A remarkable event: the World Senior Team Championship 2020

by Bruce Leverett
4/24/2020 – The World Senior Team Championships 2020 in Prague took place in March but due to the coronavirus it ended prematurely after seven of the nine rounds initially planned had been played. The USA won, the third year in a row. But the winning team with its grandmaster line-up was not the only team from the USA. Bruce Leverett who played for USA Too, an amateur team, looks back to this remarkable event. | Pictured: Spring outside the US Embassy in Prague. | Photo: Alex Yermolinsky

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More than just medals: the World Senior Team Championship 2020

By now you’ve read about the exploits of Team USA at the World Senior Teams in Prague in March. They didn’t lose a match, even against other all-GM teams, and made it look easy. But there’s a lot more to this tournament than the race to first place. Two other US teams entered: USA Too, and USA 4 Brothers; I held down fourth board for USA Too. In a field of 55 teams, we faced a mix of national teams, national women’s teams, and club teams.

Leonid Sokolin and Mikhail Koganov, friends since attending Brooklyn Polytechnic, had already played on a US Amateur Team East team together. They set out to recruit a team for Seniors, and sent e-mail to lists of senior players that they got from US Chess. I signed on right away, though we were complete strangers; I was followed shortly by Igor Yeliseyev and Konstantin Dolgitser. We all played in the Liberty Bell Open in Philadelphia in January, just to get to know each other.

We voted on a team name. Igor supervised the design and production of a team t-shirt. We decided to have two designs – for a nine round tournament, two t-shirts are better than one. We voted on the designs. We traded travel tips and other suggestions. Just before going to Prague, Igor fell ill, so we went without an alternate player.

Left to right: Bruce Leverett, Mikhail Koganov, Konstantin Dolgitser, Leonid Sokolin | Photo by Vladimír Jagr; by permission of WSTCC 2020

This year, the tournament was not at a resort, but in Prague, a major metropolis. Our hotel was at a good site for the tournament, about two miles from the major tourist area, the "Old Town", and playing conditions were excellent. We settled on a daily routine: a walk to the Old Town after breakfast; lunch, and then getting together in Lenya Sokolin’s room to look at our opponents’ games; a little rest; and then the round was at three. A long walk every day gets strenuous, and each of us would sometimes opt out, but it helps to clear the head, especially if you’re wound up from the previous day’s game.

Lenya Sokolin, an IM, could compete with any of the first boards. He started with a streak of four wins, including this one against GM Kevin Arkell of England:

