Remember the Date!

by admin on September 10, 2016

September 10, 2016. That’s the day when both American teams, the men (or “open”) and women, were tied for first place at the Chess Olympiad. Does anybody with a better knowledge of chess history know whether this has ever happened before, with so few rounds remaining?

Quick summary: Since my last post, the open team has played three critical matches and come through in all of them. In round 6, the U.S. played Ukraine, which at that point was undefeated and had proved to be the best “giant-killers” in the tournament. But the U.S. team triumphed 2½-1½, thanks to a masterful endgame played by Fabiano Caruana against Pavel Eljanov on the top board. It was a Magnus Carlsen-esque performance, as Caruana started with just a slight advantage and gradually managed to increase it to an overwhelming advantage.

In round 7, the U.S. crushed India, 3½-½, in one of those matches where everything worked out perfectly. The most remarkable game was Sam Shankland’s on board 4, where the computer showed him as absolutely busted (at one point, Stockfish had him at -13 pawns!). I think that’s highly misleading. Shankland played an absurdly reckless middlegame where he walked his king to d3, where all logic said he should be in a mating net. But if there is one thing that humans aren’t good at, even GM’s, it’s mating combinations. In retrospect his opponent, S.P. Sethuraman, tried too hard to set up a particular checkmate instead of playing more flexibly. Sam kept one step ahead of him, and in an amazing turnaround managed to set up threats of his own, forcing Sethuraman to retreat into a lost endgame. I think that commentators will focus too much on Sethuraman’s errors instead of appreciating Shankland’s heroic and ingenious defense.

That win catapulted the U.S. into first place, and a match against the #1 seed, Russia. In that match, played today, the U.S. men held their own. Ray Robson lost on board 4 — the first game we had lost in the entire tournament, but Wesley So on board 3 made up for it by beating Ian Nepomniachtchi. One commenter on a previous post of mine said that having So on board 3 is an even greater advantage than having Nakamura on board 2, and in this round especially that turned out to be right. (So is, by the way, having a superb tournament, with 6 points in 7 games.) The result was a 2-2 tie, which keeps the U.S. in first place, although our team is now in a three-way tie with Ukraine and India. Of course, we have beaten both of those teams already, which means that in round 9 we get to watch them face off against each other while we (hopefully) take care of business against Norway.

I have to apologize for not paying as much attention to the U.S. women’s team as to the men’s team, but after today that will no longer be the case! The women got off to a somewhat slow start by losing in round 3 to Ukraine, but they have since won five matches in a row, culminating in a win against #3 seed Russia today. Irina Krush and Katerina Nemcova won on boards 1 and 4 respectively, and Anna Zatonskih drew on board 3 to overcome Nazi Palikidze’s loss on board 2. We are now tied with #1 seeded China for first place, and (no surprise) that is whom we will play tomorrow.

Three more rounds left! The men’s team is chasing its sixth gold medal, which may seem like a surprisingly large number. But you have to realize that four of those titles were won in the 1930s (1931, 1933, 1935, 1937), in an era when the Soviet Union didn’t even participate. (I guess they were too afraid of losing to the “capitalists.”) The fifth was in 1976, when again the Soviet Union didn’t participate. (The Olympiad was held that year in Israel.) So if the U.S. can win the gold this year, it would be their first ever in an Olympiad where a team from the Soviet Union or Russia took part.

As for the women, if they win this year it will be their first gold medal ever. It would be the greatest accomplishment in the history of women’s chess in the U.S., period, end of discussion.

Go teams, go! (And for all my readers in other countries, I apologize for my lapse into national chauvinism.)

 

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