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The World's Best Descend on Bilbao Print E-mail
By GM Ian Rogers   
September 19, 2014
Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura & Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Photo Cathy Rogers

There are not many tournaments where the streets are festooned with Scottish flags and where kilted bagpipers roam the streets leading troupes of party-goers, many similarly clad in tartan.

At least there are not many tournaments in Spain like this. The Masters Final and European Club Cup, which concludes on Saturday, has been an exception.

The reasons for the Scottish mania in Bilbao on Thursday was the referendum on Scottish independence, ultimately rejected by a 55-45 majority of the 3.5m voting Scots.

Bilbao is part of the Basque region in Spain and some in the region who dream of independence from Spain believed that a Yes vote in Scotland would provide impetus for their own region break away from Spain. (Plenty of Basques, probably not the ones who were wearing kilts on Thursday, were pleased with the Scottish vote and believe that the Basque region should stay part of Spain.)

The day after the referendum was lost, the bagpipes in Bilbao were quiet, though the Scottish flags on lampposts around the city remained, and regular Bilbainos were able to concentrate on the multiple attractions in their city. Apart from the spectacular Guggenheim museum, there seems to be a major cultural or sporting event on almost every evening in Bilbao, including an annual high level chess tournament in September.

In 2014 there was not just one top tournament; there were twin events which between them included every player in the world's top 12 except Carlsen and Kramnik.

Top billing in Bilbao went to the Masters Final, featuring World Championship challenger Anand, playing his first classical event since winning the Candidates tournament in March.

Anand's rivals were respectable indeed – former world number two Levon Aronian, former FIDE Knockout World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov and Paco Vallejo, recently crowned Spanish Champion for the third time.

However, given the fields which Bilbao attracted when the tournament was the Grand Slam Final, the fast time limit (40 moves in 90 minutes plus a 10 second increment after move 40), the tournament being played in a convention centre rather than a glass cube in the city square, plus the fact that almost any combination of players would seem like a let-down after the Sinquefield Cup, the Masters Final has struggled to capture its previous cachet.
Former World Champ and current challenger, Vishy Anand, Photo Cathy Rogers

Nonetheless Anand, with his fluent Spanish, is still a big drawcard in Bilbao and his press conferences saw the commentary room – a theatre which holds 300 people, close to capacity. (When Anand disappeared after his press conferences, so did half the crowd.)

Anand certainly made the most of his World Championship tune-up, winning the tournament with a round to spare. Anand disposed of Vallejo twice, Ponomariov once, and Aronian's continued mediocre run of form ensured that Anand did not have a serious challenger for first place.

Anand's smoothest win came in the fourth round; to hear Anand explain it at the post-game press conference, Black was in trouble straight from the opening – and his opponent tweeting that 3...Nc6 was ?? seemed to indicate that Vallejo agreed!

Bilbao Masters Final

White: V.Anand
Black: F.Vallejo Pons
Opening: Queen's Gambit Accepted
1.d4 d5 2.c4 dxc4
“A surprise,” said Anand.
3.e4 Nc6 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.d5 Ne5 6.Bf4 Ng6 7.Be3 e5 8.Bxc4 Nf6 9.Nc3 a6 10.Be2 Bd6 11.Nd2


Anand recalled that he was following a model game Karpov-Milov (from Biel 1997). In that game Black retreated his bishop to d7 and was outplayed by the plan which Anand had remembered, starting with Rc1, a3 and Nb3.
11...Bxe2 12.Qxe2
“Now White has an advantage without risk,” said Anand.
12...0-0 13.0-0 Qe7 14.Rfd1 Rac8 15.g3
“Dominating the knight on g6,” explained Anand.
15...h6 16.Rac1 c6 17.Nc4 cxd5 18.Nxd5 Nxd5 19.Rxd5


