Reports Sep 10, 2016 | 10:00 AMby Colin McGourty

Baku 2016, 7: It’s a USA-Russia showdown

The USA overwhelmed India 3.5:0.5 on Friday to set up the most anticipated match of the 2016 Baku Olympiad – a potential gold medal decider between the USA and Russia. Russia are currently a point back with five more teams, including England, who scored a stunning 3:1 victory over defending champions China. Remarkably the same USA-Russia match will be played in the women’s section, where Azerbaijan, the Netherlands and China are also in the five-team group that leads with four rounds to go.

The ghost of Bobby Fischer and the new US all-star team

For a video summary of the whole day’s action check out the IM Nikolas Lubbe’s recap:

USA end India’s perfect run

The battle to get into medal contention at the Baku Olympiad is fierce, and in Round 7 of the Open Section the top 13 matches all produced a winner (Belarus 2:2 Germany was the first draw). The action we’re going to focus on was on the top eight tables:

There’s nowhere else to start but with the USA flexing its considerable muscles to finally stop the Indian juggernaut. It was always going to be tough for India, since it’s not just that the USA have three top 10 players on their team, but those players are all performing above their rating! 

Let the battle commence! | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

In Round 8 they showcased their particular talents. Fabiano Caruana was fearless as he took on Harikrishna in the sharpest possible game, sacrificing a piece for activity against the white king. It may objectively not have been enough, but when the Indian star did the seemingly logical thing – exchanging queens – it played into Caruana’s hands, with Harikrishna forced to head for a draw before he got into trouble.

On boards 2 and 3 the American team was unstoppable. Hikaru Nakamura seemed to have seen everything in a complex tactical sequence involving multiple pinned pieces. When the dust settled he had an easy win over Adhiban. Wesley So, meanwhile, pulled off his usual trick of converting a slight edge into a win with flawless technique. Vidit never stood a chance.

Sam Shankland uses up one of his lives | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

Luckily for Sethuraman that meant his adventures against Sam Shankland were irrelevant to the match outcome – though it didn’t seem that way at the time. From the moment the US player allowed his opponent to get rooks on the second rank it looks as though White was busted, with the evaluation climbing as high (or low, if you prefer) as -13.04. So what went wrong? Well, in fairness to Sethuraman, the killer blows were anything but trivial – especially to find in time trouble in such a crucial match. Black needed to calculate, or believe on intuition alone, that he could sacrifice both minor pieces starting with 33…Nxe3!!

Replay the game and try out the moves in our broadcast system

Instead after 34.Be7? 34.Rd7! Rab2? all White’s edge had gone. In a few more moves the white king had escaped the trap, the white pieces were suddenly targeting the black king and, crucially, White was simply two pawns up. Sethuraman put up defiant resistance, but had to concede defeat on move 75.

That win saw the US team leapfrog India into the sole lead with 6 wins and 1 draw, meaning those who wanted to remain in the chasing pack needed to win. Russia did that in style, with Sergey Karjakin dispelling any team nerves when he cut through Czech no. 1 David Navara’s defences in just 24 moves (four of which weren’t strictly necessary!). Evgeny Tomshevsky rehabilitated himself after the Ukrainian debacle with a convincing win over Laznicka, while Nepomniachtchi did his thing – manoeuvred around in a roughly equal position until his opponent crumbled towards the time control. That’s 7 out of 7 for Nepomniachtchi now in Baku – for once someone actually completed “a Caruana”! (yes, the opposition hasn’t quite been of Sinquefield Cup level - but maybe he isn’t finished yet…).

49-year-old Evgeny Bareev, 51-year-old Nigel Short and 64-year-old Eugenio Torre all won on a great day for the veterans in Baku | photo: David Llada, Baku Chess Olympiad 

Ukraine bounced back after their loss to the USA, but it wasn’t exactly convincing. Pavel Eljanov sacrificed a piece for no less than four pawns, one of them on the seventh rank, but that wasn’t enough to stop the wily Evgeny Bareev winning the endgame. Although Bareev now plays for Canada, he may have thought of that as some kind of “revenge” for the Russian team’s earlier loss to Ukraine.

That win gave Canada a great chance of an upset victory, but Korobov levelled the scores and eventually Andrei Volokitin (5/6!) managed to beat Eric Hansen. It could all have been so different, though:

Here 36.h6! would have given White excellent winning chances, but Eric couldn’t resist the flashy 36.Rxd5?, when if 36…Qxd5?? there’s 37.Qd8+ Kg7 38.h6+! Kxh6 39.Qf8# Few players are tactically sharper than Volokitin, though, and he blitzed out the refutation 36…h6! in four seconds flat. Hansen went on to exchange queens and get outplayed in the ending – in hindsight he’d have bitten the bullet, played 37.Qf6 and forced a draw by perpetual check in the near future.

Just the day before Eric Hansen had been the hero as Canada beat Belarus | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

Perhaps the shock of the round was a 3:1 triumph for England over the defending champions China, who now find themselves three points off the pace. On top board the usually rock solid Wang Yue seemed not to have recovered from his loss to Sandro Mareco the day before. The Chinese player appeared constantly to pick the wrong pawns to capture or defend, and then failed to put up any resistance when Mickey Adams got down to his spidery work. Howell neutralised Ding Liren with Black in a mere 17 moves, a sharp Sicilian in McShane-Yu Yangyi ended in perpetual check, and it all came down to Nigel Short’s game against Li Chao. The Englishman felt they had something in common

The game was wild, with 51-year-old Short looking liable to get battered off the board by the Chinese player’s kingside attack. That never quite happened, though there was a moment on which the fate of the game hinged:

Li Chao’s knight sacrifice contains a cunning trap, but he didn’t realise it! Play continued in Pac-Man fashion with 33…fxe5 34.Bxe7 exf4 35.Bxf8 and now 35…Bxd4! may have come as a cold shower to the Chinese player. Instead it turns out 34.f6!! is game over (e.g. 34…gxf6 35.Bxe4!, with the threats of Rg8+ and Bxf6+). If you don’t believe that make sure to check it out with a computer here.

