White nights in St. Petersburg

5/29/2004 – The Russian Championship qualifiers are in full swing, with Alexey Dreev still in the lead. The games are exciting, with some spectacular accidents. Oh, yes, and it is advisable to have dark glasses at the end of the games, to protect your eyes from the 10 p.m. sun. Here's Misha Savinov's beautiful pictorial report.

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The Higher League of the Russian Championship

By Misha Savinov

Since 1899, when first Russian chess championship was organized (winner – Mikhail Chigorin), this event has experienced many ups and downs. Sometimes it was arguably stronger than any of world candidates tournaments, like in 1973. Occasionally most top players ignored it, like in 1984. The formula varied from complicated multi-stage qualification system to liberal Swiss. The most classic, however, was all-play-all system, with equal participation of invited (or pre-qualified) and qualified players.

The Russian championship of modern days also had difficult times, in early 90s. The turning point was probably Elista – 1994, won by raising star Peter Svidler in competition with Mikhail Ulibin and Sergey Rublevsky. In following years nearly all top Russian players took part in the event – Svidler (now four-time champion), Khalifman, Bareev, Morozevich, Dreev, Sakaev – except for world champions Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik. The Swiss system was not convenient for the elite players, not to mention relatively low (for them) prize fund and other reasons each of them had.

Only in 2004, after many years of Swiss cruelty and brief flirtation with knock-out lottery, the organizers of Russian championship decided to return to round-robin system, which allows to attract the strongest possible field, therefore generate attention in media, therefore attract sponsors, therefore invite the players etc...

On top of the championship ladder there is a Superfinal, which is going to have a large enough prize fund (there were talks about $300,000), with Kasparov, Kramnik, Karpov, Svidler, Grischuk, Bareev and Morozevich personally invited, and six more players qualified. It will take place "in autumn". The venue and date are yet to be announced.

One step down, there are two Higher Leagues, one in Tomsk, and another – in St. Petersburg. It would be wrong to call that "qualifier". By the prestige of playing in it, the participants' strength and (last but not least) the prize fund, each tournament is not merely a qualifier, but independent Higher League of 57th Russian championship. The actual qualifiers for the Higher League participation took place earlier.

St. Petersburg, former capital of Russian Empire, a five-million city that celebrates its 301st anniversary on the 27th of May, previously hosted the Russian chess championship in 1998. It was one of the strongest Swiss system tournaments, and Alexander Morozevich won it on tie-break. This time Alexey Dreev is the rating favorite (2689), followed by Alexander Khalifman (2668) and Konstantin Sakaev (2665). The prize fund of the event is $50,000, with $10,000 first prize. The chief sponsor of St. Petersburg tournament is Viking Bank.

The players live and play in "St. Petersburg" hotel, which is placed on a bank of Neva river. Here is the playing hall. Note the gorgeous view on Neva.

Round 1

Alexey Ustaev, President of St. Petersburg Chess Federation and Viking Bank, made the first move of the tournament. Alexey Dreev looked quite satisfied with president's choice – last time he tried something else than 1.d4 was 1.e4 in 5-move draw with Peng Xiaomin in 1999.

Dreev won his first game against Moscow GM Alexander Riazantsev in convincing manner, demonstrating superior positional understanding and professional endgame technique. More importantly, it became clear that Alexey is fully armed not only with chess knowledge – his physical form is excellent, too. Unlike his younger opponent, he didn't look tired at all after 53-move struggle. Among other favorites, only Sergey Volkov and Vladimir Epishin won their encounters. Although both players had Black pieces, they faced relatively weaker opposition. Pavel Tregubov, first European champion, could also join the leaders, but he blundered a piece in won position against GM Vladimir Belov, and made a draw.

The youngest participant of the tournament, 13-year-old IM Ian Nepomniashchy – the one who've beaten Magnus Carlsen and won the title at European U12 in 2002 – held a draw against GM Yevseev in latter's favorite Caro-Kann. Ian is very confident and optimistic in chess, and in order to qualify to the Higher League he won Russian U18 championship!

The meeting between Moscow champion 2003 and St. Petersburg champion 2004, Najer–Loginov, ended up as win for White. However, Loginov could well blame the misfortune on that occasion.

Najer was very aggressive in the middlegame, creating attacking chances at cost of his b-pawn. Loginov defended stubbornly after he lost the extra material and one more pawn, gave up his knight and created serious technical difficulties for the opponent. However, in critical moment of the endgame he was distracted twice by annoying beep of electronic clock at the table next to him. After the second beep Loginov exclaimed something like "Stop it after all!", and made a final mistake, missing last chance to force a draw.

Round 2

Unfortunate Valery Loginov lost second drawn game in a row. Valery is strong grandmaster, respected by his colleagues and chess public, but from time to time he is prone to the most terrible blunders one could imagine. During this year's St. Petersburg championship Loginov accepted a draw after the opponent sacrificed his last rook "forcing" the stalemate. However, the rook could be taken as the opponent's king still had one free square, which both players didn't see.

