USA-Russia Double Feature: Americans Win One, Nearly Both

USA-Russia Double Feature: Americans Win One, Nearly Both

| 27 | Chess Event Coverage

"Today was more sport than science," GM Magnus Carlsen once said about one of his games. That quote could also apply to the women's match between USA and Russia at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The Americans won two games on boards in which they had questionable positions out of the opening. Combined with IM Anna Zatonskih's defense in a tough position on board two, the USA took the match 2.5-1.5 to stay atop the tables.

The men could have joined them in success, but instead they drew Russia 2-2. More on that below.

IM Anna Zatonskih (seated) and GM Irina Krush are sometimes rivals and sometimes friends. They've had to work out their differences over the years, and today, Krush's first hug came from Zatonskih. See the video below.

Of the five leading nations, only China kept up with the USA. They had no trouble with the host team, Azerbaijani-A (3.5-0.5).

Back to match board one, nearly all of the attention on the women's side of the stage was on the latest iteration of the Cold War rivalry. We'll present the games as they finished.

Board four saw WGM Katerina Nemcova under attack right from the start. She did have help in that the preparation from team coach GM Robert Hess was what she saw on the board. 

WGM Katerina Nemcova made lemonade out of lemons today.

Hess told about his strategy against WGM Olga Girya: "Getting a +0.2 position and trying to squeeze wasn't cutting it for me against such a strong player; we wanted to make her life difficult. I had to convince Katerina to play 3. e5, and she told me if I wasn't so confident about the decision she probably would've refrained. Listening to me usually isn't smart, but look where it got us!"

After a few hold-your-breath moments ("Watching it unfold gave me chills," said GM Maurice Ashley), Girya couldn't find the necessary alacrity after her pawn sacrifice.

Russia evened up the match in USA's other White game, essentially obliterating Hess's pre-match planning.

"As underdogs, we knew we had to make our mark with the white pieces if we were going to stay in or win the match," he said. That didn't happen. IM Nazi Paikidze was completely lost, then just mostly lost, before she finally blundered fatally against GM Valentina Gunina, who continues to be Russia's rock.

IM Anna Zatonskih had hanging pawns against WGM Natalija Pogonina, but after a long fight in which neither player seemed willing to offer the draw, the two finally agreed that there was nothing there.

Immediately after the game, Pogonina's expression turned to despondence. She hung around the stage, but she sat with head lowered as their leader's position kept drifting south.

Team Russia will now have to come from behind to win their fourth-consecutive team gold.

Once up a pawn, GM Alexandra Kosteniuk was fighting for her personal and team's life. Her game against GM Irina Krush had a little bit of everything.

"12...a5 turned out to be a pawn sacrifice, even though I didn't envision it to be a pawn sacrifice," Krush said. "I was going for the elimination of my bad pieces."

Some time later, Krush's two-knight combo provided nearly equal compensation, and she thought that Kosteniuk might have had enough too. Just as they reached the time control, Krush claimed a three-fold repetition. 

Kosteniuk balked, so the arbiters moved the claim to a side table to examine the validity. They could only find two occurrences of the same position, so the two women went back to continue.

GM Irina Krush (left) and GM Alexandra Kosteniuk are joined by arbiters in determining the veracity of the claim. As it turned out, Krush would benefit from being wrong!

"I thought to check," Krush said. "Checking doesn't really cost you anything. The team needed a draw."

She said she wasn't dispirited from the events as she thought Kosteniuk didn't have a way to continue making progress anyway. That's when the Russian grandmaster played a highly-inventive exchange sacrifice that had escaped Krush's attention, but it wasn't long before Black had all the winning chances.

Krush wanted to celebrate with her teammates right after the win, but security protocols popped up once again. She wanted a hug, yes, but she also wanted to use the toilet. Playing on increment for so long, she had not had a chance.

Krush was instead taken for a scan of her person, and not allowed to use the bathroom on the way even though she told them she needed to go urgently. Instead of just the usual perfunctory wanding done in a secure room, the arbiters then made her remove her shoes and subjected those to a scan at the full-size X-ray machine. Finally, she re-laced her shoes and was cleared to respond to both nature and waiting reporters.

"I'm very happy, close to ecstatic!" Krush said.

Krush said she felt the pressure rise as the scores began unfolding. That was all gone by the time this was taken. Her pace walking back to the hotel with this reporter was nearly a gallop.

As reported yesterday, the script is eerily similar to what happened the last time the American women medaled. In 2008, they also played (and also beat) Russia in round eight on the same day that their male counterparts played Russia. On that day, Krush also beat Kosteniuk. Several days later, the USA women became bronze medalists.

Krush was not aware of the similarities. She said that players don't remember such details, but she was happy that history's sequel was playing out in Baku.

One thing Krush did remember: She has Kosteniuk's number. She's now a perfect 3-0 in the three classical games they have played. All have come in team competitions.