36.f6!! would still have been enough for a draw, but after that it was Nigel having all the fun. It was a narrow path to victory, and he didn't always keep to it, but he got there in the end. In summary, it was an insane, utterly human game, and just the kind you don’t want to see spoiled by anti-cheating regulations. 

You want to do what? | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

We wrote in our preview:

The Chess Olympiad hasn't avoided cheating scandals in the past, and this year numerous measures are being taken to combat cheating, including checking random players during each round.

The emphasis was ours, with the idea of interrupting players during (not before or after) a game to check them obviously controversial. As some commented at the time it was announced, could anyone imagine Vassily Ivanchuk submitting to such a check?

Short felt the same, and rebuffed the request to submit to a search during his game. That was running the risk of a forfeit loss that would have transformed the Olympiad fortunes of the two teams. Luckily, no drastic action was taken, with Nigel making clear his thoughts on those who devised (rather than implemented) the regulations:

So England could safely savour the success!

We need to mention two dark horses at this point. Latvia lost one match to Belarus but have won the rest, twice managing to triumph despite a loss for Alexei Shirov on top board. Their driving force has been Igor Kovalenko, who cryptically tweeted after beating Hungary in Round 5 that they’d won “because we had three games with White”. When asked for an explanation he replied that it simply didn’t matter to him which colour he played. 

Igor Kovalenko, sitting alongside Alexei Shirov, takes it easy before his game | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Indeed, Igor has now won three games with the black pieces, with his latest triumph against Loek van Wely, after a white attack ran out of steam. The 3:1 loss was a heavy blow for early leaders the Netherlands, with Anish Giri on top board only managing to replay a spectacular draw with Black that was probably more fun the first time it was tried by Ganguly and MVL.

IM Nikita Meskovs was proud of his win over Benjamin Bok, and added:

You can consider it a mark of quality that after the end of the game I was asked to undergo an anti-cheating check  It seems to me that such things are never redundant, and the stricter and more closely they check and monitor the fairness of the struggle the better!

Georgia, meanwhile, have only lost a single game in Baku, and have the mercurial talent of Baadur Jobava (4 wins, 2 draws) on first board. His latest effort against Constantin Lupulescu of Romania had a cute finale:

41.Rxg7+! Kf8 (41…Kxg7 42.Qh6+ Kg8 43.Nf6#) 42.Rg8+! Kxg8 43.Nf6+ Kg7 44.Nxe4 Rxe4 and just to ensure resignation was instant: 45.Qd3!

Ponomariov is up next for Jobava.

Even if he wasn't a pretty good player you've got to think this guy would be attracting some attention | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Baku Chess Olympiad 

We can’t end without our regular World Champion watch. Magnus played the Modern against Turkey’s Dragan Solak and decided the game in his favour so easily his opponent felt it was the correct thing to do to allow mate on the board. He made an impression off the board as well:

The rest of the Norwegian team did the business by drawing their games, though after seven draws in a row Jon Ludvig Hammer may have to tone down the Giri jokes for a while! Frustration is building…

The Open standings at the top after eight rounds look as follows, with 14 teams within two points of the lead. If Russia could beat the USA there are 25 teams that can potentially end Saturday within two points:

Rk.SNo TeamTeamGames  +   =   -  TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4 
12United States of AmericaUSA761013174,021,560,00
84Azerbaijan 1AZE751111161,520,561,00

China join Russia in 5-team leading pack

The women’s section is even closer, with five teams now tied in the lead on 12 points. Big changes took place in Round 7:

Sole leaders Russia were held by Poland, but despite an easy win with Black for Valentina Gunina over Jolanta Zawadzka it was Poland who were on top. The star performer was Karina Szczepkowska-Horowska, who scored a fine win over Russian Champion Aleksandra Goryachkina. Monika Socko explained afterwards that Karina had prepared the surprise of playing the Grünfeld for the first time in her life:

Monika herself came close to clinching victory for Poland, but couldn’t convert an extra pawn into a win. On bottom board Klaudia Kulon finally conceded a draw to Natalia Pogonina, after six wins in a row.

Hou Yifan was back, and though she couldn't win, her draw against Anna Muzychuk helped China to victory | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

That gave a chance to the teams below Russia, and they took it. Top seeds China needed a single win for Tan Zhongyi over Natalia Zhukova to complete a very bad two days for Ukraine. It was worse for one of the big women’s teams, Georgia, who fell to the Netherlands and now have two losses and one draw to leave them down in 20th place. Tea Lanchava was the Dutch hero, with her fifth win in six games enabling her team to join the leaders.

Friday was a tough day at the office, but Team India are always smiling | photo: David Llada, Baku Chess Olympiad

Azerbaijan gave local fans something to cheer by beating India, with Gulnar Mammadova beating Tania Sachdev and taking her rating gain in Baku to 44 points!

The final team in the tie for the lead is Yasser Seirawan’s USA squad. They scraped past Romania after a win for American Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze and now face the challenge of a match with Russia. The standings after 8 rounds look as follows:

Rk.SNo TeamTeamGames  +   =   -  TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4 
316Azerbaijan 1AZE752012143,018,559,00
46United States of AmericaUSA760112132,019,054,00

Needless to say, don’t miss Round 8 - Open | Women - and if you're wondering whether to go Premium, now's a good time! Check out our new Olympiad Premium Promotion.

If you missed any Round 7 action you can rewatch it below:

You can also follow the games in our free mobile apps:


See also:

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