[Event "WSTCC-50 2020"] [White "Sokolin, Leonid"] [Black "Arkell, Keith C"] [Site "Prague"] [Round "3.9"] [Annotator "Sokolin, Leonid"] [Result "1-0"] [Date "2020.03.08"] [WhiteElo "2496"] [BlackElo "2447"] [PlyCount "71"] 1. e4 {[%emt 0:0:0]} d5 {[%emt 0:0:0]} 2. exd5 {[%emt 0:0:5]} Qxd5 {[%emt 0:0:3]} 3. Nc3 {[%emt 0:0:4]} Qd8 {[%emt 0:0:10]This is one of the main weapons of GM Arkell for Black, but thanks to my friend ex-World Champion Alex Khalifman I came well prepared for it.} 4. d4 {[%emt 0:0:6]} Nf6 {[%emt 0:0:4]} 5. Nf3 {[%emt 0:0:5]} Bg4 {[%emt 0:0:11]} 6. h3 {[%emt 0:0:4]} Bxf3 {[%emt 0:0:4] B01: Scandinavian Defence.} 7. Qxf3 {[%emt 0:0:1]} c6 {[%emt 0:0:6]} 8. Be3 {[%emt 0:0:3]} e6 {[%emt 0:0:11]} 9. Bd3 {[%emt 0:0:23]} Nbd7 {[%emt 0:0:39]} 10. 0-0 {[%emt 0:0:11]} Be7 {[%emt 0:0:7]} 11. Rad1 {[%emt 0:0:43]} 0-0 {[%emt 0:0:6]This prophylactic move fixes a slight advantage for White, who enjoys a strong pair of bishops. } 12. a3 $1 {[%emt 0:0:52]} Nb6 {[%emt 0:0:31][#]} 13. Ne2 $0 $146 {[%emt 0:0:23]} ({Predecessor:} 13. Ne4 Nbd5 14. Bc1 Nxe4 15. Qxe4 Nf6 16. Qh4 Re8 17 c3 a5 18. Rfe1 a4 19. Re5 {1-0 (57) Ahlberg,M (2017)-Kiesewetter,P (1795) Berlin 2017} )Nbd5 {[%emt 0:2:32]} 14. Bc1 {[%emt 0:1:19]} (14. Bd2 $5 )b5 {[%emt 0:0:50]} 15. Ng3 {[%emt 0:0:45]} a5 {[%emt 0:1:30]} 16. c3 {[%emt 0:1:2]} (16. Rfe1 $5 )Qd7 {[%emt 0:1:11]} 17. Ne4 {[%emt 0:2:7]} Nxe4 {[%emt 0:0:13]} 18. Bxe4 {[%emt 0:0:47]} (18. Qxe4 $5 {was probably more direct} )Rfd8 {[%emt 0:2:53]} 19. Rfe1 {[%emt 0:3:38]} Rac8 {[%emt 0:0:17]} 20. h4 $5 {[%emt 0:0:51]} (20. Bc2 {was more cautious, but I decided to create a more unbalanced position.} )Nf6 {[%emt 0:1:5]} 21. Bc2 {[%emt 0:0:6]} Qd5 {[%emt 0:0:21]} 22. Qd3 {[%emt 0:1:1]} g6 {[%emt 0:6:26]Creates potential target, h6 was more careful.} 23. Qg3 {[%emt 0:9:38]} Qh5 {[%emt 0:7:33]} 24. Re5 $6 {[%emt 0:20:5]This is another aggressive move, but it achieved its goal, as he started spending a lot of time. } Bd6 {[%emt 0:7:0]} 25. Rde1 $1 {[%emt 0:14:1]} Ng4 $6 {[%emt 0:15:51]} ({ Not} 25... Bxe5 $2 26. dxe5 Ne8 27. Qh3 $0 $18 )(25... Qg4 {was probably safer, but my opponent acknowledged that he started playing for a win already. :-) } )26. Bg5 $1 {[%emt 0:9:37]This move is not winning, but was completely missed by GM Arkell, who blundered after 40 min thought. } Bxe5 $4 {[%emt 0:47:30]} ({ Don't go for} 26... Nxe5 $2 27. dxe5 Bxe5 28. Qxe5 $0 $18 )(26... h6 {was the only move; it also creates an interesting trap} 27. Bxd8 Rxd8 28. Bd1 $2 (28. Rxh5 Bxg3 29. fxg3 gxh5 30. Be4 $14 )Bxe5 29. dxe5 $2 Qxe5 $1 $17 )27. dxe5 $18 {[%emt 0:1:21]Now two bishops just tear Black position apart, while the Queen is completely cut off.} Rd5 $0 $18 {[%emt 0:0:16]} 28. f3 {[%emt 0:0:58]} Nxe5 {[%emt 0:5:8]} 29. Rxe5 {[%emt 0:0:7]} h6 {[%emt 0:0:26]} 30. Rxd5 {[%emt 0:1:45]} cxd5 {[%emt 0:0:31]} 31. Bf6 {[%emt 0:0:51]} g5 {[%emt 0:1:14]} 32. hxg5 {[%emt 0:0:30]} hxg5 {[%emt 0:0:4]} 33. Bxg5 {[%emt 0:0:51]} Kf8 {[%emt 0:0:4]} 34. Qd6+ {[%emt 0:0:55]} Kg8 {[%emt 0:0:2]} 35. Qf4 {[%emt 0:0:14]} b4 {[%emt 0:0:41]} 36. Bf6 {[%emt 0:4:26]} 1-0

In round 1 we met Latvia Women. On paper this was supposed to be an easy match, but neither Kostya nor Mischa could get enough winning chances, and for a long time it seemed as if even Lenya would only draw, but finally we won 3-1. Ultimately, Latvia did well among the national women’s teams, finishing ahead of England and two Germanys.