China was the only team that could keep up. As Krush walked back to the hotel, her nightly ritual, she traded "congratulations" with GM Zhao Xue  in the tunnel to the hotel (shared by both teams). They won't be that friendly tomorrow; China's rout of the host nation gives them a date with the USA.

Today China won on boards one, two, and four, as they played their top four for the first time since round three. Women's World Champion GM Hou Yifan began her process of getting back on track. Some simple tactics preceded more complicated ones, but the win still "only" pushed her performance rating a little over 2500.

One board lower, GM Wenjun Ju, who has played every round, ground down White thanks to a neat knight-and-pawn duo. The c4-knight and e4-pawn were completely inviolate, allowing her to liquidate the kingside while the knight reigned on the other side of the board.

Interestingly China's bottom two ladies are their only players that have not suffered a defeat. Today WGM Tan Zhongyi, who has also played every day, got another smooth win. She leads the team with 6.5 points.

USA will have White against China on Sunday. Head-to-head, China won 3-1 at the last Olympiad, while the teams drew in both 2006 and 2008.

A difference in lineups. GM Hou Yifan, seen here, has already sat out three times, whereas none of the top three Americans have missed any rounds. There's a good chance that all the top players are seen tomorrow.

The last team that had a dozen match points in the morning could not keep a share of first. Netherlands wasted an upset win by WGM Anne Haast over GM Monika Socko and went down to Poland. Haast actually began with six draws, but when their GM leader sat out, she got her first win on board one instead of board two!

The bottom two Polish women reversed the tide to take the match 2.5-1.5.

Power at the bottom: Polish WIM Mariola Wozniak won today to achieve a perfect 4-0 in Baku. The other winner on the team, WGM Klaudia Kulon, is now on 7.5/8 and leads all women!

Ukraine also continued to sputter, only tying a Hungarian squad that was outrated on all boards. GM Mariya Muzychuk's loss to IM Szidonia Lazarne Vajda was the main culprit. The Magyar number two is having quite a year; recall that she began 2016 by drawing GM Viswanathan Anand in Gibraltar!

The surprise team among the leaders must surely be Israel. They beat Turkmenistan today and are tied for third with Poland, who they will play tomorrow. WIM Olga Gutmakher lost today, but she still leads the team with 6.0 points.

Below are the standings in the women's section with all teams that scored 12 points or more.

Rk. SNo Fed Team + = - TB1 TB2 TB3 TB4
1 1 China 6 2 0 14 206 23,5 75
2 6 USA 7 0 1 14 187,5 21,5 71
3 7 Poland 6 1 1 13 212 24,5 74
4 18 Israel 6 1 1 13 168 21 70
5 2 Ukraine 5 2 1 12 210,5 22 84
6 3 Russia 5 2 1 12 207 22,5 80
7 5 India 5 2 1 12 186,5 21 78
8 8 Hungary 5 2 1 12 178 21 70
9 9 Bulgaria 5 2 1 12 170 21,5 63
10 16 Azerbaijan 1 5 2 1 12 169,5 19 81
11 19 Vietnam 5 2 1 12 169 20,5 75
12 21 Netherlands 6 0 2 12 164 19 72

The main matchups for round nine are USA vs China, Israel vs Poland, Vietnam vs Russia, Ukraine vs Azerbaijan, and India vs Netherlands.

Open Section

The USA tied their match with Russia 2-2 and now lead the Olympiad together with India and Ukraine. 

Saturday's double clash on the chess board between two of the most powerful countries in the world definitely lived up to its expectations.

The men's match ended 2-2, so the USA kept its one-point lead over Russia in the standings. It could have been a double win for USA, were it not for a late board four slip. The draw allowed India and Ukraine to catch the USA in first place.

Confusion over a new experience: Russian Captain Andrey Filatov sees GM Ian Nepomniachtchi's perfect run come to an end.

"Going into the match we knew it would be hard. Both teams are playing well," said the American team captain IM John Donaldson. "Of course we were hoping to win the match. It looked good after three hours of play."

After about an hour of play it was already pretty clear that GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Vladimir Kramnik were going to draw their game. The same players met at the 2012 Olympiad. There, Nakamura beat Kramnik (using an underpromotion!) to win the match, captured in this ChessVibes video.

This time Nakamura failed to get an opening advantage in what was a super solid Queen's Gambit Declined for Black. Kramnik played on for a bit in a totally drawn position, but those things happen in team matches.

The board-one clash was more interesting, and it was GM Fabiano Caruana who got into some trouble, both on time and on the board. However, like before, he kept his cool and managed to hold. GM Sergey Karjakin did put his opponent under pressure, but a clear win has yet to be found.

 On board four it went wrong for the Americans. Thus far GM Alexander Grischuk has had a bad tournament, but in this important match he did his duty. Well, it was more GM Ray Robson losing than Grischuk winning. The endgame was equal, but in time trouble Robson played too passively. 

