Asnières at the European Chess Club Cup
View of the tournament hall in Mayrhofen (photo by Fiona Steil-Antoni © European Chess Union)

Asnières at the European Chess Club Cup

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A month ago, I had the privilege to play for my club, "Asnières – Le Grand Echiquier", at the European Chess Club Cup that took place in Austria, and now I have finally found the time to write about this unique experience.

It started a few months earlier with a phone call from our club director, Jean-Claude Moingt. He told me that Asnières is going to field a strong team at the upcoming European Club championship and asked whether I would be interested to join. I have played for the team in the previous season of the French team championship and also in the French Cup, so I was eligible to play. However, upon learning the projected lineup for Asnières - all grandmasters! - my first reaction was "why would they need me there?" But Jean-Claude told me not to worry and that I should be able to play two or three games in the first few rounds before the GMs start to play against the stronger teams. I thought that I would be crazy to miss such an interesting opportunity, so I took a week off at work, booked my tickets to Austria and in the early October flew out to Austria with the first flight on a Sunday morning. 

The European championship took place in an idyllic town of Mayrhofen, about an hour and a half drive from Innsbruck or about 2.5-3 hours from Munich. I went for Innsbruck and maybe that was a mistake. Since there are no direct flights there from Paris, I booked a connecting flight with a short layover. I was travelling with a carryover bag, but the first flight was full, so I was asked to check it in. Of course, when I landed in Innsbruck, I discovered that my bag did not arrive. In fact, the airline did not even know where it was. It took them two days to finally to get it back to me and in the meantime I had to buy quite a lot of stuff to get through the first days. 

Nevertheless, I was in good spirits. Our team was lodged in a nice hotel literally across the playing hall, the weather started to clear, my teammates started to arrive, and I was looking forward to playing my first game in the European Club Cup.

Round 1

In the first round we were paired with a Norwegian team "Bærum Schakselskap" that featured several IMs, but we outrated them by a large margin on every board.

I was probably more excited about the start of the tournament than my team members, and so I was the first to show up in the playing hall. To my surprise, there I was greeted by one of our opponents, Petter Stigar, and realized that we actually know each other. Apart from being an FM in over-the-board chess, Petter is also a GM in correspondence chess, and many years we have played several games (all draws, as it often happens in the modern corr chess ). It was nice to finally meet in person - I guess that's one of the advantages of the team competitions!

The beginning of the first round had to be postponed by 10-15 minutes, as the security measures at the entrance were taking longer than expected (however, this was not a problem later on). Finally, my teammates made it through, and we sat down at our boards.

"Asnières" team with our captain, Jean-Claude, next to the top board (photo by Fiona Steil-Antoni)

The round started, I made the first opening moves and started walking around the playing hall. I must admit that there is something unreal about playing in the same tournament with Magnus Carlsen or Vishy Anand. By the way, both world champions were playing Black in the first round and had to satisfy themselves with draws! 

Nikita Meshkovs vs Magnus Carlsen (photo by Fiona Steil-Antoni © ECU)

We managed to avoid losing any points in the first round, winning 6:0. The tone was set by the crushing victory by Andrey Esipenko on the first board:

However, it was not all a walk in the park. Sitting on the last board, I was very nervous about playing in such a grand company and although I won, I could not be happy with the quality of my play. 

On the 4th and 5th boards Sergei Movsesian and Matthieu Cornette slowly outplayed their opponents, in what one would typically expect in a game between grandmasters and amateurs.

Perhaps the closest call was on Board 2, where Jules Moussard outwitted IM Seb Mihajlov in time trouble: 

What a beautiful finish!

The dinner after the match was the first time that all of our team members got together (the previous day we were all arriving at different times). One thing that struck me is that the grandmasters are constantly immersed in chess, all the time. I remember Alekseenko and Esipenko discussing the intricacies of some topical opening variations. I could not quite follow their discussion, as they went straight to the novelties/tricky lines and compared the depths of their understanding of the nuances and I was not even sure which opening they discussed Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was following the Caruana-Andreikin match that was broadcast live at the time. MVL and Jules Moussard were sitting next to me, so I could see their reaction to Caruana's blunder - both saw it instantly:

The team pairings for the next round were usually published during the dinner, so I went to my room and tried to prepare for the game tomorrow. The captains had to submit the board pairings the same night, but they were only getting published next morning.

