One Round to Go

by admin on August 13, 2014

With one round to go in the chess Olympiad, the U.S. is still in contention for… something, and the gold-medal team is in my opinion all but decided. China beat France in round 10, taking over sole first place with 17 points (7 wins, 3 ties). The only team that could pass them is Hungary, which has 16 points (7 wins, 2 ties, one loss). But Hungary already played China and lost to them way back in round three. So Hungary has to rely on the extremely unlikely scenario of Poland beating China, while at the same time Hungary has to beat a very tough Ukraine team.

Here are all the final round matchups that could conceivably matter for the gold medal:

  • China (17) — Poland (15)
  • Hungary (16) — Ukraine (15)
  • Russia (15) — France (15)
  • Azerbaijan (15) — United States (15)
  • India (15) — Uzbekistan (15)

The U.S. won a key match against Argentina in round 10, and once again Sam Shankland was the difference. He was Black in a Slav Defense with an early queen trade — not exactly a recipe for winning — but his opponent played kind of loose with his kingside and never really seemed to know where to put his pieces. On the other side, Shankland was absolutely relentless. His confidence has to be through the roof now, as he has scored 8½ points in 9 games. The U.S. team would not be in contention for anything without him.

One thing is for sure: Even though Shankland is the alternate, in other words the fifth-rated player on a four-person team, he will be playing against Azerbaijan tomorrow. His likely opponent would be Eltaj Safarli, rated 2649. (Sam is 2624.) There are no easy games at this point.

From my experience in team tournaments — admittedly, my experience is only in the ratings-capped U.S. Amateur Team Championship — the fourth board is the most important board. While the big guys battle to a draw on board one, it’s the little guys who decide the match.

Is it too early to think about tiebreaks yet? Probably not. As far as I can tell, the U.S. is out of contention for a silver, unless they absolutely annihilate Azerbaijan by something like 4-0, which isn’t going to happen. The reason is that both Hungary and Ukraine are ahead of the U.S. on tiebreaks and at least one of them is sure to get to 17 points. However, the U.S. definitely has a shot at bronze. The clearest path is for Hungary to beat Ukraine, Russia and France to tie, and India and Uzbekistan to tie, while the U.S. beats Azerbaijan. That would then give us clear third, no tiebreaks needed.

Before I end this post, I should say something about how dominating China has been. It’s not so obvious in the standings, where they are only a point ahead of Hungary. But in the tiebreaks they are miles and miles ahead. Not only have they not lost any matches, they have only lost one GAME in the first 10 rounds. (That was when Wang Yue, their #1 board, lost to Hungary’s #1 Peter Leko in round three. China won the match anyway.) Their three tied matches have all been of the four-draw variety. I suspect that if China had needed to win those matches, they could have done it.

So good luck to Poland, because they’re going to need it. However, I think it’s more likely that we will see four draws in the China-Poland match, which will clinch a gold medal for China.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know if there has ever been an Olympiad where a team won first place without losing a single game?

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