Round One. No Surprises
Once the fanfare quieted down and the welcome speeches of honored guests were over, the stylish opening ceremony of the championships became history, and it was time for the players to start showing who is who.
The first round of junior championships is often a mere formality, as the gap in strength between players on opposite sides of the rating list is way too big. Most games usually end well before the first time control. The first board game of the Under-18 Open event, played between the Russian rating favorite Maksim Vavulin and the Indian R. Vashali, was no exception. The first move of this game, the classic 1.e2-e4, was played by Natalia Komarova, the Governor of Ugra.
Almost all favorites in all age categories added those expected victories to their bank. In some tournaments, none of 10 or even 15 top rated players lost even half a point to the underdogs! It is surely going to be a big fight later on.
Rare exceptions to the ‘starting round rule’ were observed mostly in girls’ events. For instance, Nino Khomeriki from Georgia, the European champion and the highest rated player of the Under-18 championship, was on a verge of defeat, losing an important pawn in the time trouble, and escaped to a draw only by a miracle. One of her rivals, Laura Unuk from Slovenia, third ranked player of the event, was even less lucky: having completely outplayed Zalina Lingur in the middlegame, she underestimated an exchange sacrifice, ended up under a crushing attack, and lost. Other favorites converted their rating advantage into wins, and the intrigue has been established as early as in the Round One… We are looking forward to the Round Two, anticipating even more uncompromising struggle!
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In order to get a better grasp of the situation in the championships, we contacted grandmaster Mikhail Kobalia, head coach of the Russian Junior team.
Open 14. The lineup in this age category is very tightly packed. I expect tense struggle and do not dare predicting the outcome. I can name the favorite – Andrey Esipenko (Russia). He shared the first place at the previous World Championship, and is the highest rated player here. However, there are other strong players, World and European champions, as well as unpredictable and dangerous players from India and China, who are often underrated. I think the event will be very interesting.
Girls 14. Russia has good winning chances. Elizaveta Solozhnkina, 2015 European Champion, Aleksandra Maltsevskaya, 2016 European Champion, are both playing in Khanty-Mansiysk. Hopefully the fight for the gold will become our internal affair, but, as always, we expect nasty surprises from the Indians.
Open 16. Both rating favorites are coming from Iran. These are strong players, who represented their country at U16 Olympiads and brought Iran the gold. Parham Maghsoodloo even participated in the 2015 World Cup in Baku. Amin Tabatabaei is hardly weaker, despite a rather significant rating difference. Competing with them will be challenging, but still we have hopes for a medal, associated with the European Chamipon Timur Fakhrutdinov and the runner-up Aleksey Sorokin. Russian champion Olexandr Triapishko also should not be underestimated, as well as the former European Champion Sergei Lobanov. We are waiting for surprises…
Girls 16. Hopefully the Russians will dominate in this category, too. Why? Polina Shuvalova, the highest ranked player, is in an excellent form – she won the national U16 championship and dominated the Moscow women’s championship with 8.5 out of 9! Her main rivals are reigning European Champion Fiona Sieber from Germany, and former champion Anna-Maja Kazarian (Netherlands). The Indian K.Priyanka is also not to be neglected.
Open 18. The race between our Maksim Vavulin and Manuel Petrosyan (Armenia) is going to be intriguing. The Armenian took the upper hand at the recent European championship. In the last half a year, Maksim added almost a 100 rating points and established a nice lead in the list, but in such tournaments it does not mean much – the competition is always very fierce. The Iranian Shanin Lorparizangeneh can also join the race for the gold; at the Chess Olympiad in Baku he was a part of the Iranian team. Sanal Vahap from Turkey is also a decent player. The tournament is going to be exciting.
Girls 18. An interesting category – betting on the winner here is very risky! I think, the European Champion Nino Khomeriki has the best chance. Stavroula Tsolakidou from Greece is the second favorite. Laura Unuk from Slovenia won the bronze at the 2016 European Championship.
What can we expect from our girls? As usual, they will do their best, and fight to the last move. Aleksandra Obolentseva is just 15, but she decided to test her skill in the strongest category, especially after her success at the Under 16 Olympiad. She was World and Russian Junior Champion, and this year she tied for first place in the women’s event of the Moscow Open… We also have high hopes for our newcomer, the 12-year-old Bibisara Assaubayeva, who had played for Kazakhstan, and changed her federation recently.
All in all, this will be a wonderful show with an unpredictable plot. The tournament distance is long, and we should not expect a quick resolution. Hopefully, the Russian soil will help us break the longstanding Indian dominance. Every medal will count towards the combined score…”