Round 2

Our next opponent was Austrian team "Schach ohne Grenzen" (Chess without borders). True to its name, it featured an international lineup with four Germans, one Austrian and one French player, GM Cyril Marcelin, whom I have met before - many years ago when I lived in Munich we have both played for "FC Bayern" team. Incidentally, that team was also playing in the tournament, and later on I was able to catch up with other friends from Munich. 

This match was more difficult than the previous one, especially as I lost my game. I was playing Black and happened to know the opening variation (it has already occurred in one of my previous games). I have obtained a good position but then completely self-destructed in just a few moves. The position was lost and I was in time trouble, so it was surprising that I have lasted well into the endgame, but the result was never in doubt.

Fortunately, on the board next to me Matthieu Cornette delivered a veritable master class in positional play against Caro-Kann Defense:

On other boards the score was mostly in our favor - Kirill Alekseenko managed to win a drawish endgame, Jules Moussard's game petered out to a draw, Sergei Movsesian patiently unbalanced a perfectly symmetrical position and won in a sharp tactical fight, but it was the first board that saw the most exciting fireworks:  

An absolutely spectacular game by Andrey Esipenko.

Photo by Fiona Steil-Antoni © ECU

One could get a feeling that he was in fantastic form - and the rest of the tournament would confirm it.

The final score of the match: 4.5:1.5.

Round 3

Our next opponent was the Hungarian team "Sentimento Ajka BSK", which featured several grandmasters. I was subbed out and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave joined the play on the first board. This lineup - MVL, Esipenko, Moussard, Alekseenko, Movsesian, Cornette - stayed the same for all remaining rounds. From this moment, my role changed to cheering from the sidelines. Our team always met for breakfasts and dinner, and it was incredibly interesting to hear the first-hand impressions of the games from my teammates. 

Our 3rd round match was also a good example of the extremely tense nature of the club championship. The fate of the match would often swing back and forth in the last minutes. Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes it was our opponent's time to cheer.

We will start with a miraculous escape by MVL on Board 1:

However, this was quickly "compensated" by a missed win on Board 3:

But in the end, all of that was overshadowed by the intense drama of Andrey Esipenko's game:

As you can see, this match could go either way, so the final score 3:3 felt rather fair.

Round 4

One thing that I should mention is that the European Club Cup is contested over a very short distance. There were only 7 rounds to be played, and with 70 teams that means that the price of every point is extremely high. A lost match essentially disqualified the team from contention for the first prize, and a tie meant that you needed to win the rest. That was the mindset for the upcoming match, in which we faced the Turkish team "Gokturk Satranc Spor Kulubu".

On paper we were the heavy favorites, but the match was much closer than one could expect. On the first board MVL's opponent sacrificed a piece for a promising but incorrect attack. Maxime found the best defense, but his king had to march up the board, where it was exposed to all sorts of threats, real and imaginary, and after the time trouble this game eventually ended in a draw. Kirill Alekseenko played something ridiculous with Black, landed in a very dangerous position and was objectively losing, but proved his usual resourcefulness in the defense and somehow managed to save it.

On other boards it looked like our players were pressing and Jules Moussard indeed carefully nurtured his extra pawn into a victory. 

The most troublesome - at least at first - was Sergei Movsesian's game, in which he landed in a suspicious position with White. At dinner I asked him what was going on and he shared his impressions. It was a very honest and fascinating account of the game, and I will try to reproduce it here. Don't take it as a word-by-word rendition, but it should give you the general narrative of the game from grandmaster's point of view (plus what I learned about the opening later on from ChessBase )

The final result of the match was 4:2

Round 5

The next match was a derby with another French team, in fact, a neighbor - the team "Clichy 92 Echecs" is based in a Paris suburb that is close to Asnières. These two teams regularly clash in the French team competitions, so it was a principled match and it turned out to be a nail-biter. There was tense fighting on all boards, and it was not clear which way it was going to go.