A similar episode happened in Loginov's encounter with GM Vladimir Burmakin (left in the above picture). In a theoretically drawn endgame Loginov gave up his passed pawn striving for stalemate.

Burmakin,V (2571) - Loginov,V (2516) [E62]
57th ch-RUS Qualifier St Petersburg RUS (2), 22.05.2004

Position after 63.Qf7-f5

Loginov played 63...b1Q, expecting that 64.Qxb1 was not possible because the black king would be stalemated. Unfortunately the king has a move: 64...Kxa4, after which White can mate in six.

Alexey Dreev won his second game. GM Alexey Kuzmin, who played white, did not find the way to equalize against the Meran, and Dreev launched quick attack on white king, winning on move 43.

GM Alexey Kuzmin after losing to Dreev in round two

Alexander Khalifman's opponent, St. Petersburg GM Sergey Ivanov (who is not a professional player, he works full-time as an engineer), is a renowned specialist in the French defense for Black. Khalifman tried hard for four hours, but was unable to breach the defensive wall.

Alexander Khalifman against French Defence specialist Sergey Ivanov

Two players took the lead after the second round. Vladimir Epishin has also won his game against Evgeny Romanov, a young FM from Kaliningrad (former Koenigsberg). Sergey Volkov had good chances of beating Evgeny Shaposhnikov, but missed several good opportunities in opponent's time trouble, and Shaposhnikov forced the perpetual.

Of course, a chess tournament is not only about blood and struggle. It is also a good opportunity to meet friends you wouldn't see on other occasion.

Konstantin Landa, who lives in Germany, with Muscovite Sergey Dolmatov.

Round 3

The symbol of the Soviet Revolution in 1917, "Aurora the revolutionary cruiser" (picture above), perhaps inspired the players to press harder in round three. Ten decisive games out of 17, the highest percentage of wins so far.

Cool-blooded Alexey Dreev patiently waited for his opponent Vladimir Epishin to play an impulsive move, and reacted swiftly and effectively after that. Epishin could have resisted more stubbornly, but he was forced to give up material anyhow, and Dreev's technique is well known. 3/3, a fairly decent start for rating favorite!

Two players took the challenger's banner from Epishin's hands. 59-year-old Vitaly Tseshkovsky won with black his game with Evgeny Shaposhnikov in good energetic style. Sergey Volkov, also with black, defeated Evgeny Najer in quite a double-edged contest.

Alexander Khalifman registered his first win. Moscow IM Oleg Nikolenko is experienced player, and even more experienced speed player, but he is not in a league of El Khalif in classical chess.

After just a couple of opening moves Nikolenko faced serious problems (picture above), and Khalifman didn't give him a chance to restore the equilibrium.

One of the most original chess players, Vadim Zvjaginsev (picture above), also won his first in this round, defeating IM Vladimir Dobrov. Zvjaginsev had edge after the opening, lost it in the middlegame, and outplayed the opponent in the complex endgame.

The internet coverage is done by "Shahcom" (picture above). Although a couple of clocks turned out to be vulnerable to some bug, and were replaced after the fourth round, the relaying of moves remains exceptionally stable.

Round 4

A bird's eye view of the leading group in round four

A key game, Volkov – Dreev, was the longest one in the round. Volkov played actively in the opening, but possible overextended a bit, and Dreev utilized it to his favor. On 30th move Volkov lost one of his Q-side pawns, and had to struggle for a draw for the rest of the game.

However, Dreev (picture above) played carefully and patiently, and forced the opponent's resignation on move 73. By the way, Alexey Dreev is one of the few players, who came with a coach or second. Others are Ian Nepomniashchy (GM Sergey Janovsky) and Evgeny Romanov (GM Yuri Balashov).

Dreev with his second IM Alexander Filipenko

Vitaly Tseshkovsky is two-time USSR champion, but few if any specialists expected him to join the race for Russian championship Superfinal. Similarly, no-one could anticipate his "+2" at the Russian championship 2003 in Krasnoyarsk, with performance exceeding 2700! In this round Tseshkovsky met Konstantin Sakaev, rating favorite No 3. Sakaev definitely played for a win, but his piece sacrifice did not seem to impress Tseshkovsky. The veteran won his third game in this tournament, and took clear second place.

Konstantin Sakaev (right) has just played 19...Nh5xf4, sacrificing a piece against Vitaly Tseshkovsky

Alexander Khalifman defeated Evgeny Alekseev, and established himself as one of the main contenders in this event. Khalifman often loses interest in the game if he starts in a slow pace, but with 3/4 he might want to fight at least for top three. Vladimir Epishin also returned to "+2", beating Sergey Ivanov. The latter has already met 3 Grandmasters from St. Petersburg during this tournament, and all games were decisive!

