The European Club Cup may sound like a minor event but an influx of big sponsors has turned the tournament into the strongest and richest team competition in the world.
The 2015 ECC, which concluded in Skopje last month, included a dozen super clubs and almost 40 amateur teams that mostly played among themselves.
Due to loopholes in the rules, teams can include many players who have not competed for the domestic competition, a recipe which served the 2014 ECC winner, Azeri club SOCAR, well.
Arriving in 2015 with superstars such as Topalov, Giri, Caruana and Adams, SOCAR was again favourite to win, but they were forced to lower their colours to the Russian Champions Siberia who, with a huge budget, had enhanced their team with four top 15 players; Kramnik, Aronian, Grischuk and Li Chao.
With other high-powered teams from Italy, Russia and even an Ivanchuk-led local team sponsored by a Macedonian pharmaceuticals company, 25 of the top 30 players in the world were competing in Skopje. (As in soccer’s Champions League, these Frankenstein super-teams could defeat almost any national team.)
With only seven rounds and the inferior match point scoring system, the tournament turned into a sprint where one or two crucial games decided the key matches.
In the end Siberia triumphed thanks to four consecutive wins by Vladimir Kramnik and key contributions by Alexander Grischuk and Siberia’s two Chinese recruits Li and Wang Yue. Kramnik’s performance was, however, by far the most significant; in every case Kramnik’s victory was decisive in winning his team’s match.
Apart from a sensational Olympic debut at age 16 in Manila 1992, Kramnik’s record in team events has been mediocre at best, one of the reasons Russia has not won Olympic team gold for more than a decade.
However in Macedonia Kramnik’s team meshed perfectly. “We have a fantastic atmosphere inside the team,” said Kramnik. “We dine together, we all are friends -I have rarely encountered something like this.”
Kramnik’s most satisfying and important win came against SOCAR’s Veselin Topalov. These two players have feuded since 2006 when Topalov, without evidence, accused Kramnik of cheating during their world title match.
As usual in games between Kramnik and Veselin Topalov, the game started without a handshake and Topalov also insisted on removing Kramnik’s specially installed table lamp.
After his Skopje win Kramnik explained why the animosity continues; “I am a man of principle. I don’t have any respect towards Topalov and everyone knows it. I don’t see the sense of having fake handshakes with him and I won’t consider changing my attitude until he apologises publicly. Will this ever change? Let’s wait another 20-30 years and see how it goes…”
Kramnik’s revenge was sweet.
Opening: Colle System
One of the tournament’s prettiest finishes came from the women’s section of the ECC, won convincingly by the Georgian team Nona.
In the diagrammed position the young Russian Aleksandra Goryachina, who used to share a coach with Australia’s Anton Smirnov, seems to have pushed her pawn too fast against Evgenija Ovod.
However, rather than concede a draw, Goryachina found
62.h8Q+!! Kxh8 63.Kh6! Bb1 64.Bb4!
when Black was forced to resign since the threat of 65.Bf8 and 66.Bg7 checkmate cannot be met.