USA, Ukraine, Chinese Women Hold Inside Track To Baku Gold

USA, Ukraine, Chinese Women Hold Inside Track To Baku Gold

| 36 | Chess Event Coverage

Tomorrow the fight for gold will be between USA and Ukraine; both won today and maintained their lead at the Olympiad. Russia is two points behind and only theoretically still in contention. China needs a 2-2 tie to win the women's section, but they face Russia, the only team that can catch them.

Neither Ukraine nor the USA stumbled in the penultimate round, so these two countries are still tied for first place with one round to go.

Ukraine's last Olympic gold was only six years ago; for the USA ,we have to go all the way back to 1976—the Haifa Olympiad, where the Soviet Union and powerhouses like Yugoslavia and Hungary didn't play. The USA won then without GMs Bobby Fischer, Walter Browne, or Sammy Reshevsky. The team consisted of Robert Byrne, Lubosh Kavalek, Larry Evans, James Tarjan, Bill Lombardy, and Kim Commons.

Ukraine has only won an Olympiad twice (the second in 2004); the USA has won five times. However, besides that weakened field in 1976, the other four victories were all scored in the 1930s, when the team was a leading nation thanks to Isaac Kashdan, Frank Marshall, Arthur Dake, Israel Horowitz, Herman Steiner, Albert Simonson, Reuben Fine, Abraham Kupchik, and Reshevsky.

Both USA and Ukraine are also likely to win in the final round, being paired to Canada and Slovenia respectively. The Americans were held to 2-2 by their northern neighbors in 2014, but that was before they revamped their lineup. Russia, who is two points behind the leaders, should win as well, against Italy.

"The Canadian team is embracing the spoiler role and are looking to improve on the 2-2 score from last olympiad," GM Eric Hansen told

All the major teams have faced each other at an earlier stage at this Olympiad, and as a result, we see the 25th, 29th and 36th seeded teams playing on the first three boards and potentially influencing the medals.

The Americans defeated Georgia today, but it was not as convincing as they would have liked. So far USA had suffered only one loss (Ray Robson vs Alexander Grischuk), but today a second was added. GM Hikaru Nakamura played one bad move in the opening and never really got back into the game. It was a good performance by GM Mikheil Mchedlishvili:

That, however, happened when USA was already leading 2-0. GM Sam Shankland scored the first point after some dream preparation. He got to play his novelty on move 16, and it worked really well.

"16.Qf2 is extremely strong," he told "It avoids Black's best plan."

He quickly won a pawn and got rid of his bad bishop at the same time. "Maybe I could have played it more cleanly, but my plan is just too strong."

Shankland gets the first handshake.

GM Wesley So, who brought a box of tissues to the board, told that he has been somewhat under the weather. "That's why I made a draw yesterday; I couldn't see much."

A cold, a sore throat, a headache, So had it all. But medicine provided by team captain IM John Donaldson has helped.

"I equalized easily," said So. "And then he just blundered a pawn with 14.Bb2. He also used a lot of time actually. In fact, he lost on time, but in a lost position."

The team needed a draw for the two match points and got it. GM Fabiano Caruana was perhaps slightly worse out of the opening against GM Baadur Jobava, but by the end, he was simply better. With the match situation in mind, he decided not to take risks. "In a tournament game, I would have played on," he admitted.

USA still has to watch Ukraine beside them on the tables. The Ukrainian team defeated the Czech Republic 3-1 today, with two draws and wins for GMs Pavel Eljanov and Andrei Volokitin. Eljanov profited from GM David Navara collapsing completely.

Eljanov must have been hoping for that fork on e2.

Russia dropped another match point today, and now it's almost certain that, yet again, they won't be winning an Olympiad. The last two boards were drawn, and GM Vladimir Kramnik won another good game with White, but this time GM Sergey Karjakin spoilt the party. Yesterday, he saved the draw by the skin of his teeth against GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov; today it wasn't looking good versus GM Pentala Harikrishna.

Hari more or less ended Russia's hopes for gold this year.

Kramnik defeated GM Baskaran Adhiban in a King's Indian Attack where the Indian player was playing anti-positionally in the opening. He put all his pawns on light squares and trading the h5-bishop for Nf3 (so far understandable); then he opened up the position and put all the pawns on the color of his remaining bishop!

Kramnik knew how to deal with this, and while his team is again not living up to its expectations, the 14th world champion has now gained 7.1 points and is back to world #2 in the live ratings.

Azerbaijan-A is another team that had a different kind of Olympiad in mind. They're still playing among the top boards tomorrow, but that's for broadcasting reasons; in reality, their 1.5-2.5 loss to England today has dropped them to 19th place in the standings. 

GM Eltaj Safarli is still winning rating points, but today he lost like a child to GM Nigel Short. Especially GM Arkadij Naiditsch, who switched federations from Germany, is doing badly for Azerbaijan. He is on a 50-percent score (4.0/8) after losing to GM Gawain Jones today. 

The two winners for England today.