MVL's position on the Black side of Najdorf against Parham Maghsoodloo was dangerous, but Maxime once again demonstrated his enormous resiliency in defense and saved half a point:

On the second board Andrey Esipenko once again delivered a full point by slowly outplaying Jorden Van Foreest:

Unfortunately, this victory was negated on board 5, where Sergei Movsesian mixed up the move order in an opening against Loek van Wely and was completely lost by move 15. He kept on fighting for 50 moves but it was all in vain.

All other games were drawn and thus the match ended in a tie, 3:3.

Round 6

In the penultimate round we were paired with the Israeli club "Beer Sheba". I followed this match less closely than the others, as that day I went on a long mountain hike with a friend from FC Bayern. Instead of the usual chess analysis, I will post one of the photos from that glorious day:

As I found out during the dinner, this match was decided by two games in which the Israeli overstepped the time limits. The first of those losses was after a long fight, but already in a hopeless position. Once again, it featured our top gun in this tournament, Andrey Esipenko:

However, the other loss was one of those bizarre chess dramas that are difficult to explain. On the 31st move, in the following equal position GM Huzman simply forgot about the clock!


The only thing that I can say is that similar things have happened even in the world championships...

With that the match ended with 4:2 score in our favour.

Round 7

Going into the final round, the standings were as follows - Czech team "Novy Bor" led the table with 12 match points, there were no teams with 11 points and then there were 4 teams with 10 - "Asnières", "Clichy", "Offerspil" led by Magnus Carlsen and "Vugar Gashimov" team from Azerbaijan.

We were paired with the leader and the stakes were clear - a victory in the match would most probably get us the medals, although probably not the championship. "Novy Bor" needed only a draw to win the championship, and in some scenarios even a narrow loss would be enough for them to get the title.

The decisive final round, Asnières vs Novy Bor (photo by Fiona Steil-Antoni © ECU)

This time I decided to attend the match in person, instead of watching the online broadcasts. The organizers allowed the team players to go to the playing hall even on the off days, but with one caveat - if you left the building, you were no longer allowed to re-enter. That meant that for the next 5 or 6 hours I watched the matches unfold in real time and I must say that it's the most nerve-wracking experience!

Shortly after the end of the opening, MVL made a mistake from which he was not able to recover:

We were also in trouble on Board 5, where Niels Grandelius uncorked a powerful move:

Black's position is quite difficult, but Sergei found an unusual way to keep on fighting: 11...Bd6 12.Bxd7+ Nxd7 13.Nxd7 Kxd7! (13...Qd7 14.Na4 0-0 15.Nb6 and White wins an exchange due to Nb6-c8 threat). In the end, he somehow managed to draw.

Wojtaszek-Moussard game never veered far from equality and finished in a repetition before move 30, so that left three games.

I will start with the clash Esipenko-Vidit, which decided the fate of the second board prize. You already know that Esipenko played fantastic chess in Mayrhofen, but at that point Vidit scored even better - 6 out of 6! Yet in the final round that 100% streak came to an end:

For a while it seemed that Alekseenko was on course to winning too, but he missed his chances in the time trouble:

It meant that the fate of the match came down to the last running game on Board 6. Matthieu Cornette had a slightly worse endgame and it seemed that he should be able to hold it, but when only the knights and three pawns were left on the board, he ran into a zugzwang (or more precisely, domination of his pieces):

A heartbreaking loss! A draw in this game would have meant 3:3 tie in the match and a silver or a bronze medal, but alas it was not to be. 

In the end, we finished 4th out of 70 teams - ahead of, for example, Magnus Carlsen's "Offerspil" or "Superbet" led by Vishy Anand. Without a doubt, it is a great achievement, but the thought of "what could have been" made it a bittersweet result for all "Asnières" players... 

"Novy Bor" deservedly won the European Club Cup with a perfect match score (14 points out of 14). The French "Clichy 92 Echecs" got the silver medals. German club "Schachclub Viernheim 1934 e.V." came in third.

During the award ceremony Andrey Esipenko received a gold medal for the best result on the second board (Magnus Carlsen won the 1st board). 

And with that it was time to say goodbye to the 2022 European Chess Club Cup. Hope that "Asnières" will do even better next year!