China and the USA meet in the last round in Batumi knowing that whoever wins will be the 2018 Olympiad Champions. China ended Poland’s brilliant run with a 3:1 victory that featured a stunning win for Ding Liren over Jan-Krzysztof Duda, while a single win for Sam Shankland was enough for the USA to beat Armenia. If the top match is drawn tiebreak madness beckons, with Poland, Russia and France all in with a shot of gold. In the women’s section China are the sole leaders, but in a repeat of Baku 2016 they face top seeds Russia in the last round.
The penultimate round of the Batumi Olympiad was once again jam-packed with action, and you can replay the live commentary from IM Sopiko Guramishvili and GM Ivan Sokolov below:
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The incredible run of 11th seeds Poland in Batumi has seen them beat 1st seeds USA, 2nd seeds Russia, 6th seeds Ukraine and 7th seeds France, while drawing with 4th seeds Azerbaijan and 8th seeds Armenia. They’ll take on 5th seeds India in the final round, making it a perfect 8/8 matches against the strongest teams. Alas for Poland, 3rd seeds China proved to be the hurdle at which they finally fell:
Kamil Dragun had won a wild game against Dmitry Jakovenko in Round 4, but against Li Chao the fire-on-board worked against him:
Here White could calmly retreat his bishop to c2, since if Black were to capture twice on d4 then Qg4!, threatening mate on g7 and hitting the d4-knight would win a piece. Dragun hurried to play 19.Qg4?! first instead, and after 19…g5! 20.Qh5 Kg7 he was forced to go all-in with 21.Ng6. There was no attack, however, and after 21…Be8 22.h4? Black was simply winning:
22…e4! was a killer blow (Black can win a whole knight), but Li Chao’s 22…Bxg6!? 23.fxg6 e4 24.hxg5 fxg5 25.Rh3 Ng8 simply consolidated a clearly superior position. It seemed as though the Chinese player would just win the g6-pawn and convert that advantage, but in the end he left the pawn untouched and went on a knight rampage instead…
While that game was going China’s way it soon became clear that Wojtaszek-Yu Yangyi and Bu Xiangzhi-Piorun were heading for draws. That left Ding Liren-Duda, where the young Polish player had tried the sharp line that gave him victory over Wojtaszek in the Polish Championship earlier this year. Given what was happening in Dragun’s game he got the double-edged position he needed, but it was also more than he bargained for. This is the position after Duda’s 24…Qf6!
The c4-bishop and c3 knight are both under attack and Black is up a pawn, so Ding Liren had a lot to think about. Fortunately that’s something he’s very, very good at, and after stopping for 30 minutes he went on to blitz out his remaining moves:
25.Nb5!! dxc4 26.Nxd6 cxd6 27.e7! Re8 28.Ng5 Qg6
An only move, but a pretty one, which you can also say about the reply 29…f4! The problem for Duda was that these spectacular forced lines favour White, and there was no turning back. 30.Qh4! Qb1! 31.Re1 (31.Qxf4! is the silicon choice) seems to be the moment of no return:
31…Bd7! might have allowed Black to continue life in this strange Martian landscape, although you have to watch your step - some moves for Black that the computer initially likes later turn out to be dead lost. Instead in the game Duda, also short on time, went for 31…Bf5?, when 32.Rd8! was terminal. The moves that followed 32…Bg6 33.Rxb8 Rxb8 34.Qxf4 Rg8 35.Nf7+ Bxf7 36.Qxf7 Nd7 37.e8=Q Nf6 38.Bg5 continued to be beautiful:
Here 38.Bg5 was the final touch, and Black resigned. Ding Liren’s 14-month unbeaten streak continues, and if he can keep combining solidity with games like that then the sky, and by that we mean the World Championship title, is the limit.
That result left England, the USA and Armenia with a chance to move level with China on 17 points going into the final round. For England the obstacle was the previously underperforming Russian team, and in hindsight it might have been good if it had been possible to play a replacement!