We played on DGT boards and sets, electronically connected to a central system, to enable moves to be posted "in real time". After finishing my game, I didn’t have to linger in the tournament hall to watch other games, but could go retrieve my laptop, visit the tournament website, and keep up with my teammates’ games or other games.

In round 2 we faced SK Sokol Vyšehrad. This was a Czech club team, but as with team events here in the United States, I don’t know if it’s a real club or just five guys who know each other. This was supposed to be another easy match, but Kostya and I managed to avoid converting beautiful winning positions. Mischa’s opponent lost by forfeit when his cell phone decided to tell him its battery was low. At this event, you were not allowed to bring your cell phone or even your wrist watch into the playing hall. These rules are to make it harder to cheat with electronics. Of course, it’s not rational for us over-the-hill amateur players to cheat, but rationality is left behind when someone catches that bug, as FIDE knows all too well.

We were now due for a tough match. For our after-lunch opening preparation, Lenya had secured the (remote) services of former world champion Alex Khalifman, who had worked with him before. This was something new for me and perhaps the others. Nowadays, anyone with any ambition in chess looks for a teacher or coach, but in my generation, most of us were on our own. Before going to Prague, we each wrote up a "chess résumé" for Alex, including a summary of our opening repertoire, and it was evident from the start of the session that he had read these carefully. We worked with Alex for this match (against England), and for our fifth-round match (Russia Women). If you look at the cross table, you may be skeptical, because Kostya and I each only got a half point from those two rounds, and Mischa only got two draws. I admit that, in my case, decades of neglect of my opening repertoire wasn’t fixed in a couple of short sessions. But we agreed that, as Kostya put it, working with Alex was a high point of the tournament.

In round 3 we faced England, one of the all-GM teams. Lenya won against Arkell. Mischa was prepped with a sharp variation to play against Neil McDonald’s Dutch. He missed the most aggressive play and got a slight disadvantage, but drew after calmly and correctly defending the middlegame and ending:

[Event "World Senior Teams +50"] [Site "Prague CZE"] [Date "2020.03.08"] [Round "3.3"] [White "Koganov, Mikhail"] [Black "McDonald, Neil"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "A04"] [WhiteElo "2085"] [BlackElo "2410"] [PlyCount "94"] [EventDate "2020.03.06"] [EventType "team"] [EventRounds "7"] [EventCountry "CZE"] [SourceTitle "The Week in Chess 1323"] [Source "Mark Crowther"] [SourceDate "2020.03.16"] [SourceVersion "1"] [SourceVersionDate "2020.03.16"] [SourceQuality "2"] [WhiteTeam "USA TOO"] [BlackTeam "ENGLAND 1"] [Annotator "Koganov, Mikhail"] 1. Nf3 f5 2. d3 d6 3. e4 e5 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. Bg5 $6 {Dubious move that doesn't create any problems for black. Instead, white needed to go into bold} (5. exf5 $1 Bxf5 6. d4 $1) ({Also possible, but not as strong} 5. d4 fxe4 6. Nxe4 d5 7. Ng3) 5... Be7 6. Qd2 Nd4 7. Bxe7 Nxe7 8. Nxd4 exd4 9. Ne2 c5 10. exf5 Bxf5 11. Ng3 O-O 12. Be2 Ng6 13. O-O Bd7 {White misplayed the opening to a great extent and needs to be careful in the resulting position. Specifically, black is looking to place the Bishop in c6, Knight on f4, Queen on f6 or h4, bring his other rook to the center and achieve overwhelming positional advantage.} 14. f4 $1 {After a long think, I concluded that 14. f4 is my only hope to keep in the game. That move denies the Nf4 and provides white with much needed space. I clearly understood that f4 pawn will be target of black's assault, but I believed in my abilities to find dynamic compensation. It is interesting that computer engines do not give black any advantage, perhaps due to the fact it is not so easy to win this pawn.} (14. Bf3 {The naturalv 14. Bf3 is instantly answered by 14 ... Rxf3 giving black a clear advantage.} Rxf3) 14... Qh4 15. f5 Ne7 {Engines believe that Ne5 is slightly better, but my opponent clearly wanted this f-pawn.} 16. Bf3 Rab8 17. Be4 {This move is not bad, but I missed the best continuation there : 17.Qa5 which gives white slightly better position due to threat of Qc7.} (17. Qa5 $1) 17... b6 18. Rae1 Kh8 19. Re2 { Engines suggest 19.b4 in this position, with the idea of trading on c5 and either stabilize the Bishop on e4 if dxc or making Qa5 possible if bxc. I have to admit that idea never crossed my mind here.} Rf6 {Black threatens Rh6 and understanding this threat actually helped to make a decision here.} 20. Qf4 Qxf4 21. Rxf4 Rbf8 {Inaccuracy, d5 would have been better.} (21... d5 22. Bf3 Ng6 23. Rg4 Bxf5 24. Rg5 Bd7 25. Rxd5 Bc6 26. Rf5 Rxf5 27. Nxf5 Bxf3 28. gxf3) 22. Nh5 R6f7 23. g4 g6 24. Ng3 gxf5 {Black succeeds in winning a pawn on f5, but in the process a lot of pieces are being traded and resulting rook endgame is close to even. Still white needs to demonstrate his ability to defend such endgames.} 25. gxf5 Nxf5 26. Nxf5 Bxf5 27. Bxf5 Rxf5 28. Rxf5 Rxf5 29. Re8+ $1 {The move I am most proud of in this game, in addition to 14. f4.} (29. Re6 $2 Re5 $1) 29... Kg7 30. Rd8 $1 {Another strong move and key of my idea. It is a double attack and I am getting a pawn back.} Rg5+ 31. Kf2 Kf6 32. Rxd6+ Ke5 $1 {Black's last chance to play this position for a win, activating his King and trying to bring this King to e3, than c2.} 33. Rd7 Rf5+ 34. Kg2 Kf4 {White cannot afford to waiste time to capture iether of the black pawns, he needs to stop black king from coming in.} 35. Re7 Re5 36. Rxe5 Kxe5 37. Kf3 Kf5 38. a4 { White places his pawns on a4 and b3 depriving black from any type of breakthoughs.} a6 39. b3 h6 40. h3 b5 41. axb5 axb5 42. Kg3 Kg5 43. h4+ Kf5 44. Kf3 h5 {Now my much higher rated opponent realized that position is totally drawn and forces it by repetition.} 45. Kg3 Ke5 46. Kf3 Kf5 47. Kg3 Ke5 { This game gave me a boost of self-confidence in this tournament. While my opening preparation especially for white left things to be desired, when it came to simply playing chess, I was happy that I managed to find good solutions under pressure and hold against a grandmaster. That increased self-confidence affected my remaining games to a great extent.} 1/2-1/2

Kostya and I were both outclassed, missing several chances to stay level with our opponents (Glenn Flear and Jim Plaskett), in spite of excellent opening preparation.

