visited the event in Moschow, tells us the secret of its success and gives us his personal impressions of this great Russian tournament.

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The International Chess Open Festival "Aeroflot Open 2005" in Moscow runs from Feb. 15-23. It is being held in the Hotel Rossija, directly next to the Red Square. Games start at 3 p.m. Moscow time. There are four groups: Tournament A1 for players with a FIDE rating higher than 2549; Tournament A2 for players between 2399-2550; Tournament B 2199-2400; Tournament C below 2200. The time controls are 40/2, 20/1 + 15 minutes/rest (tournament B and C: 90'+30" for the whole game).

My Aeroflot

Report by Misha Savinov

Pictures by Misha Savinov and Michael Knyazkov

This was my 3rd Aeroflot open. In 2003, on my way back from the US to Russia I suddenly realized that it might be advantageous to obtain the Aeroflot tournament package and take part in the open rather than to buy a regular transatlantic ticket. This very fact gives us an idea why the Aeroflot Open immediately became so popular among the ex-Soviets scattered around the world. In my case it just did not work out with dates, so I had to give up the plan of playing in the Open B, but ended up observing the main tournament! After daily reports in both 2003 and 2004 for the ChessBase and the ChessCafe, I finally obtained a luxury of having some spare time after the rounds... Hope you enjoy a large final report.

The venue

A monster of Soviet architecture, hotel "Rossija" once again welcomed more than 500 players, not to mention their trainers and family members. It was already overbooked for more than a week prior to the tournament. The games of three main events, A1 (2550 and above), A2 (2400-2549) and B (2200-2399), took place at the same two-level restaurant "Golden Hall". Tail enders of A2 and B played at the second floor. There was also a small area for post-mortem analysis, located under the stairs. Only 8 chess sets, and security guards done their best to prevent players reaching them.


The analysis area, only for grown-up participants?

After Berkes-Karjakin (draw) both grandmasters approached the skittles area, but a guard was vigilant. "Are you going there to play?" he asked. "Yes", replied Karjakin. "No, this is for analysis. Go away". Sergey quickly changed the story. "Yes, we want to analyze". The guard looked at the young boy with understandable disbelief. "Show me your badge". Sergey did not have one, but other participants and media supported Karjakin’s right to analyze, and the guard finally allowed him to approach the table. What a disorganized people these chessplayers, he probably thought.


Young Sergey Karjakin (middle) with Ukrainian friends

A similar problem occurred at the press center. Why was it so attractive for non-journalists? Simply, because of three computers connected to the Internet. Initially guards did not pay attention to people coming in and out, but at some point a tournament director noticed that lots of players were using the computers to play and chat on the Internet. It lead to a heated discussion with security, and in the next days only the luckiest of participants managed to get into the press center on their own.


Ivanchuk passing through security to the press center

There were, however, some people who passed ‘incoming traffic control’ smoothly. Maybe TD also showed pictures of some elite GMs to the guards?


Surfing the Internet on one of the press computers

Participants

Etienne Bacrot was a rating leader of Aeroflot-2005. Being a number One is a difficult position to succeed in Moscow, the fact well-proven in previous years. Indeed, Bacrot never threatened to win the event, however, he showed a decent +3 score and made a crucial impact on final ranking in the last round – but more on it later.


The Carlsen generation: Russian talent Ian Nepomniashchi


One of the youngest participants of the Open

Curiously, junior players produced rather modest results this year. Magnus Carlsen did not come (he is not made of steel, after all), another representative of his generation, Russian Ian Nepomniashchi, lost a few games in the beginning, and recovered back to 50% only in the end (which nevertheless gave him a GM norm). Agents of a new chess superpower, Ukrainians Karjakin, Areshchenko and Efimenko became visibly tired during the event.


Only Teimour Radjabov managed to score 6/9 to tie for 6th-12th in the end.


Alexander Khalifman

However, one could not fail noticing a strong come-back from Alexander Khalifman. When former FIDE champion won his first game, he sarcastically commented: "This might be my first win out of last hundred games." In the end Alexander finished at +3, and, more significantly, he played fearlessly as in his best years. True, he was balancing on the edge against Bacrot and Motylev, but drew both games and came up with another half-joking statement: "I think I could give handicap to these youngsters... a pawn to Bacrot, an exchange to Motylev – and they still can’t win."


Ruslan Ponomariov

A last-minute-joined another FIDE champion Ruslan Ponomariov had difficulties winning a single game, and even lost to Wang Yue in the Round Six. There were rumors that Ruslan would withdraw from the event, but it appeared to come from what we call "evil tongues". Ponomariov finished with two straight wins, and did not seem disappointed with the tournament despite modest +1 finish. "You think it is easy to beat Russian GMs?", he asked people who inquired about the reasons of his underperformance.


Great chess trainers Alexander Nikitin and Mark Dvoretsky

Curiously, one major Russian newspaper wrote about two former world champions – Khalifman and Ponomariov – participating in the Aeroflot Open: "we did not expect them finishing among the leaders because their best years are passed." In my opinion, it sounds quite weird to say something like this with regard to 21-year-old Ponomariov, but it seems it was Khalifman who got the message...