Instead it was David Howell who had the misfortune to face
former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik on board 3. It was a classic late career
performance by Vladimir, who Ivan Sokolov noted in the commentary has taken to
provoking a crisis as early as he can in games. This time it was done by
offering multiple pawn sacrifices, which ultimately bamboozled his opponent:
Kramnik talked about the game afterwards:
That win turned out to be the only one in the match, after pressure from Ian Nepomniachtchi came to nothing.
The other two teams in with a chance of catching played each other, with the USA taking the dramatic decision to bench the misfiring Hikaru Nakamura against Armenia. In terms of rating, replacing Hikaru with Ray Robson was fine, given his opponent would be the 2621-rated Robert Hovhannisyan, but if the match had gone badly questions would of course have been asked. Instead it was a smooth performance. Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So neutralised Levon Aronian and Gabriel Sargissian on the top boards, while Sam Shankland did his thing against Hrant Melkumyan on board 3:
Shankland’s last move hits the b2-pawn, but that threat could have been ignored, or rather met with one of White’s own - 26.Bf1! Instead after 26.b3? c3! Melkumyan was pinning his hopes on attacking the light squares around the black king with his queen. He did manage to infiltrate the black position, but it turned out to be harmless, and when the dust settled Black was a rook up and Melkumyan had to resign. Ray Robson safely drew a position where he’d been better, so the USA won the match and now have it in their own hands to defend the Olympiad title they won in Baku.
China and the USA play in the final round of the Olympiad knowing that if either of them wins they’ll be the champions whatever happens in the other matches - a perfect scenario with which to end a chess tournament:
If they draw 2:2, however, it all gets much, much more complicated. First of all, three more teams can catch up with them – Poland, Russia and France. The French team had Laurent Fressinet to thank for defeating Hrvoje Stevic of Croatia on board 3 to score a vital victory. They now face Russia in the final round, while Poland take on India.
If teams are tied for first the excitement needn’t necessarily end there! As in the previous Olympiad the first tiebreak isn’t the easy to calculate number of game points, but “Olympiad Sonneborn-Berger”, a number that is calculated based on the results of the teams each team has played in Batumi.
In any case, we can summarise that only the USA and China know they’ll win the Olympiad if they win their final match. Poland, France and Russia could potentially earn gold medals if they win, while only the top 12 placed teams are in with a chance of finishing with a medal of any colour:
In the penultimate round 7 of the top 8 matches in the women's section ended in 2:2 draws, with all 12 of the top 12 games drawn. That gives no impression of the tension, though, with Ukraine-Russia a match in which no player dared to lose, while in China-USA Lei Tingjie tortured Tatev Abrahamyan for 114 moves before conceding a draw.
That left China as the sole leaders by a point going into the final round, but they should have been joined by Armenia. Nothing needs to be said about how much is at stake in any Azerbaijan-Armenia match, so imagine the pain felt by Anna Sargsyan when, in a completely won position a piece up, she played 60…Kh6?? (actually 59…Qf3?? was the original mistake, but 60.Qb1+ gave Black a chance to correct the mistake):
Khanim Balajayeva gratefully took the chance to play 61.Qg6+! and the game ended 61…Kxg6 stalemate. That draw meant Armenia remained a point behind China alongside Ukraine and the USA:
So China are the only team to have their fate in their own hands in both sections, but they’ve ended up with the worst possible final opponents – or the best possible ones for us fans: top seeds Russia! The Russian team trail China by 2 points and even victory may not guarantee them medals, but it would provide some revenge! In the last round of the 2016 Olympiad in Baku the two sides also met, also with China leading by 2 points, and a 2.5:1.5 victory for China made them Olympiad Champions while depriving Russia of medals.
It’s not just that match, with all to play for also in USA-Ukraine and Armenia-Georgia. Could the US team even win both sections?
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