“This is simply much easier for White to play,” said Anand. “White's advantage consists of his domination of the d file combined with the possibilities of Nf5 and h4-h5. If Black tries to exchange rooks he can only exchange one pair and White will get a passed d pawn. It is a very unpleasant position for Black.”
19...Bc5 20.Rcd1 Bxe3 21.Nxe3 Qb4 22.Nf5 Rc4 23.Nd6 Rc6 24.a3 Qb3 25.R5d3 Qb6 26.Nf5 Re8 27.Rd7 Rf6 28.Qg4 Qc6

“The position is lost – 28...Qxb2, 29.h4 wins,” said Anand.
29.h4 h5 30.Qxh5 Qxe4 31.Rd8!
“31.Nd6?! Qc2! 32.Nxe8? Rxf2! would give Black too much counterplay,” said Anand, avoiding Vallejo's last trick.
31...Qc6 32.Qg5 Qe6 33.R1d6


The other big tournament in Bilbao is the European Club Cup; an odd hybrid of a Champion's League and a standard club championship.

The open division of the European Club Cup is probably the most bloated team championship in the world, with teams of 8 – six playing on each day – competing over only seven rounds. Even Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, board 1 of the powerful SOCAR team, described the tournament as a tremendous waste of resources, given that sponsors have to pay top players expenses and fees for just a handful of games.

Nonetheless, the ECC brings together a wonderful assortment of top players from around the world, with the richer clubs recruiting players who might never have played in the team during domestic competition and creating super-teams. (In some years the ECC has featured more 2700+ players than the Olympiad!)

The women's section of the ECC has progressively moved towards a pure Champions League of world class players as average club teams have discovered that they cannot compete with the lavishly sponsored teams such as Monte Carlo (with top 10 players Hou Yifan, Lagno and Anna Muzychuk) or SHSM (with Russian stars Gunina, Kosteniuk and Girya).
GM Hou Yifan at the press conference, Photo Cathy Rogers

In 2014 only two amateur women's teams, both from Israel, decided to make the trip to Bilbao, but their average rating was more than 400 points below the next lowest seed so they were massacred round after round by the six sponsored teams.

Last year Monte Carlo (with world number three woman Koneru instead of new gun-for-hire Lagno) won with ridiculous ease but in 2014 the all-Georgian team from Batumi upset the favourites 2.5-1.5 in round one (Lagno losing the key game).

Batumi kept winning, and before the last round match-up between Batumi and SHSM, the Georgians could have taken a train home and still finished in first place.

Apart from the race for first place, the other side issue of interest was Hou Yifan's race to overtake the newly retired Judit Polgar as the top woman in the world. Hou was fortunate to defeat Anna Ushenina (against whom she won her most recent world title match easily) in the fifth round but her game the next day, which moved Hou to within four points of Polgar, owed nothing to luck.

Bilbao ECC Women

White: A.Galliamova
Black: Hou Yifan
Opening: English Defence
1.d4 e6 2.c4 b6!?
“I just wanted a game,” said Hou, channelling Carlsen.
3.e4 Bb7 4.d5!? Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Bxd2+
“Probably Black should play 5...Qe7 but after 6.Bxb4 Qxb4+ 7.Qd2 I must exchange queens and I wanted to keep queens on the board,” explained Hou.
6.Qxd2 d6 7.Nc3 Nd7 8.f4?!

“Too ambitious,” said Hou. “She should just develop her pieces.”
8...e5! 9.g3?! exf4 10.gxf4 Qh4+ 11.Qf2 Qxf2+ 12.Kxf2 Ngf6 13.Re1 0-0 14.Bh3 Nc5 15.Re3 Rae8 16.Kf3 c6! 17.Nge2 cxd5 18.exd5 b5! 19.Rxe8?

