Just like last year in Tbilisi, in 2012 in Gaziantep I had to score 2/2 in the final two games to qualify for the World Championship. In round 10 of the European Championship I won a nerve-racking game against Voinovich, and in the final round I was to face Inna Gaponenko.
The first 10 rounds used to start at 3 p.m., while the final one was scheduled for 11 a.m. Under such circumstances there was less time left for preparation. The most important thing is to have a proper rest, good sleep and the right mindset. Like most chess players, I am a night-owl, so I prefer playing after dinner as opposed to starting in the morning. In the latter case I am usually feeling sleepy, which is not a positive factor.
Inna also had 6.5/10, but with a lower performance. Obviously, we were both aimed at winning the game. By reviewing her chess dossier, I realized that if I play 1…e5, she would probably go for the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez. A more aggressive move like 1…c5 is likely to run into quiet positions after 2.c3. I also considered other first moves. On the one hand, I wanted to find a line with queens on the board and a complicated struggle. On the other hand, Inna had more experience in most variations I was looking at.
Choosing an opening for the final game is a very important decision. You have to find the proper balance between finding a line with good winning chances and playing too provocatively and self-destructing. Eventually I decided to opt for the exchange Ruy Lopez. The endgame is rather tricky, and Black scores rather decently there. Also, I was hoping that my opponent wouldn’t be playing for a draw, because she was also highly motivated to win.
When playing a decisive game, nerves are a critical factor. Being stronger psychologically, not chess-wise, is often the key to success. You have to stay focused and avoid thinking about the consequences of winning or losing the game. Even if the stakes are high, stay cool. After all, the worst case scenario is that you will lose, but some defeats are even more valuable than victories. Hence, your duty is to do the best you can, and let it be.
So, the game started. The first critical moment occurred on move 15. I decided to trade a few pieces, although now I believe I should have kept a more complicated position. I didn’t like the active knight on c4, so I decided to put pressure on it.
On move 18 I had to choose the pawn structure. The decision to trade the bishop was quite committal and probably objectively not the best. However, in the end the weakness of the queenside pawns payed off. Thus, from the practical point of view my choice was justified.
On move 18 Inna spent almost 50 minutes pondering her reply! I am not sure what happened. The position didn’t require that much time. After that she was gradually moving towards time trouble, thus severely limiting her own chances of a positive outcome.
On move 22 I saw that my opponent had very little time left, so I decided to open up the position. The only drawback was that it could lead to simplifications and a draw. However, I reckoned that in an open position and in time trouble my opponent was likely to make a mistake, especially if she tried to find not the objectively strongest moves, but those that leave her a chance to play for a win. Another reason for opening up the position was the weakened White queenside.
On move 34 Inna sacrificed a pawn – a dubious move in extreme time trouble. There was a chance to save the game, but she missed it. On move 37 she should have captured on c7 with the rook.
After the time control (move 40) it was my turn to start making mistakes. I was spending too much time due to feeling the weight of the upcoming victory. That is a bad idea, because you are likely to end up in permanent time trouble. On move 46 I blundered and made a move that could have led to a draw. My opponent didn’t take advantage of it, and the game headed into a winning endgame for Black.
In mutual time trouble both of us overlooked a drawing continuation on move 57. Finally, I managed to convert a queen vs rook endgame within the 50-move limit, although with certain difficulties. Interestingly enough, earlier I had to win the same endgame in the final round of the Russian Superfinal-2010. You can learn more about this endgame by watching GM Sam Shankland’s Chess.com videos.
Summarizing, both my opening choice and the decision to open up the game payed off. Nerves were the decisive factor. While it is generally better not to get into time trouble, in final round games maintaining enough time on the clock is a strict must-do.