Speaking of disappointments, what about China? The reigning champs split 2-2 with Belarus today and are now in 20th place despite being the third-seeded country. Despite getting decent positions, poor GM Li Chao has now lost three games in a row.

It's the same story for the Netherlands, who started so well. Two narrow losses in a row, with three draws and one individual loss both yesterday and today, have dropped the Dutch back to a 37th place. Today their most experienced player, GM Loek van Wely, had to throw in the towel after 113 moves. 

Netherlands vs Hungary before the start of the round, with Judit Polgar behind her players.

France hasn't played a role at all in this Olympiad, but the team can still end somewhere around their starting rank if they finish with a win tomorrow. Today they were too strong for Australia. GM David Smerdon got another chance to play his Alapin against a 2800-player, but although he held the world champion to a draw, he didn't manage to do so against GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Now that we've mentioned him, it's about time to discuss GM Magnus Carlsen's game. He was in fact the first winner among the top boards today. In the match, Norway beat Iran 3.5-0.5.


Carlsen was still calculating variations after an easy win today.

The USA, Ukraine and Russia are all expected to win, and so it seems clear that these teams will divide the medals. USA has a better tiebreak than Ukraine (Sonneborn-Berger without the lowest result). The second tiebreak, game points, is also in favor of USA, who defeated Ukraine 2.5-1.5 in round six.

It's not that clear though, as one tweeter points out:

The other teams have a slim chance to get bronze; they should hope for Italy to beat Russia. In that scenario, Italy would kind of deserve bronze, but another country will probably take over on tiebreak.

Below are the standings listing all teams that have 14 points or more. You may notice that, with one round to go, not only USA, but also Greece hasn't lost a single match yet.

Rk. SNo Team Team + = - TB1 TB2 TB3 TB4
1 2 USA 8 2 0 18 344,5 29 126
2 5 Ukraine 9 0 1 18 328 27,5 128
3 1 Russia 7 2 1 16 345 29 125
4 25 Canada 7 1 2 15 312,5 29 116
5 9 India 7 1 2 15 291 25,5 129
6 12 Norway 7 1 2 15 277,5 24,5 119
7 29 Slovenia 6 3 1 15 273,5 26,5 111
8 6 England 7 1 2 15 269 24,5 118
9 34 Peru 7 1 2 15 251,5 24,5 114
10 36 Italy 6 3 1 15 247 25 105
11 20 Georgia 6 2 2 14 291 25 127
12 10 Hungary 7 0 3 14 279,5 27 112
13 19 Turkey 6 2 2 14 278,5 27,5 112
14 17 Czech Republic 6 2 2 14 275 23 132
15 8 France 5 4 1 14 267 27 108
16 7 Poland 6 2 2 14 260,5 26,5 108
17 14 Spain 6 2 2 14 260,5 23 120
18 27 Greece 4 6 0 14 255,5 23,5 116

The main match ups for the final round are USA vs Canada, Ukraine vs Slovenia, Russia vs Italy, India vs Norway, and Peru vs England. The top board will see a clash of borders, and if we may believe GM Eric Hansen, it will be the first serious scrimmage since 1812! 

Women's section

On the ladies' side, it's almost (but not quite) time to break out the mooncakes.

The Chinese contingent held off a pesky Polish quartet today to maintain their overall lead. Russia also won, but they remain two match points back with only one day to go.

The math is therefore simple: China needs only a 2-2 tie to take their first women's team gold medal since 2004. Why such a facile computation? Well, their opponent is Russia, so earning one point would also mean blocking Russia's ability to catch up. No other team can compete for first.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose? It's not clear what GM Hou Yifan will tell her team going into tomorrow, but if she needs inspiration, there's always Coach Taylor's greatest hits.

Thus the Sino-Russian rivalry renews itself once again; together the two nations have combined for seven of the last nine Olympiad team golds in women's chess.

If Russia wins in the final round, it gets murky. That would mean they'd go to Sonneborn-Berger, which essentially counts your opponents' final scores and your personal mark against them. China would be rooting for Luxembourg and Latvia; Russia for Scotland and Ecuador.

For the record, Russia is currently ahead on that tiebreak by the narrowest of margins (317.0-316.5). in the unlikely event that they are knotted up there, the second tiebreak is game points, but if Russia wins 2.5-1.5, they'd be tied there too! The final measure is cumulative, which adds match points from start to finish round by round. China's early draw would cost them the gold in that maddeningly-close scenario.

GMs Alexandra Kosteniuk (right) and Valentina Gunina both won in round 10, but they were in good spirits even before the games.

If China goes on to win or tie tomorrow, it's not fireworks that denote the celebration for the Mid-Autumn Festival. The full moon which occurs on September 15 is celebrated with mooncakes, which are heavy on calories. Perhaps they can find some here in Baku. They will surely have deserved them as the only unbeaten team in the field.

But let's not eat our mooncakes before they're baked. China nearly stumbled today against Poland. They did just enough to stay alone at the top.

They won their first two games, but it looked dicey after that. Where was the final half-point to come from?