"It's easier to play with the knight anyway," he said afterward. He should have tried though; liquidating to a pawn ending turned out to be losing immediately. It was the first individual loss for the USA team at the Olympiad, and it was a costly one.

With two draws on the scoreboard, Grischuk scored the first win in the match.

Luckily for the Americans GM Wesley So was doing well, and indeed he managed to win his game and level the score. This was the first loss for GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, who had won all of his seven games before. "He was trying for eight out of eight, luckily!" said So in an interview with GM Danny King after the game.

It was one of those games where you wonder afterward where White went wrong; that usually means the winner played a really good game!

"I feel this is the most critical match yet," said So, "against Russia, the top seed. We managed to pull it through. At some point things were looking quite critical because Fabiano was a bit under pressure."

Ian Nepomniachtchi resigns his game with Wesley So.

With this exciting match, the USA kept its lead over today's rival. Donaldson: "At this point we can think about it for 30 minutes and then it's time to move on."

GM Baadur Jobava just keeps on winning. Today his pet 1.d4, 2.Nc3 and 3.Bf4 system couldn't have surprised GM Ruslan Ponomariov, who tried a new idea and was OK out of the opening.

GM Baadur Jobava played the "Jobava" as it might as well be known these days.

One sloppy move by Black allowed White to grab the initiative, and Jobava quickly turned that into a brilliant attack. Mesmerizing stuff! Unfortunately Jobava declined a press conference afterward, saying: "My moves are better than my thoughts!"

GM Ruslan Pomomariov was not pleased that White's queen had camped out on f6.

Jobava in fact stayed in the playing hall for hours. Perhaps he felt what was coming, because at the end of the day he saw his three colleagues all lose, and Georgia went down 3-1. GM Mikheil Mchedlishvili didn't play one of his best games.

Yesterday's heroes are today's losers, and vice versa. 

Ukraine is back on top, and so is India thanks to GM S.P. Sethuraman beating GM Nigel Short on board four in a fine game where the Indian's Scotch worked out very well. That queen on h8 on move 20 was a sight for sore eyes.

(An update on yesterday's story: As it turned out, the English player only got a verbal warning, and the chief arbiter, who agrees that searches during a game are strange, decided to leave it at that.)

Azerbaijan is back on track after a 2.5-1.5 win over Latvia. Here it was GM Eltaj Safarli who scored the only win of the match, beating IM Nikita Meskovs as Black. 24-year-old Safarli, who won the U10 World Youth in 2002, has now scored 4.5/5 for his team.

Coached by GM Ivan Sokolov, Iran is doing very well so far. The very young team has moved up to board three (where they will face England tomorrow) thanks to a 2-2 result against Italy. In previous rounds, Iran defeated Slovakia, Moldova and Mongolia.

Another team that moved up to the highest ranks is Norway, led by World Champion Magnus Carlsen. His play hasn't been of the highest standards, but at least so far he is not losing games, unlike at previous Olympiads! Also today his opponent was very close to a draw.

Where there's success, there's failure. China, reigning champion, is probably not even going to be playing for medals after losing to Hungary today. GM Li Chao suffered his second consecutive loss, and this time it cost the Chinese the match.

Below are the standings in the open with all teams that scored 12 points or more.

Rk. SNo Fed Team + = - TB1 TB2 TB3 TB4
1 2 USA 6 2 0 14 222 23,5 81
2 9 India 7 0 1 14 196 22 80
3 5 Ukraine 7 0 1 14 196 22 78
4 1 Russia 6 1 1 13 215 24 78
5 4 Azerbaijan 1 6 1 1 13 201,5 23 78
6 12 Norway 6 1 1 13 168 20 69
7 6 England 6 0 2 12 189,5 20 79
8 21 Latvia 6 0 2 12 188 20 80
9 11 Netherlands 6 0 2 12 187 21,5 78
10 10 Hungary 6 0 2 12 184,5 23 72
11 46 Iran 5 2 1 12 183,5 22 74
12 17 Czech Republic 5 2 1 12 182,5 19,5 82
13 20 Georgia 5 2 1 12 181,5 21 76
14 27 Greece 4 4 0 12 178 19,5 78
15 29 Slovenia 5 2 1 12 168,5 21,5 71
16 47 Chile 6 0 2 12 154,5 23 63
17 36 Italy 5 2 1 12 150 20,5 66

The main matchups for round nine are Ukraine-India, USA-Norway, Iran-England, Azerbaijan-Russia, Latvia-Slovenia, and Netherlands-Czech Republic.

Carlsen checking out Caruana's game today. They
might well be playing each other tomorrow.

If you're Norwegian and looking for inspiration, you have to go back more than 10 years. Try 50! One of your countrymen unearthed this historical footnote.

It was a great day for Norsemen gamers when this happened:

This report was co-written by Peter Doggers.

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