Kharlov: smooth start

After three rounds there were two players with maximum score, Ivanchuk and Kharlov. In their personal encounter Ivanchuk surprised his opponent with very aggressive opening play as Black, and Kazan grandmaster spent most part of the game on a defensive. However, Vassily seemed to overestimate his chances, and when the reality hit him and game went to a four-rook endgame with extra pawn for White, Ukrainian did not put much of a resistance.


Until 7th round Kharlov rested on draws, but then came out of an ambush to refute excessively aggressive opening by Malakhov, and again became a sole leader half a point ahead of Volkov and Sutovsky.

Sutovsky: brilliant middlegame

Emil Sutovsky has one of the finest senses of dynamics in chess. His two wins against Kotsur and Filippov are very likely the most brilliant games of this year’s Aeroflot open. Fellow grandmasters were especially impressed with the former, in which Emil conducted a positional sacrifice of a piece for just one pawn. Extended analysis confirmed the correctness of his decision, which looked almost nonsense for his opponent during the game.


Emil Sutovsky entertaining Vassily Ivanchuk

Sutovsky is very effective in longer Swiss events, because while he wins a lot, an uncompromising and creative approach to the game (as well as his reluctance to make short draws) makes one or two defeats per tournament almost inevitable. This time he broke in a game against Ivanchuk. Another daring sacrifice proved ineffective, Ivanchuk found a several excellent defensive moves and parried the attack. The Ukrainian modestly admitted afterwards that at a critical moment of the game he simply guessed the correct response, but anyhow it worked out well for him.

The situation before concluding round was quite favorable for Kharlov, experienced, solid and tough-to-beat player. Volkov and Ivanchuk trailed by a half point and had worse tie-breaks than Andrey. Only two players in a large group with 5.5 had better color balance – Sutovsky and Bacrot (and both had to have black in the round nine). Some journalists expressed 99% confidence in Kharlov’s success.


Akopian vs Kharlov in round nine, with Sutovsky in the background

However, a final round was a real drama. First of all, the very focused Vladimir Akopian devastated Kharlov after the latter came up with unusually weak opening idea. It is difficult to say, whether Andrey started to celebrate too early or simply did not prepare well for a crucial challenge, but he lost a pawn and soon a game without much fight.

In the game Volkov – Sutovsky White sacrificed a piece quite early in the opening, but his attack did not work out. Sutovsky parted with three pawns, but forced exchanging Queens and then took the initiative and proceeded to win. The Israeli left the tournament area thinking that he finishes on 2nd place, because Ivanchuk, as everyone thought, was on a way to victory against Bacrot, which would make him an undisputed winner of the event.


Vassily Ivanchuk

"Two rating favorites play each other in the last round, one wins and get the first place – what a boring tournament!" was the ironic lament of one of the press center devotees. But this game was full of ups and downs. First Bacrot blundered rather simple tactics and had to give up a pawn. Ivanchuk returned the pawn, but transposed into a winning endgame. And then the Frenchman started to play to his full strength, stubbornly refusing to resign and patiently finding defensive resources. Probably position remained winning for Vassily, but he became nervous and spoiled everything with rushy pawn break shortly prior to the time control. Bacrot spent almost half an hour after the control and found the way to draw a rook ending.


Tie-break winner Emil Sutovsky of Israel

Suddenly the situation changed completely. Five players tied for first, and only one of them, Emil Sutovsky had a superior color balance, i.e. five Blacks and four Whites. So he was proclaimed a winner on a tiebreak. Andrey Kharlov, who led the event since the Round One, finished second.


Ex world champion Vassily Smyslov speaks at the closing ceremony

Fairness of color balance?

Last year many voices rose against this sort of tie-breaking system. For example, Sergey Shipov said that he considers Filippov being a true winner of the 2004-event, as one who had better Bucholz. This year, however, all the participants I asked agreed that Emil Sutovsky deserved his Dortmund ticket. I do not want to go into detail discussing randomness of pairings etc, but the fact that only three out of 12 top finishers had a "black" color balance pretty much speaks for itself.


Emil Sutovsky speaking at the prize-giving ceremony

One of the brightest players on a chess scene, Sutovsky is also very intelligent and well-educated person. He speaks more than half a dozen languages and has a talent for opera singing. I very much like the idea of him playing in Dortmund, and hope that someday he might be invited to even more prestigious tournaments...

During the closing ceremony it was announced that the next Aeroflot open will take place in the same hotel Rossija, which is already for a couple of years rumored to be demolished and rebuilt. Another piece of good news is that Air France is prepared to expand its sponsorship to the tournament. Aeroflot representative said that his company welcomes the interest of their good partners from Air France, but the level of Aeroflot airlines sponsorship and the name of the festival would definitely remain unchanged. It is a great pleasure to see such solid companies sponsoring chess. At the same time, it seems they also benefit from media coverage of the event as well. And there are so many airlines worldwide...


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