Australia Upsets Carlsen-led Norway: Olympiad Captain's Recap Round 6
A bucket list game for GM Anton Smirnov.

Australia Upsets Carlsen-led Norway: Olympiad Captain's Recap Round 6

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If you believe you can, you might. If you know you can, you will - Steve Maraboli

In the 44th Chess Olympiad in Chennai, there is one team that everyone both wants to play and simultaneously doesn't, Norway. I was at dinner with GM Anton Smirnov when the pairings came out and happened to chance across the pairings before Anton had noticed. Instead of telling him, I asked him to check the pairings himself and watched as his eyes lit up when he realized that he would be facing the world champion, GM Magnus Carlsen, in his next game.

The night before the match our most experienced players helped Smirnov's confidence. Photo: Jack Rodgers

I vividly remember playing against Anton when he was just nine years old at a junior tournament and after getting walloped (I was about 13/14), I noted that he would one day be Australia's number one player. This wasn't exactly an amazing prophetic vision as to many, this was already obvious. Years on after seeing his growth as a player and a young man, it was an awesome moment to see a dream of his realized.

As for the rest of the team, excitement was at a high as the rest of Norway's players were practically 2600+, averaging 2696 overall. The team understands that depth is the key to our success and so we were bullish about our chances of a match win if things fell our way, particularly on the lower boards.

The most surprising thing to many was the fact that the first game finished was in fact one where we were outrated by 100 points and playing black, AND, it ended in our favor. 1-0 Australia! Less surprising is the fact that it was none other than GM Temur Kuybokarov who brought up his fourth win in five games, beating GM Aryan Tari (2672) with black and clearly demonstrating that he is seriously underrated. The win against Tari took Kuybokarov's rating performance to 2808 and he is currently the second best performing player on board two, behind another Australian resident, GM Hrant Melkumyan.

GM Bobby Cheng was the next to strike in the match in a chaotic encounter with popular streamer GM Jon Ludvig Hammer (2638). The Catalan Opening, often seen as a solid option for White was anything but in this game, imbalance reigned supreme. Almost certainly a sign of the quality of the players, the evaluation stayed fairly close to equal with a slight edge for black at times however Cheng weathered the storm and when the game ended, he had a slight advantage.

Unfortunately for Hammer, he lost on time and appealed (claiming that he had seconds left on the clock when he made his move), though this was fruitless and unable to be proven so flag fall was the correct result. 2-0 Australia!

Meanwhile, Smirnov had impressively navigated the constant clicking of Carlsen-consumed cameras, and unimaginable psychological pressure exuding from his opponent. It must be said that Smirnov's attempt to take down the world champion was valiant and kept the energy across our four boards high.

Final words to Smirnov before the match. Photo: IM Leonid Sandler

As for the game, Smirnov was surprised on move one by Nc6 and decided to launch an assault on Carlsen's king. Sacrificing two pawns to rip open the Norwegians kingside left him in an uncomfortable position but Carlsen eventually showed his class and defended with poise. 2-1 Australia!

The final game of the match couldn't have been more intense. Under the pump early, GM Justin Tan had defended well against GM Johan-Sebastian Christiansen but found himself in a dire situation with the match on the line. In 2016 when GM David Smerdon drew with Carlsen it was board four that became the deciding result against Norway, which we lost. Tan was fully aware of the match situation and knew that he had to find a way to draw. On move 43, he tried one last trick, f5. Although this move is considered an "inaccuracy" by Stockfish, this was probably the "clutchiest" move of the tournament so far. When Christiansen took the pawn, Tan's body language changed and suddenly realized he could draw the game with an amazing threefold save.

A grin, a fist bump, and a very exciting walk back to our shuttle ensued after we realized we had achieved a historic result for Australian chess in the most Bradbury-esque, Australian way possible. 2.5-1.5 Australia!

The team processed what had been achieved at dinner right after the match. Photo: WGM Jilin Zhang.

Australia will now face a dangerous, young Iranian team who are similarly well-rounded. This one should be a cracker so tune in at 7.30AEST on any chess streaming platform!