Princes edge Kings in Nutcracker Tournament

by Antonio Pereira
12/22/2018 – Right before Christmas, it is now usual for the Nutracker Tournament to take place in Russia. A squad of young talented players from the largest country in the world (Princes) face a team composed by older stars from around the globe (Kings). This year's edition finished with a tie in points, but the Princes were declared winners due to the fact that they had won the classical portion of the Scheveningen match. In a parallel event, a team of even younger Russian boys defeated their female counterparts. | Photos: Vladimir Barsky / Russian Chess Federation

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Russian youth in the main stage

Some countries like the United States, China, India and Iran have been working hard to raise their collective chess level by organising strong events in which their talented young players have a chance to face first-class opponents. Russia, still the most traditional chess country in the world, has been doing that for years. The Nutcracker Tournament, set up to take place every year around Christmas time, precisely serves that purpose.

This year, the organisers put together an attractive Kings line-up, which included three former World Championship challengers and a former European champion. Nigel Short, Peter Leko and Boris Gelfand all had a chance to reach the summit of competitive chess but fell short against three of the strongest players of our era — Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Vishy Anand. They were accompanied by Evgeniy Najer, the 2015 European champion.

On the other hand, Russia was represented by David Paravyan (20 years old), Alexey Sarana (18), Andrey Esipenko (16) and Semyon Lomasov (16). The experienced team had an average rating of 2664, while the young squad reached an Elo average of 2599.

The tournament consisted of two Scheveningen matches: a classical portion, where the players faced each member of the opposing team once, and a rapid portion, where the players faced each other twice. Each of the classical games was worth two points, while each rapid game was worth one point.

Andrey Esipenko is one of Russia's biggest promising youngsters

Sarana stands out in Classical

The Princes won the classical portion of the match by the smallest margin (17:15), mainly thanks to this year's Higher League champion Alexey Sarana. The Muscovite had the best performance amongst all players due to an undefeated performance that included two victories. First, he defeated Najer with the black pieces. In a sharp Sicilian middlegame, the older Russian had to give up his queen for a rook and a bishop:


Sarana kept his king in the centre, but in exchange managed to trap White's queen with 15...Bh6. Nonetheless, Najer got a bishop and a rook after 16.Qxh6 Rxh6 17.Bxh6 and had a lot of play with the pair of bishops in the ensuing position. 

The youngster was in the driver's seat but it was hard for him to find a breakthrough against White's active pieces. On move 64, he finally was able to give up the queen and go into a winning endgame:


After 64...Qxc7 65.Bxc7 Kxc7 66.Bxe4, Black's passed g-pawn decided the game.

Evgeniy Najer also won the strong Aeroflot Open in 2016

Two rounds later, Alexey took down Gelfand with White, after the Israeli star missed a tactic that left him a piece down:


Black's 20...Bg7 was a mistake, as White now plays 21.Bf3 Qd4 22.Bc6!, pinning the knight with decisive effect — Gelfand continued 22...Ke7 and after 23.Qxd4 Bxd4 24.Bxd7 Black cannot recover the piece with 24...Kxd7 due to 25.Rd1 winning the bishop. Boris followed 24...Rg8 instead, but could not overcome the material disadvantage in the long run. Resignation came on move 38.

18-year-old Alexey Sarana already played a Russian Superfinal

Final standings - Classical

Kings 15 - 17 Princes
Boris Gelfand 4 - 3 David Paravyan
Evgeniy Najer 3 - 6 Alexey Sarana
Peter Leko 3 - 4 Andrey Esipenko
Nigel Short 5 - 4 Semyon Lomasov

Kings better in rapid

Experience was a more valuable tool in the rapid section, as the Kings managed a 17:15 win over the Princes after eight rounds of 15+10 chess. In fact, if the rapid games would have been worth as much as the classical games the older team would have won the match. Nevertheless, the rules stipulated that in case of a tie the team that had won the classical match would be declared the winner — the Princes, therefore, won the whole thing after a 32:32 tie.

The strongest performer in the second stage of the event was Peter Leko, who won four and drew four games in the final two days of competition. Against Lomasov, he got an overwhelming position with White after the opening:


Material is even but Black's lack of development is rather evident. Leko pounced with 21.Nxf7 and Black is doomed after 21...Kxf7 (although there is nothing better). After 22.Ng5+, Lomasov cannot play 22...Kg8 due to, for example, 23.Qxh7+ Nxh7 24. Be6+ with mate to follow, but after 22...Kf8, 23.Ne6+ is a royal fork. The Russian played on in a totally losing position until move 33.

Peter Leko showed his strength in rapid chess

The worst performer for the Kings was Nigel Short, who lost six of his last seven games after a +1 performance in the classical portion (the best one amongst the older squad). The newly elected FIDE Vice-president might not have as much time as before to prepare for tournaments:

In the penultimate round, Short fell against a nice attack by Sarana, who managed to both sacrifice a queen and give mate on the board:


Sarana followed 29...Rxa3! and Short captured the "free" queen with 30.Qxd2, giving way to a mating net: 30...Ra1+ 31.Kc2 Ba4#.

FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich kibitzes Short vs. Sarana

Final standings - Rapid

Kings 17 - 15 Princes
Boris Gelfand 5 - David Paravyan
Evgeniy Najer - Alexey Sarana
Peter Leko 6 - Andrey Esipenko
Nigel Short - Semyon Lomasov

All games — Kings vs Princes


Boys beat Girls

An even younger generation of Russian talents played a match with the same Scheveningen format. In this case, however, instead of youth versus experience, a group of boys faced a team composed of girls. All the member of the male team were born in 2006, while the girls were slightly older.

The final score favoured the Boys, with first board Volodar Murzin the heavy-hitter for the 12-year-olds — he finished undefeated with six victories to his name.

Volodar Murzin facing Aleksandra Dimitrova with the black pieces

Final standings

Boys 36 - 28 Girls
Volodar Murzin 11½ - 9 Alexandra Obolentseva
Ilya Makoveev 9 - 6 Aleksandra Dimitrova
Robert Safin 7 - Ekaterina Goltseva
Aleksey Grebnev - Kamaliya Bulatova

All games - Boys vs Girls



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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