In round 4 we faced a German club team, SC Groebenzell Reloaded. A feature of this match, which we won by 3½ to ½, was Mischa’s fine attacking play with the Philidor:

[Event "World Senior Teams +50"] [Site "Prague CZE"] [Date "2020.03.09"] [Round "4.9"] [White "Scheckenbach, F..."] [Black "Koganov, Mikhail"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C41"] [WhiteElo "2101"] [BlackElo "2085"] [PlyCount "52"] [EventDate "2020.03.06"] [EventType "team"] [EventRounds "7"] [EventCountry "CZE"] [SourceTitle "The Week in Chess 1323"] [Source "Mark Crowther"] [SourceDate "2020.03.16"] [SourceVersion "1"] [SourceVersionDate "2020.03.16"] [SourceQuality "2"] [WhiteTeam "SC GROEBENZELL RELOADED"] [BlackTeam "USA TOO"] [Annotator "Koganov, Mikhail"] 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 e5 4. Nf3 Nbd7 5. Bc4 Be7 {Preparing for this game, I noticed that my opponent had only faced the Philidor defense a few times and couldn't have an extensive experience. I decided to employ a riskier variation of the opening called "Lion" where black delays castling in favor of creating an attack on the King's side.} 6. a4 a5 $2 {This move is a serious mistake, which can lead to a difficult, perhaps even losing position for black. In Philidor, black should always be prepared to Bxf7+ shots. I checked that 7. Bxf7+ is OK for black, totally missing that it is possible after 7.Ng5 0-0.} ( 6... h6) 7. O-O $2 {white missed his chance.} (7. Ng5 O-O 8. Bxf7+ Rxf7 9. Ne6 Qe8 10. Nxc7 Qd8 {Typically the sacrifice on f7 is not that advantageous for white, since black queen comes to g6 with a pressure against white's king side. Here black rook on f7 makes this impossible.} 11. Nxa8 b6) 7... c6 8. h3 Qc7 9. Bg5 {This move is inaccuracy in my opinion, my opponent is not familiar with the setup that black is about to demonstrate and actually makes my play easier. } Nf8 10. Qd2 h6 11. Be3 g5 $5 {The whole idea of "Lion". Back is playing aggressively and is about to create a strong attack against the White's King.} 12. Nh2 Ng6 13. Be2 {My opponent decided to switch to a passive defense here. Stockfish instead thinks white should keep the Bishop on the active c4 square and simply play 13. f3 keeping the game balanced.} Nf4 14. Ng4 h5 $6 15. Nxf6+ Bxf6 16. Rad1 {My opponent hopes to open the center and potentially trade queens on d6 taking the sting off my attack.} (16. d5 Be7) 16... Qe7 17. dxe5 Bxe5 18. Rfe1 Rg8 19. Bf1 Be6 20. Bd4 $2 {whites cracks under pressure.} (20. f3 O-O-O) 20... g4 21. Bxe5 dxe5 22. h4 $2 g3 $1 23. Ne2 $2 {white is completely demoralized at this point and loses quickly.} gxf2+ 24. Kxf2 Qxh4+ 25. g3 Qh2+ 26. Kf3 Nxe2 {White gave up, he is getting mated.} 0-1

In round 5 we faced Russia Women. Though we outrated this team, we expected a difficult match, and we got one, on every board; all four boards were drawn. My opponent, Elena Fatalibekova, competed in the Women’s World Championship cycle in the 1970’s and 80’s. Her mother, Olga Rubtsova, was Women’s World Champion in the 1950’s. Having butchered the Open Ruy Lopez in round 3, I chose the relatively safer Philidor defense to her king’s pawn opening, but I couldn’t resist getting into trouble anyway:

[Event "FIDE World Senior Team Championship 2020"] [Site "Olympik hotel, Sokolovska 138, Prague"] [Date "2020.03.10"] [Round "5.6.4"] [White "Fatalibekova, Elena"] [Black "Leverett, Bruce"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [WhiteElo "2158"] [BlackElo "2264"] [ECO "A00"] [PlyCount "74"] [WhiteTeam "RUSW"] [BlackTeam "USA2"] [EventDate "2020.03.06"] [Annotator "Leverett, Bruce"] 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 e5 4. Nf3 Nbd7 5. g3 (5. Bc4) Be7 6. Bg2 O-O 7. O-O c6 8. a4 b6 9. b3 Bb7 10. Bb2 Qc7 11. Re1 Rfe8 12. Qd2 a6 13. d5 cxd5 (13... c5 {seemed sluggish to me}) 14. Nxd5 Nxd5 15. exd5 Rac8 $6 (15... Nf6 16. c4 b5 {looks logical; for some reason I didn't think of it}) 16. Bh3 Rb8 17. Bf1 Nf6 18. c4 Bc8 19. h3 Nd7 20. b4 a5 21. bxa5 bxa5 22. Bc3 Nc5 $2 (22... Qa7 {is fine}) 23. Rab1 $2 (23. Bxa5 $2 Qa7 24. Rab1 Rb3 $1 25. Bc3 Rxb1 26. Rxb1 Ne4 $17) (23. Nxe5 $1 dxe5 (23... Nb3 24. Qf4) 24. Bxe5 Qa7 25. Bxb8 Qb8 26. d6 $18) Bf5 $6 ({chasing the rook where it wants to go;} 23... Rxb1 24. Rxb1 Bd8 $15) 24. Rb5 Ne4 25. Qe3 Nxc3 26. Qxc3 Ra8 27. c5 $1 {I had missed this} dxc5 28. Qxe5 Qxe5 29. Rxe5 Bd7 30. Rb7 Bd6 $2 (30... Bf6 $10) 31. Rxe8+ Bxe8 32. Bb5 $2 (33. Nd2 $1 {is crushing; but now it's a forced draw}) Bxb5 33. Rxb5 c4 34. Rb6 Bb4 35. Rc6 c3 36. Nd4 Rd8 37. Nb5 Kf8 1/2-1/2

Among the national women’s teams, only Russia Women and Czech Republic Women 1 finished with plus scores. Another team, Moscow, with women on boards 1 and 2, also finished well.

Although, apparently, nobody at the tournament had COVID-19 or caught it there, the pandemic was already on everyone’s minds. The Italian team and some Asian teams had cancelled before the tournament started, and several individual players, I don’t know how many, had backed out, although their teams came anyway. After the 5th round, the Czech government prohibited sporting events of more than 100 players. This was a problem for us because the 50+ and 65+ sections together totaled about 500 players. The organizers got permission to continue the event by dividing it into 5 separate rooms.

In round 6, we faced another Czech club team, SK Slavoj Litomerice. Our top two boards were agreed drawn before I even had a chance to get up and look at them! How did that happen? Only after my own game was finished could I look at the game scores on the Web and find that both Lenya and Kostya had agreed to draws in losing positions. Fortunately Mischa and I were able to clean up on our boards.

That night, at about 2:30 AM, we all heard from our families about the travel restrictions: soon nobody could fly to the US from Europe. Technically these restrictions did not apply to US citizens, but evidently most flights from Europe to the US were going to be cancelled, so it was time for us to hang it up. While Mischa stuck around for a few hours to notify the organizers, the other three of us caught an Uber to the airport and found flights to go home. We hoped that the organizers would have time to change the round 7 pairings, but they didn’t, and so the crosstable shows us losing to Lasker Schachstiftung GK by forfeit. Later that day, the Czech government further tightened the restriction on sporting events, from 100 players to 30, so our organizers had to give up after the 7th round. The two top matches for that round, USA vs. Iceland and Yamal vs. Czech Republic 1, were both tied with quick draws on all four boards. Perhaps they were acknowledging the impossibility of playing GM-level chess under the circumstances. But the remaining 7th round matches were hard-fought.

As we returned home, with the tournament abruptly cut short by the pandemic, ironically, the Candidates tournament was just beginning. Evidently those organizers and players were even more chess crazy than the Senior Teams organizers and players. As I write this, we don’t know when it will be safe to resume face-to-face chess tournaments. But we can already think about future World Senior Teams.


Bruce Leverett, a software developer from Pittsburgh, has played chess since 1962. He contributed two chapters to the 13th edition of MCO (1990), and has assisted with the U.S. Blind Championship since 2010.


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