Alexey Sarana wins grueling Russian Higher League

by Antonio Pereira
7/6/2018 – An impeccable start and a cruise-control finish was enough for young Alexey Sarana to win the Russian Higher League. Grigoriy Oparin obtained back-to-back wins in rounds six and seven to tie in points with Sarana, but had to settle for second on tiebreaks. The women's section did have a clear winner in Oksana Gritsayeva, who finished on 7/9. The real bounty, however, was a spot in the Russian Superfinals, a reward received by five players in each section. | Photo: Dmitry Kryakvin / Russian Chess Federation

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Eyes on the prize

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Chess Federation took over and tried to maintain a high standard of national competitions to keep its players motivated locally. The Superfinal format changed from a Swiss open to a knockout tournament and finally, since 2004, to a 12-player single round robin (the number of players varied from 2011 to 2014). In fact, Garry Kasparov won the first national closed tournament fourteen years ago. The list of winners includes Sergei Rublevsky, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk and, of course, Peter Svidler.

Therefore, getting to play the national championship is actually a big deal for Russian players, and the final step to reach the objective is the Higher League. It is no surprise, thus, that if you are close to the top in the second half of the tournament you start to calculate your chances round after round, assessing carefully when to take a risk and when to go for a safer option.

Having had an astounding 4½/5 start, Alexey Sarana's strategy was not hard to predict. The 18-year-old went on to draw his remaining games to finish first and obtain a pass to his first Superfinal later this year. The extent of his achievement can be easily portrayed by the fact that all his nine rivals had a higher rating than he did — he actually began the tournament in the lower half of the ranking list. The "big dogs" will surely remember this fact when they face the youngster in the final event.

Sarana did not faulter in the second half of the event | Photo: Dmitry Kryakvin / Russian Chess Federation

Sarana was not the only one that reached the 6½/9 score that secured a spot in the Superfinal without the need to calculate any tiebreak criterion. Grigoriy Oparin caught up with the leader in round seven and drew his final two games to get the silver medal. His win with Black over Pavel Ponkratov was a thriller. Oparin was actually losing according to the computer at some point, but White's open king position was the key factor in the end:

 

Ponkratov has just played 33.Qc3, covering the a1-square, but Black only needs the queen and bishop to give mate to the white king. Oparin played 33...Ra1! anyway and Ponkratov resigned. After 34.Qxa1, a sequence of checks leads to checkmate 34...Qf3+ 35.Kg1 Bf2 36.Kf1 Bg3+ 37.Kg1 Qf2+ 38.Kh1 Qxh2#.

Grigoriy Oparin and his seventh round opponent, Mikhail Kobalia, qualified to this year's Superfinal | Photo: Dmitry Kryakvin / Russian Chess Federation

When tiebreaks matter

In such hard-fought conditions, it is only natural that the final qualifying spots are decided on tiebreaks. This year, six players tied on 6/9 and only three of them will go to Satka for the Superfinal. The one that took home the bronze medal was Ernesto Inarkiev. He will actually play in Russia's main chess event (with this format) for the seventh time, and this will be his third consecutive appearance. Although he did not stand out the past two years, he surely still remembers his third place in the 2006 edition.

The key win for Inarkiev came in round eight, when he defeated Igor Lysyj in 29 moves after fearlessly going for the king right from the get-go. The whole game is worth being replayed:

 

Ernesto Inarkiev is a regular fixture in the Superfinals | Photo: Dmitry Kryakvin / Russian Chess Federation

All three medallists finished undefeated, while the other two players that qualified for the final had to overcome having lost one game at some point. Denis Khismatulin lost against Sarana in round four, while Mikhail Kobalia bounced back from a defeat against Oparin in round seven. Kobalia beat Alexey Dreev's well-known Caro-Kann on Wednesday to get back into the fight. In the final position, Black is simply unable to save his pinned knight:

 

This Superfinal will be Khismatulin's sixth, while Kobalia will join Sarana in playing Russia's most prestigious round robin for the first time.

A clear winner in the women's section

Oksana Gritsayeva played an exemplary tournament and took clear first after winning five games and drawing four. Besides a gold medal, she gained no less than 36 rating points, which brings her closer to the 2400 mark. The 38-year-old used a sound positional style to outplay her opponents.

Oksana Gritsayeva was the clear winner in the women's section | Photo: Dmitry Kryakvin / Russian Chess Federation

Two Anastasias finished half a point behind the winner, and both of them included impressive streaks in their tournament performances. Anastasiya Protopopova won five in a row from round three to round seven, while Anastasia Bodnaruk concluded the event with five consecutive wins to reach her sixth straight Superfinal. Bodnaruk's final win over early leader Elena Tomilova was a sharp French with opposite-side castling:

 

Fascinated by the French Winawer

The Winawer Variation in just 60 minutes - that can only work by reducing it to a clear repertoire for Black and, where possible, general recommendations rather than variations. Alexei Shirov was surprised at how quickly he managed to make of the French Winawer an opening he himself could play. And now he will let you share in his conclusions.

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Tomilova, who started with four wins, did not have a good second half, but got a place in this year Superfinal anyway. Alisa Galliamova was the other player that finished on 6/9 and qualified.

Bodnaruk, Gritsayeva and Protopopova receiving their trophies | Photo: Dmitry Kryakvin / Russian Chess Federation

All games - Open

 

Final standings (top 10) - Open

 

All games - Women

 

Final standings (top 10) - Women

 

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Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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