German League: A Final without finality?

by Macauley Peterson
5/4/2018 – The three-day Bundesliga finals in Berlin ended Tuesday without a definitive result. The top teams Baden-Baden and Solingen featured many professional stars and, with no major upsets — each won all three rounds and therefore finished tied — a playoff match will be needed at a later date. But there was a lot of exciting and top-class chess played in Berlin, which made for a great experience for any chess fans lucky enough to have a front-row seat. | Pictured: Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave were the top two boards for Baden-Baden, Stefan Kindermann of MSA Zugzwang looks on. | Photo: Pascal Simon

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To close to call: Baden-Baden and Solingen

At the central final rounds of the Bundesliga in Berlin, all teams gathered under one roof for the three final rounds, which culminated on May 1st — Labour Day in the European Union. The bulk of the drama centred around two questions: Who will be first, to become team champions of Germany? And who will be worst, and relegated down to the second league?

After round fifteen was completed, one of those questions remains very much up in the air, and we have only a partial answer to the other. Precisely why that is, will take some explaining.

playing hall

The spacious playing hall in Berlin's Hotel Maritim | Photo: Pascal Simon

The German league is a team-round robin with 16 teams, and uses the results of team matches ("match points") to determine the team standings, with individual games within a match ("board points") as the tiebreak — but with one exception: first place. In the rare case when two top teams are tied at the end of the season, the regulations call for a playoff match between them to be played — only not on-site at rapid time controls, which would be sensible, but instead roughly two weeks later.

For this 2017-2018 season, fifteen rounds were not enough to separate Baden-Baden and Solingen, who finished with the same number of match points — 27 (each with a record of 13-1-1). This was an impressive outcome for Solingen and a somewhat disappointing one for Baden-Baden, the clear rating favourites with an average Elo for the whole team of 2672 (and 2766 for the top eight boards). They outrated Solingen by some 90 points, and yet lost the pair's crucial tenth round match.

Final standings 2017/2018Baden-BadenSolingen

1. OSG Baden Baden 15 27 86½ 373½
2. SG Solingen 15 27 84½ 373½
3. SV Hockenheim 15 22 76 317
4. SV Werder Bremen 15 22 74½ 355
5. SF Deizisau 15 18 67½ 303½
6. USV Dresden 15 18 62 299
7. DJK Aachen 15 16 62½ 275½
8. SK Schwäbisch Hall 15 16 61½ 295
9. Schachfreunde Berlin 15 15 57½ 248½
10. Hamburger SK 15 12 63 268½
11. SV Mülheim Nord 15 11 52½ 246½
12. SV Hofheim 15 11 48 212½
13. MSA Zugzwang 15 8 44 203½
14. Speyer-Schwegenheim 15 8 42½ 202
15. FC Bayern München 15 6 45½ 202½
16. SK Norderstedt 15 3 32 144

Baden-Baden's only real test in Berlin came in the thirteenth round against Hockenheim. This team's roster has Anatoly Karpov on top board, one of the World Champions who has regularly competed in the Bundesliga, but he's been primarily a figurehead this season, playing only one game (a loss in round 3).

Entering the round in third place, Hockenheim brought in one of their big guns for the final three rounds: Evgeny Tomashevsky. He played his only two games of this season on the first two days in Berlin — a pair of draws. Against Levon Aronian, he held with black without too much difficulty, but despite upsets in the middle of the team roster, Hockenheim lost the match by two points.

OSG Baden-Baden 5:3 SV Hockenheim
2 Aronian, Levon ½ : ½ Tomashevsky, Evgeny 3
3 Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 1 : 0 Howell, David W L 5
5 Svidler, Peter ½ : ½ Moiseenko, Alexander 7
7 Adams, Michael 1 : 0 Wagner, Dennis 9
9 Bacrot, Etienne 0 : 1 Saric, Ivan 10
10 Naiditsch, Arkadij 0 : 1 Buhmann, Rainer 11
14 Shirov, Alexei 1 : 0 Baramidze, David 12
15 Gustafsson, Jan 1 : 0 Braun, Arik 14

Key to Baden-Baden's success was wins on the lower boards. David Baramidze miscalculated against Alexei Shirov:

 

Baden-Baden

The two superstars for Baden-Baden Vachier-Lagrave (against Howell) and Aronian (facing Tomashevsky) | Photo: Pascal Simon

The other point for Hockenheim was scored by the new European Champion Ivan Saric. He got an edge with white against Etienne Bacrot in the middlegame, and just before the time control, took advantage of a Bacrot blunder:

 

Saric needed just over a minute to find the winning 39.Rf6! Rxe5 (or 39...Qg7 40.Qf5+ Kh8 41.Rf7) 40.Rxf7+ Kg8 41.Nxe5 and White is an exchange up.

Interview with GM Ivan Saric (SV Hockenheim)

The match was perhaps a bit closer than Baden-Baden would have liked, but ultimately their strength showed. Vachier-Lagrave ground out a win in a close Berlin endgame against Hockenheim regular David Howell, who played nine of the fifteen matches.