Now White's position collapses. 19.b4! was playable because Hou's intended 19...bxc4 fails to 20.Rxe8 Rxe8 21.bxc5 Nxd5 22.Rb1!.
19...Rxe8 20.Rd1 bxc4

The rest is easy for Hou, with Galliamova adding time trouble to her woes.
21.Rd4 g6 22.Ng3 h5 23.Bf1 h4 24.Nge2 Ba6 25.Rd2 Nd3 26.Nd4 Ne1+ 27.Kf2 Ne4+ 28.Nxe4 Rxe4 29.Bg2 Nxg2 30.Kxg2 Rxf4 31.Nc6 c3! 32.bxc3 Bf1+ 33.Kg1 Bh3 34.Rd1 Rg4+ 35.Kf2 Rg2+ 36.Kf3 Rxa2 37.c4 Kg7 38.Kf4 Rc2 39.Rd4 Rxh2 40.Nxa7 Bd7 41.Nc6 Rg2 42.c5 Rg4+ 43.Ke3 Rxd4 44.Nxd4 dxc5


The open division was less lopsided but the top dozen teams were a  class apart from the other 40.

However even within that 12, only the best 5, with an average rating at or around 2700, looked capable of taking the ECC title.

The Italian team Obiettivo Risarcimento brought together half of the Sinquefield Cup field – Caruana, Nakamura and Vachier-Lagrave – and yet even then they were not top seeds. That honour went to SOCAR (Mamedyarov, Topalov, Adams, Giri, Radjabov, Wang Hao), the Azeri team which won the ECC title in 2012. (SOCAR is the oil company which sponsored the Candidates tournament in London in 2013.)

Like Batumi, SOCAR has made every post a winner, gaining revenge on the defending ECC champions G-Team Novy Bor (of the Czech Republic) in the fourth round and gaining a tight 3.5-2.5 victory over Obiettivo in round five. That match, played on referendum day, saw Maxime Vachier-Lagrave test out the Scotch Game against Englishman Michael Adams, though in this case as well the English had no trouble maintaining the status quo.

An amazing 5-1 sixth round win over third seeds Malakhite (Karjakin, Grischuk, Shirov, with Leko resting) ensured that SOCAR would retake the title (at least on tie-break) regardless of the result of their last round match.

Just as in the women's division, attention has also been directed to Fabiano Caruana's attempt to move towards the world number one position. Caruana has continued where he left off in Saint Louis, scoring 4.5/5 and closing in to within 20 points of Carlsen.

Caruana's most spectacular effort came against Roiz of Israeli team Beer Sheva.

Bilbao ECC

White: F.Caruana
Black: M.Roiz
Opening: Ruy Lopez
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 0-0 9.h3 Nb8

The Breyer Variation, an old Spassky favourite. The chess world has seen so many Berlin variations (3...Nf6) in recent years that the old main line seems like a pleasant novelty.
10.d4 Nbd7 11.Nbd2 Bb7 12.Bc2 Re8 13.Nf1 Bf8 14.Ng3 g6 15.a4 Nb6!?


15...c5 is more usual, though Roiz was no doubt expecting the standard reply to 15...Nb6, 16.b3.
16.a5!? Nbd7 17.b4 Bg7?!
A serious mistake according to Caruana; the d6 pawn needs support.
18.d5! Qb8 19.Bb3 Nf8 20.Ra2 c6
Without this Black will have no plan; with it, he activates White's pieces.
21.dxc6 Bxc6 22.Rd2 Rd8 23.Rd3! Rd7
The more harmonious 23...Ra7 loses to 24.Nxe5!.
24.Ng5! Qc7 25.Be3 h6 26.Nxf7!!

The point behind Caruana's plan. Black will be tied in knots.
26...Rxf7 27.Rxd6 Be8 28.Bb6! Qb7
After 28...Qxc5 29.Bc5! the Black queen will be trapped.
29.f4! N6d7 30.f5 Nxb6 31.axb6 Kh7 32.Bd5 Qb8 33.Bxa8 Qxa8 34.Rf1 gxf5 35.Rxf5 Qb8 36.Rxf7 Bxf7 37.Nf5


An early resignation, but White dominates the board.