WGM Tan Zhongyi leads the team with 8.0/10 and nearly has a higher performance rating than her world-champion teammate (2526 to Hou Yifan's 2545).

The first result overall came from GM Hou Yifan. The women's world champion was charged with getting a win as Black against a grandmaster. All she did was play one of her best games of the event to get her team's first point.

Then came another China win on board four, which was no small task given who Poland played. WGM Klaudia Kulon had led all ladies with an undefeated 8.0/9 prior to this afternoon, but she was upended by WGM Tan Zhongyi.

The 2-0 lead didn't exactly lead to smooth sailing.

On board two, GM Ju Wenjun was down the exchange for nebulous compensation, while on board three GM Zhao Xue had a worse rook endgame that required she block several passed pawns.

The team that dresses together, wins together? Poland needed two wins on the middle boards but only got 1.5/2. WGM Jolanta Zawadzka (right) won but WGM Karina Szczepkowska-Horowska could not convert a slightly better ending.

As it turned out, only Zhao Xue could defend her game, but that was just fine with China.

Russia earned the chance to play on board one thanks to a slightly more convincing win today. They beat former women's powerhouse Georgia 2.5-1.5. Although the score was the same, it didn't include nearly as much nail biting.

Like her Chinese counterpart, board one GM Alexandra Kosteniuk got the match off on the right tilt by beating a GM (on the white side of a Winawer French!).

In their first Olympiad as a married couple, nervous husband GM Pavel Tregubov watches his wife's game.

GM Nana Dzagnidze, the last Olympiad's best overall woman, went down for the first time in Baku thanks to total paralysis in her position. Her pieces may normally be butterflies, but today they were caught in a diving bell.

Readers of our recent Olympiad reports already know that GM Valentina Gunina's games are often the linchpin to her team's result. Today she aided her squad massively, again!

Although her inspired attack had some flaws, they weren't discovered by White and Gunina crashed through.

The youngest team member, WGM Alexandra Goryachkina, is playing in her first Olympiad and could call her draw the biggest half-point her country has ever asked of her. She agreed to one against GM Bela Khotenashvili in a position where neither side could make significant progress.

GM Alexandra Kosteniuk stands and watches to see which of her team members will join her in the winner's column.

That turned out to be clutch since WGM Olga Girya could not hold the worse end of rook and bishop vs rook and went down to IM Nino Batsiashvili of "I drew Magnus Carlsen" fame.

Two teams could have factored into the gold tomorrow, but they failed to take advantage today.

Ukraine could only tie India as GM Natalija Zhukova lost her second Benoni in a row.

Indian GM Harika Dronavalli stops by to see teammate IM Tania Sachdev score the upset which leveled the match.

USA also split 2-2 when GM Irina Krush incorrectly chose passive defense instead of activity and lost the final game against Mongolia.

Team USA no longer controls their own destiny in the quest for a medal. They'll need a win and a little help tomorrow. That's the same scenario as their last medal (a bronze in 2008).

There are thus six teams on 15 points, one match-point behind Russia but three behind China. They'll all need to win and hope their past opponents do well. Even board four at the bottom of the tables might affect the medals. Bring your abacus.

Those teams will all be rooting for the same result on board one. Since the first-place team can't be caught anyway, Poland, Ukraine, India, Hungary, USA, and Bulgaria will all be best friends with this team Tuesday:

Also at stake tomorrow is the "Gaprindashvili Cup," which goes to the federation with the most match points combined from the open and the women's tournaments. Ukraine and USA are tied with 33, while Russia sits on 32 and China on 31.

GM Yasser Seirawan has now been a part of the open and women's Olympiad teams for USA. Here he is with his usual "happy intensity" as he chats with IM Anna Zatonskih after her draw. Seirawan told he's only captained one other team in his life, the "Rest of the World" squad against Russia in 2002.

Below are the standings listing all teams that scored 14 points or more.

Rk. SNo Team Team + = - TB1 TB2 TB3 TB4
1 1 China 8 2 0 18 316,5 28,5 118
2 3 Russia 7 2 1 16 317 27,5 124
3 7 Poland 7 1 2 15 333 29,5 123
4 2 Ukraine 6 3 1 15 332 27,5 131
5 5 India 6 3 1 15 290,5 26 120
6 8 Hungary 6 3 1 15 281,5 25,5 119
7 6 USA 7 1 2 15 274,5 25 121
8 9 Bulgaria 6 3 1 15 261,5 26 109
9 19 Vietnam 6 2 2 14 268 25 120
10 15 Mongolia 6 2 2 14 262,5 26,5 107
11 16 Azerbaijan 1 6 2 2 14 243,5 22,5 124
12 21 Netherlands 7 0 3 14 237 22,5 115
13 66 Malaysia 6 2 2 14 235 26,5 97
14 18 Israel 6 2 2 14 226,5 23,5 109
15 35 Austria 6 2 2 14 216 22,5 103

The main match-ups for the final round are China vs Russia, Hungary vs Poland, Ukraine vs Bulgaria, Azerbaijan vs Malaysia, and USA vs India.

This report was co-written by Peter Doggers.

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