FM Evgeny Romanov (above left with his coach GM Yuri Balashov) won a 19-move miniature with black against GM Valery Popov. It was an opening disaster for Popov, and I sense a hand of one excellent trainer...

Round 5

Finally somebody managed to stop Dreev! Not that I don't wish Alexey to win the tournament, but winning one game after another could easily kill any intrigue in the event. And, curiously, the man to break Dreev's lucky strike was Vitaly Tseshkovsky. The veteran drew with black pieces after surprising his opponent with Volga Gambit!

Tournament leader Dreev surprised by Vitaly Tseshkovsky's Volga Gambit

Among the participants of this tournament there are several teenagers – still-to-become GM. It is common practice to write that more experienced and skilled chess professors are examining them, and youngsters should use such a golden opportunity to learn, etc.

Well, it doesn't seem like three youngest players, Andreikin (14), Romanov (16) and Nepomniashchy (13) came to St. Petersburg trembling in fear before their distinguished opponents! Andreikin easily held as Black against Shaposhnikov, remaining at "+1" before the day-off, as well as Romanov, who was surprised by Zvjaginsev early in the opening, reacted strong enough to keep the balance against the former Chess Olympiad champion. Only Ian Nepomniashchy lost his first game after four straight draws with grandmasters. Pavel Tregubov defeated a schoolboy from Bryansk, who probably did not choose the right opening lane.

Pavel Tregubov (right), the first GM who managed to beat 13-year-old IM Ian Nepomniashchy

A head-spinning game was played between Vladimir Dobrov and Valery Popov. Popov responded on 1.e4 with 1...e5, which is quite unusual for him, and soon both players started to play creatively on their own. Popov sacrificed, attacked, but did not use all his chances, and Dobrov managed to defend and kept extra material. The game came to unusual finish – White had Q, N and one pawn, and Black was left with Q and four pawns. White played for a win, however, made several mistakes, missed exchange of queens, and then Black started to play for win. Probably White had a draw, but the resulting endgame demanded too much calculation to defend under the sunlight after seven hours of tense struggle. Yes, bright sunlight.

Valery Popov (left) vs Vladimir Dobrov in round five

St. Petersburg is proud of its "white nights", and direct rays of sun enter the tournament hall every day starting at around 9 pm. The picture above is shot at 10 pm. Petersburg resident Popov was prepared, and had sunglasses. Therefore, he managed to gain the upper hand. Well, seriously – during this tournament Popov already squeezed a couple of half points during the last time control, which tells a lot about his fighting spirit and physical condition, too!

The media showed little interest in the event, in my opinion, however, there were crews from two TV national channels, and several correspondents from local newspapers. Also, there are not too many spectators, as it could, probably due to small advertisement of the tournament! However, those who come by do enjoy high level fighting chess as well as professional commentary by GM Evgeny Solozhenkin and WIM Irina Sudakova.

Standings after five rounds

1. Dreev, Alexey g RUS 2689 – 4.5

2. Tseshkovsky, Vitaly g RUS 2564 – 4.0

3-4. Epishin, Vladimir g RUS 2610; Khalifman, Alexander g RUS 2668 – 3.5

5-15. Landa, Konstantin g RUS 2550; 6. Volkov, Sergey1 g RUS 2629; 7. Zvjaginsev, Vadim g RUS 2654; 8. Romanov, Evgeny f RUS 2392; 9. Tregubov, Pavel V g RUS 2636; 10. Sakaev, Konstantin g RUS 2665; 11. Andreikin, Dmitry m RUS 2418; 12. Najer, Evgeniy g RUS 2606; 13. Yakovich, Yuri g RUS 2596; 14. Shaposhnikov, Evgeny g RUS 2559; 15. Yevseev, Denis g RUS 2580 – 3.0

16-21. Ivanov, Sergey g RUS 2546; 17. Belov, Vladimir g RUS 2543; 18. Alekseev, Evgeny g RUS 2616; 19. Popov, Valerij g RUS 2547; 20. Riazantsev, Alexander g RUS 2556; 21. Danin, Alexandre f RUS 2332 – 2.5

22-26. Nepomniachtchi, Ian f RUS 2445; 23. Kuzmin, Alexey g RUS 2567; 24. Dolmatov, Sergey g RUS 2573; 25. Ionov, Sergey g RUS 2538; 26. Burmakin, Vladimir g RUS 2571; 27. Solovjov, Sergey I m RUS 2458; 28. Kurnosov, Igor g RUS 2543; 29. Nikolenko, Oleg m RUS 2520 – 2.0

30-32. Dobrov, Vladimir m RUS 2477; 31. Loginov, Valery A g RUS 2516; 32. Gleizerov, Evgeny g RUS 2592 –1.5

33. Silivanov, Sergej f RUS 2291 – 1.0

34. Shapovalenko,Maksim RUS 0 – 0.0

Misha Savinov is a ChessCafe columnist, journalist,
and currently doing a Ph.D. in ecology

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