 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave scored his fourth win of the season in round 13

Keeping up with Baden-Baden

Solingen kept pace, by crushing Schwaebish Hall 7½:½. Loek van Wely is one of four Solingen players from the Netherlands. His victory over Peter Michalik was fairly incredible:

 

Loek van Wely

Loek van Wely showed how to win | Photo: Pascal Simon

Staying above water

Part of the drama of the central final rounds is to see which among the weaker teams can manage to stay in the top league, and which will be forced to relegate down. Typically the bottom four finishers would be the ones to go, but once again the situation is not completely clear.

For one thing, it turns out the team of Schwaebisch Hall has already decided to withdraw from the league next season, so the 13th place team is safe. Then it depends on which teams from the lower league want to promote, in the face of stiffer competition and costs associated with the move. Since they don't need to decide for some time yet, there may still be hope for even the 14th place team. One thing is clear, however: no one wants to finish last

That infamous distinction was almost sure to go to Norderstedt (north of Hamburg) after their round thirteen loss to Bayern Munich

SK Norderstedt - FC Bayern München 2,5:5,5

Bayern got an early boost from Klaus Bischof, the most veteran of the veterans. 

1 Olszewski, Michal 0 : 1 Dragnev, Valentin 1
2 Trent, Lawrence ½ : ½ Studer, Noel 2
3 Ostrovskiy, Andrey 0 : 1 Bischoff, Klaus 3
4 Kopylov, Michael ½ : ½ Gabriel, Christian 4
5 Krause, Benedict 1 : 0 Fedorovsky, Michael 6
6 Parvanyan, Ashot ½ : ½ Schneider, Stefan 8
8 Powierski, Emil 0 : 1 Ribli, Zoltan 11
9 Meyer, Falko 0 : 1 Meister, Peter 14

After this win, Bischoff described a bit about his experience in the Bundesliga:

Norderstedt and Munich

The football players of FC Bayern are called the "Red" in Munich - the chess players also adopted the colour.

Countdown to a tie

The next day the reigning champions met much weaker opposition. In the German League, all teams have a travel partner which they always play alongside except, of course, when they play each other, as the did in round fourteen. Baden-Baden's travel mates were the newly promoted (from the second league) team of Speyer-Schwegenheim, with the top board of Mykhaylo Oleksiyenko, who was smoothly dispatched by Levon Aronian.

Aronian on his win and being back in Berlin

Rival Solingen had the much heavier task against Aachen, but they too ended up winning comfortably: 5½:2½

Harikrishna, Benjamin Bok and Borki Predojevic scored full points.

 

In the final round, Baden-Baden seriously outmatched Hofheim, but hoped that Solingen would stumble. It was conceivable they could face stiff opposition from the upstart team of Deizisau, lead by Peter Leko and featuring his star pupil Vincent Keymer. This match provided the main suspense of the final rounds, and yet it was short-lived. Solingen was quickly winning on two of the boards after as few as 15 moves, and it soon became apparent that there would be no clear winner in Berlin.

SV Hofheim 1½ : 6½ OSG Baden-Baden 
2 Schroeder, Jan-Christian ½ : ½ Aronian, Levon 2
5 Ginsburg, Gennadi ½ : ½ Vachier-Lagrave, Maxime 3
6 Perske, Thore ½ : ½ Wojtaszek, Radoslaw 6
8 Gurevich, Vladimir 0 : 1 Adams, Michael 7
9 Margolin, Boris 0 : 1 Bacrot, Etienne 9
12 Weber, Ulrich 0 : 1 Naiditsch, Arkadij 10
13 Brendel, Oliver 0 : 1 Movsesian, Sergei 11
15 Burkart, Patrick 0 : 1 Gustafsson, Jan 15
SG Solingen 5½ : 2½ SF Deizisau
2 Harikrishna, Pentala ½ : ½ Leko, Peter 2
3 Rapport, Richard 1 : 0 Bluebaum, Matthias 3
4 Ragger, Markus ½ : ½ Meier, Georg 4
5 Van Wely, Loek 1 : 0 Lagarde, Maxime 7
8 Bok, Benjamin ½ : ½ Heimann, Andreas 8
9 Smeets, Jan 1 : 0 Graf, Alexander 10
11 Predojevic, Borki ½ : ½ Keymer, Vincent 11
12 Andersen, Mads ½ : ½ Demuth, Adrien 13

Richard Rapport is known as a belligerent player, but what he sprung on Matthias Bluebaum was a rare line in the French exchange variation. In the ensuing complications, Bluebaum, who was not in top form in Berlin, quickly went wrong, but even a struggling grandmaster does not lose like this every day!

 

Peter Leko was not able to create any winning chances in his game against Harikrishna, but did have interesting things to say about it the league season, and his new work as a trainer.

Finally, the opening phase in the following game did not go well for black Black, who was completely busted after less than 20 moves in an extremely complicated tactical exchange.

 

We await further details on the playoff match between the two first-place teams...

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Klaus Besenthal and Andre Schulz and Georgios Souleidis contributed reporting to this story

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Macauley is Editor in Chief of ChessBase News in Hamburg, Germany, and producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast. He was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.
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