The European Rapid Chess championship took place between December 8th-9th in Skopje. Four players finished tied for first with 10½ points out of 13: Valerij Popov (Russia), Andrey Esipenko (Russia), Vahap Sanal (Turkey) and Luca Moroni (Italy), in the respective order according to the tie-breaks.
Known by his friends from Sankt Petersburg as an inspirational player some ten years ago Popov (who was proclaimed European champion by tie-break) dedicates most of his time nowadays to training and coaching. Seeded 40th in the starting list, he had a slow start with 3/4 against lower rated players, but then climbed up with three consecutive wins against strong grandmasters. His play in Skopje was sound and solid but he also displayed tactical alertness when needed.
The crucial moment in Popov’s tournament trajectory must have been the 8th round.

Popov (2531) – Anton Guijarro (2708)
European Rapid championship
Skopje 2018

Things did not go White’s way after he unnecessarily sacrificed a pawn in a roughly equal ending. But at this height of the game the worst was behind, as his massive kingside majority is a good match for Black’s passed pawns. One important element is that Black, who had taken the e4– and c4–pawns when he could have advanced his a-pawn, cannot avoid the queens’ exchange under favourable circumstances, thus turning the previously exposed white king into a strong piece.
After this move, apparently played after 33 seconds, it will be Black who needs to be careful.
Simplifying is a less… simple process as it may seem. Exchanging pieces means a bit more than just removing the respective pieces from the board. Any exchange results in a slight modification of the dynamic or static balance. It could be that either one of the remaining pieces gets on a better or, on the contrary, worse square, or one player’s structure improves or gets weaker. (more about it in the respective article in the shop).

Hidden aspects of the art of simplifying the position

The last move helps the white king’s centralization while missing the chance to create the threat of improving the own structure.
True, 47…Qd5 48.Qa6+ wins the a-pawn; while 47…Qa2 is too passive, allowing White to start advancing his pawns with 48.g4.
But 47…Qb3! offered Black chances to retain at least some symbolic advantage. 48.g4 (White should not improve Black’s structure with 48.Qxb3? axb3 49.Bc3 c4 50.Kd2 Kd7 with excellent winning chances. Black will keep his king close to the dangerous candidate to promotion on the h-file, while the bishop will start attacking the pawns with …Bb6–f2. Both white pieces will be busy keeping the connected pawns under control.) 48…c4 49.Qc3 a3 50.g5 Qa4 51.h6 gxh6 52.gxh6 a2 53.h7 a1Q 54.h8Q+ Bd8 55.Qxa1 Qxa1 56.Qe8 Qa6 57.Kd1 Qb7 Due to the weak pawn on f7 Black’s win is anything but trivial, but at least in rapid chess his chances top reach a favourable result are realistic.

It is obvious that White will win at least one of the queenside pawns, as his king is by far more active than Black’s. In the meanwhile, the threat g4=g5 restricts Black’s activity.
The fastest saving regrouping was 48…Kd7 49.Kc4 Bd8 50.g4 Be7 51.g5 Bf8 and Black is out of any danger.
The engines are enthusiastic about 49.Kc2 Kd7 50.Kb3 Ke7 51.Kxa3 but after, say, 51…f5 Black has no problems to defend his fortress.
49…a2 50.Kc4 Ba5 51.Bb2 Bb4 52.Kb3 Kd7 53.Kxa2 Kc6 54.Bc1 Kd5 55.Kb3 Be1 56.g4 c4+ 57.Kc2 Ke4 58.g5

Most of the last moves were played at blitz rhythm, but the course of the game was quite logical. It is only now that Black commits the decisive mistake.
After this move the king will remain immobile, while the bishop will not be able to fight against the white king’s intrusion.
The correct defence was 58…Bb4! aiming at coordinating the forces in order to annihilate the kingside majority. 59.h6 (Or if 59.Bd2 Bf8 60.Kc3 Kf5 61.Kxc4 Kg4=) 59…gxh6 60.gxh6 Bf8 61.h7 Bg7 62.Kc3 Kf5 followed by …Kg6 with an obvious draw.
59.Bd2 Bf2 60.Kc3 Bc5 61.Kxc4 Bf8
This looks a bit like giving up any hope, but keeping the bishop active would not help: 61…Ba3 62.Kb5 (Only not 62.Bb4? Bc1 and suddenly White has problems.) Black cannot do anything against the king’s transfer to e8. If (now or later) 62…f6 then 63.exf6 gxf6 64.g6+–
62.Bb4 Kxf4
If 62…Bxb4 63.Kxb4 and Black is in Zugzwang already.

Not a perfect game, but Popov’s composure, first in a worse, then in a basically equal position eventually paid off.

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