The Soviet Union dominated chess for so much of the 20th-century partly because it could tap the talent pool in such a vast area. But after the Soviet system collapsed over two decades ago, many of those players began playing for the independent countries that rose from the ashes — nations that quickly assumed their own place among the world’s elite.
In the World Chess Federation’s current list, which is based on players’ individual rankings, Russia is No. 1, and three other former Soviet republics are in the top 10: Ukraine at No. 4; Azerbaijan, No. 6; and Armenia, No. 10. And during the heady hegemony of those Soviet days, this regional rivalry came through the legendary USSR team championship that was the big highlight of the year, being the most demanding and strongest team event outside of the biennial Chess Olympiad.
But nowadays, that legendary tradition continues in the annual Russian Team Championship now underway in Sochi, where the state that once bankrolled such massive team events has now been replaced by western-styled financial backing for squads from oligarchies, banks and utility companies.
While Peter Svidler’s “Bronze Horseman” from St. Petersburg are the defending champion’s, the top seeds and clear favorites for this year’s Russian Premier League is the seriously mineral-rich Siberia-Sirius, with a daunting line-up that includes Vladimir Kramnik, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Anish Giri, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk and Dmitry Andreikin.
After 4 rounds, Siberia-Sirius not unsurprisingly dominate, being the only team to win all their matches so far and currently lead with a maximum 8/8 match-points. And leading the charge has been the very much in-form Azeri Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, the recent victor of the Vugar Gashimov Memorial.
With a hat-trick of wins over Alexander Riazantsev, Nikita Vitugov, and now Evgeniy Najer, Mamedyarov continues where he left off last weekend in Shamkir with a perfect 3/3, as he continues to rise even further in the unofficial rating list to world No.7, closing in fast now on Levon Aronian at No.6.
1. Siberia-Sirius, 8/8; 2. ShSM “Legacy Square Capital” 6; 3-5. Malakhit, Bronze Horseman, Ladya, 4; 6. Central Federal District, 3; 7. Zhiguli, 2; 8. Sports School, 1.
GM Evgeniy Najer - GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov
Russian Premier League, (4)
King’s Indian/Benoni Defence, Sämisch variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.f3 This has proved to be a very useful Anti-Grünfeld system, with many sharp White wins coming after 3...d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.e4 Nb6, where Black no longer has the typical Grünfeld exchange on c3 after e4. The best option for Black has proved to be transposing into the Sämisch variation of the King's Indian/Benoni Defence, as happens in the game. 3...c5 4.d5 Bg7 5.e4 d6 6.Nc3 0-0 7.Bg5 h6 It's important to play this move now, otherwise White plays Qd2 and better grip on the position by competing for the dark-squares. 8.Be3 e6 9.Qd2 exd5 10.cxd5 Nh7! A typical trick in the Sämisch, with the h6-pawn taboo due to ...Qh4+ winning a piece. And this is the only way for Black to compete in such position, going active rather than passive, which would play to White's strengths in this position. 11.Bd3 Nd7 12.Nh3 Ne5 13.Nf2 f5 Mamedyarov cares not about possible long-term structural weaknesses nor going a pawn down, as Black's best hope to compete here is to open the game up for Black's active pieces. 14.Be2 g5 15.exf5 Bxf5 16.h4! White can't hold back now - he has to challenge Mamedyarov by taking him head-on here. Ultimately the opening of Black's kingside should favour White - but it comes with an element of risk, as one little inaccuracy could well see Black's pieces swarm into the very heart of White's camp. 16...b5! 17.hxg5 hxg5 18.Nxb5 Rb8 The body count shows White having an extra pawn - but just look at the compensation Mamedyarov has for it, with all his pieces actively placed and ready to strike. 19.Nc3 Qe8!? From e8, Mamedyarov's queen eyes-up possibilities down the semi-open e-file that forces Najer into seeking a safe haven for his king - but which wing is the safer: the kingside or the queenside? 20.Rc1 This is perhaps too cautious, and already commits the White king to the kingside for safety. Admittedly castling either side looks dangerous here, the way Mamedyarov's pieces are placed - but it is best to keep your options open to be able to castle both sides. 20...c4!? A typical move in such Benoni-type positions, the idea being to stop White from playing b3 to stop the threat to b2; and also, in certain positions, the knight heading into d3. 21.0-0 This looks dangerous, as Mamedyarov has already indicated he's not interested in pawns nor long-term structural weaknesses, as he's after his opponent's king. Instead, better may well have been 21.Kf1!? just to remove the king from any 'happening' down the e-file, while keeping his options open with his rook on the open h-file. In hindsight, this looks best - but then again in chess, everything looks better in hindsight! 21...Qh5 22.g4? This is just bad, really bad, allowing Mamedyarov an irresistible, sacrificial winning attack. Najer has simply cracked under the intense pressure, but there's no easy solution, as he was perhaps 'seeing many ghosts' in having to defend complicated attacking lines here after 22.Bxa7 Rb7 23.Be3 Nd3 24.Nxd3 cxd3 25.Bxd3 Bxd3 26.Qxd3 Be5! 27.Ne2 (White's in a tough spot here. If 27.Rf2 g4! and Black is about to rip a way through to the White king.) 27...Rxb2 where, after 28.Rf2, the cold, un-beating heart of the playing engine reassures us that there's no mating attack and White is simply material ahead here - but facing this over-the-board in practical terms is fraught with dangers, and not something you would calmly want to play into. 22...Qh4 23.Kg2 What else now? if 23.gxf5 Qg3+ 24.Kh1 Rf6 leads to a quick mate. 23...Nxf3! Najer now gets blown away by a tsunami of tactics from Mamedyarov, that ends in a sparkling win. 24.Bxf3 Be5 25.Rh1 Qg3+ 26.Kf1 Bd3+! 27.Be2 If 27.Nxd3 cxd3 28.Bf2 Qxf3 29.Rh6 Rf6! 30.Rxf6 Qh3+! with a forced mate in 14, so says the silicon beast. 27...Rxb2! 28.Qxb2 Qxe3 29.Bxd3 cxd3 30.Rc2 dxc2 Mamedyarov also had the 'showboating' win with 30...Nf6 31.Rh3 Nxg4 32.Rxe3 Nxe3+ 33.Kg1 dxc2 and White can resign. 31.Qxc2 Well, there's always the slim hope that Mamedyarov could have overlooked the mate on h7! 31...Rxf2+ No such luck! 32.Qxf2 Qxc3 33.Kg2 Qc4 0-1