Azerbaijan was crowned the European Team champion today after squeaking out a win over the outperforming Dutch squad in the final round. At the same time they got some help from the Spanish team, who held Russia to a draw. Had the Russians won (or Azerbaijan drawn), Russia would have taken the title on the first tiebreak, the board points that should be used to decide victory in the first place. Grumble. Several unlikely things happened in the final round to send the second-seeded Boys from Baku home with the trophy. First, Russian 4th board Alekseev had to get blown off the board by Spain's Ivan Salgado, a 170-point underdog. That evened the match after Morozevich beat Vallejo with black on board two.
Hard to say what inspired the theoretically-obsessed Alekseev to play a very risky French that left him struggling to survive from the start. White has a fantastic score in this h7 sac line. Alekseev defended it successfully against Mamedyarov earlier this year, however, so maybe just bad luck for him and a very powerful game from Salgado to play the spoiler. And/or Alekseev just wasn't ready for the immediate 13.h4 the Spaniard played -- followed by 14.h5 and 15.h6 and 16.h7! Excelsior! Something to be said for single-mindedness.
Then it was up to Vugar Gashimov, who had an extra pawn in a rook endgame against Stellwagen with the other three games already drawn. With six moves to draw on move 70, either retreating the rook along the file to check from behind or moving it along the rank to check from the side, the Dutchman put the tower behind the pawn where it was too close to the white king. (70..Kd4 loses for the same reason. b4, c4, h3, h3, or h1 are natural drawing squares. e4 also draws, cutting off the white king to keep it in front of the pawn, but that's unnecessarily exotic.) Tough to hold up under such pressure, no doubt, and let's think about the joy it must have been for Gashimov and the Azerbaijani team.
Other big favorites Ukraine and Armenian finished 3-4. Aronian failed to light much of a fire on board one this time around. Eljanov turned in an excellent performance on board one, which has been occupied by Ivanchuk pretty much forever, with a brief cameo by Ponomariov. (Chucky was playing in the turgid Unive tournament instead.) Bulgaria was the 4th seed, but that was entirely due to Topalov's massive 2813. And he didn't help much, falling ill and playing only four games, scoring +1 and shrinking the distance between him and Carlsen to just four points on the live list. Cheparinov failed to raise his game to fill in, making an even score well below his rating. Someone who did raise his game to fill in was Jon Ludvig Hammer, who made a 2800 performance for Norway while keeping Magnus Carlsen's first-board seat warm after the teen sensation dropped out at the last minute.
I've been buried with a book proposal and a few other projects, each more urgent than the last, so I haven't had much of a chance to look at the games. But once again the amateur Brit comes to the rescue. Luke McShane, fresh from bashing Cheparinov, played the Brave Sir Robin Variation against Shengelia in the sixth round with white. 1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d4 3.Nc3 a6 4.h3 Nf6 5.e5 Ne4 6.Nb1!?! The knight bravely runs away, away! And it gets better. 6..Qb6 7.Qe2 h6 8.d3 Ng5 9.Nh2!? The black knight is a terror, causing the white knights to flee. Naturally McShane went on to win in just 32 moves, or this wouldn't really be very funny at all. And Aronian-Shirov was a wild battle that lived up to expectations.