The European Club Cup (ECC) has become the chess equivalent of soccer/football’s “Champions’ league”. It’s the arena where, for one week, the top qualifying teams from Europe’s domestic team championships (including the British, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish leagues, and also the venerable German Bundesliga) compete to find which is the best team in Europe - and the 31st edition got underway this week in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.
Fifty clubs from 31 countries are taking part. The standard varies enormously from country to country - but money talks, and most of the true professional teams have lucrative sponsorship deals allowing for the formation of truly formidable squads for the ECC, which (were they allowed to play) would be up their seriously challenging for the top spots in the biennial Chess Olympiad.
The oil-rich Baku team of Socar are the defending champions and once again the top seeds, with an average rating of 2749, and a top six in their squad of nine of Veselin Topalov, Anish Giri, Fabiano Caruana, Michael Adams, Teimour Radjabov and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. Other teams also have the services of the likes of Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian, Vladimir Kramnik and Alexander Grischuk.
But there are a mix of minnows competing with the mercenaries, and they mainly get to meet in the opening round clashes. While it is unheard of for a minnow outfit to beat one of the top professional clubs, sometimes there are remarkable individual giant-killing upsets - and in today’s game, Swiss GM Yannik Pelletier (Schachgellschaft Zurich) gave US champion Hikaru Nakamura (playing for his Italian team, Obviettivo Riscarcimento Padova) a taste of ten-year-old cold steel in one of the big early shock results.
GM Yannick Pelletier - GM Hikaru Nakamura
31st European Club Cup, (2)
King’s Indian Defence, Bayonet Attack
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 0-0 6.Be2 e5 7.0-0 Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.b4 The Bayonet Attack - and as Lance-Corporal Jones of the cult UK comedy Dad's Army would say, "The first thing to remember: There's no substitute for cold steel. They don't like it up 'em, they don't like it up 'em!" In his pomp, Vladimir Kramnik would ruthlessly deploy the cold steel of the Bayonet Attack to cut a swathe through elite players who used the King's Indian Defence. His long-list of victims included Garry Kasparov, who practically gave up the King's Indian overnight after one particular "up 'em" moment from his nemesis. 9...a5 The big main-line is 9...Nh5 with a gladiatorial fight to the death on both wings. In general, as Kramnik showed, White is doing well in these lines. Nakamura's choice of 9...a5 is a way to first cut across White's plan of a rapid queenside pawn storm. 10.Ba3 b6 11.bxa5 Nh5 Taking advantage of the fact White can't capture on b6 as his bishop on a3 is under attack...or is it? 12.Nd2 Nf4 13.axb6!? (See Diagram) Brave and new. Well, new to us: Pelletier said after the game he found this move 10 years ago and had been waiting to play it - and he's found just the right high-profile opponent to play it against! More common here is 13.Nb3. 13...Rxa3 14.Nb5 Ra5? Nakamura always likes to position his pieces on active squares, but here he may have been better retreating all the way back to a8, because on a5, Pelletier gains a vital hit on the rook with Nb3. 15.bxc7 Qd7 16.a4! Time to look at the body count: For the sacrificed piece, White has three pawns - but more importantly, with the rook now misplaced on a5, Nakamura is either going to have to return material or face the prospect of White playing powerful ideas such as c5 - and there's also the problem to contend with of the a-pawn rapidly advancing. Not an easy position to defend for Black. 16...Ba6 More or less an admission from Nakamura that he got it badly wrong with 14...Ra5. Now, having to return material, he's forced into an ending where the advanced a- and b-pawns prove to be too powerful to contain. 17.Nb3 Bxb5 18.cxb5 Qxc7 What else? If 18...Ra7 19.b6 Rxa4 20.Rxa4 Qxa4 21.b7 would have been instant resignation. 19.Nxa5 Qxa5 20.g3 Nxe2+ 21.Qxe2 White is not only up two pawns - he also has the added advantage of Black's minor pieces having no scope to get easily into the game to cause any complications. 21...Bh6 22.Rfb1 Rb8 23.b6?! Much stronger was 23.Qg4! taking full advantage of Nakamura's pieces being disjointed. 23...Rxb6 24.Rxb6 Qxb6 25.a5 Qc5 26.Ra4 With still no way to get the Black pieces into the game, White's a-pawn storms up the board. 26...Kg7 27.a6 Nc8 28.Rc4 Qb5 29.Qa2! This manoeuvre has succeeded in seeing Pelletier now better activate his rook on the c-file. 29...Nb6 If 29...Na7 30.Rc7 Qb6 31.Rb7 will soon prove decisive. 30.Rc6 Na4 31.a7 Qa5 32.Kg2! Snuffing out any possible saving chances with ...Qe1+ and ...Qxe4+. Black will now lose the knight on a4 in order to stop the a-pawn. 32...Qxa7 33.Rc4 Bg5 34.Qxa4 Qb7 35.Rb4 The queen and rook dominate; resignation is not far off. 35...Qc7 36.Qc6 Qa7 37.Qxd6 Be7 38.Qxe5+ 1-0 The position is hopeless, as 38...f6 39.Qb8 forces the exchange of queens.