Fabiano Caruana is now a mere 4.5 live rating points behind Magnus Carlsen after beating world no. 3 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in Round 8 of the Batumi Olympiad. That win helped the USA to a 2.5:1.5 victory over Azerbaijan that means the defending champions are the sole leaders with three rounds to go. Their next opponents Poland are the only team within a point after a fantastic escape by Jan-Krzysztof Duda against Levon Aronian saw them draw against Armenia. In the women’s section China and Ukraine have taken over from Armenia in the lead.
Replay the Round 8 commentary from IM Sopiko Guramishvili and GM Ivan Sokolov:
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The US team took a huge step towards defending their Olympiad title by overcoming fierce resistance from Azerbaijan in Round 8.
This was only the second Top 5 side the US had faced in 8 rounds in Batumi, but it provided the individual encounter we all wanted to see – world no. 2 Fabiano Caruana against world no. 3 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.
Initially things seemed to be going Shak’s way, as the first 24 moves followed Anand-Mamedyarov from the last round of the recent Sinquefield Cup. Vishy seemed to gain a clear edge in that game, but Mamedyarov came armed with a novelty, even if it wasn’t a tough one to find – 24…Bf4, and not 24…Bh6 in that earlier game, is the computer’s first move:
Fabiano spent 45 minutes on his next 3 moves, and it seemed as though the game would fizzle out into a draw. Given what followed, the position after 33.Rd1 may have been a key moment:
White would still be somewhat better after exchanging queens with 33…Qxd5, but the drawish tendencies of rook endgames would make a peaceful outcome likely. 33…f4!? was a sharper option, but instead Shak played 33…c4, and soon afterwards a queen exchange was no longer on offer. With Teimour Radjabov winning a rook endgame against Wesley So, Caruana knew he had to keep pressing, and his safer king position and healthier pawns gave him the perfect platform to torture his opponent. Gradually White took over until finally, on move 64, there was no defence against mate next move with either 65.Qh5# or 65.Qe2#
Magnus Carlsen no longer needs to worry about Mamedyarov for now, but Caruana is a real threat! As the World Champion commented on Monday:
I would like to give you some boring, politically correct answer, but the truth is, yeah, it does bother me! I’ve been the number one in the rankings every single day for about seven years and it is unpleasant to have him and, I suppose, Shakhriyar as well, breathing down my neck. So well, I’m hoping he’s not going to catch me, that’s for sure!
The gap has now narrowed once again:
The good news for Magnus is that Fabi will still have to win at least two of his remaining three games to seize the no. 1 spot - beating Duda in Round 9 wouldn't be quite enough.
Meanwhile back in the match, Nakamura-Naiditsch saw Hikaru once again let an advantage slip in what has been a disappointing tournament for him personally – though not everyone agrees on the reason why!
That left the overall result depending on Mamedov-Shankland, with both players having won 4 and drawn 2 games before this encounter. Sam Shankland had also lost a key game to Emil Sutovsky as the USA were held by Israel, but he more than made up for it by the methodical way in which he converted his advantage against Rauf Mamedov:
White has doubled b-pawns and is tied to the defence of the backward d-pawn, giving Black complete control of the position. Sam first decided to evacuate his king, transferring it from f7 to b7 over the next six moves, before then advancing his kingside pawns. Rauf eventually decided he had to play actively, but all his active moves only worsened his position, until in the end it was the black pawns that decided the day:
Poland last won Olympiad medals when they took silver in 1939, at the Buenos Aires Olympiad that took place during the outbreak of World War II. Two of the Polish-Jewish members of the team, Mieczyslaw (later Miguel) Najdorf and Paulin (later Paulino) Frydman took the understandable decision to remain in Argentina, while a third, Ksawery Tartakower, returned to Europe but would play for France at the next Olympiad, which after the havoc of war only took place in 1950. It’s been a long wait for Poland to begin challenging for medals again.
The latest Polish team showed their potential with bronze medals at last year’s World Team Championship, and now they’re one point off the lead with three rounds to go in Batumi. If they do make it, they’ll have done it in the hardest possible way, as you can see from the personal supertournament that 20-year-old Jan-Krzysztof Duda has been playing on top board!
It’s hard not to quote Magnus again, who said of Duda:
I think he still has a long way to go when it comes to experience and understanding, but he makes up for a lot of it by being very energetic and extremely optimistic as well. It’s always interesting to watch his games because he always goes for it, he never plays for a draw.
Against Levon Aronian he needed all his reserves of optimism, since the opening had gone badly and with the black position falling apart only desperate actions could save the day. What followed was absolutely inspired!
After 25…Rxf2!! 26.Kxf2 Bd4+ 27.Kg2 Nxf4+! 28.Kf1 he had the saving move 28…Bb7!!
If now 29.Re8+? Qxe8! 30.Bxe8 Black is winning after 30…Rh7!. 29.Qa4! might still have given White winning chances, but after 22 minutes of thought Levon had seen enough from his young opponent to call it a day with 29.Bxb7 Nh5 30.Kg2 Nf4+ 31.Kf1 Nh5 32.Kg2 and a draw by repetition. The kind of tricky escape Levon himself is famous for!
Radek Wojtaszek drew against Gabriel Sargissian with the white pieces, while Hrant Melkumyan of Armenia and Kamil Dragun of Poland had a slight edge on the bottom boards. Neither could convert, meaning the match ended 2:2 and Poland, in sole 2nd second place, will now face the USA in Round 9.
The Olympiad gold medallists are unlikely to come from any further than the USA, Poland and the teams two points behind the leaders right now. Those are Armenia and Azerbaijan along with the teams who scored wins in Round 8: India, France, China, Germany and England. In each case they won 2.5:1.5, there was a single decisive game, and it was a knockout blow for their opponents.
India had Krishnan Sasikiran to thank for a win over Jiri Stocek of the Czech Republic, Germany beat Spain thanks to Daniel Fridman moving to 6.5/7 with victory over Josep Lopez Martinez, while the French hero was Etienne Bacrot, who ground out a win after Yuriy Kryvoruchko of Ukraine missed the best attacking continuation. The selfies were back!
The drama in Israel-England was well-captured in a “football” tweet:
Mickey Adams had been struggling against Boris Gelfand, while David Howell also squandered winning chances against Emil Sutovsky, but in the end it was Luke McShane who gave England victory for a second round in a row! Luke found a nice exchange sac, and then Maxim Rodshtein went astray with 57…Rxd4? (57…Kg7!):
58.h5! Rd2!? 59.hxg6 Rxb2? (59...b4! was the last chance) 60.f5! and there was no stopping Luke’s connected passed pawns.
China-Netherlands ultimately came down to a win by Bu Xiangzhi over Loek van Wely, but the match could have been a landslide for China. Yu Yangyi let a winning endgame slip as late as move 77, while Ding Liren would surely have continued his attack in other circumstances:
32.Nxh5+! gxh5 33.Qg5+ Kh8 34.Qxh5+ left Sopiko Guramishvili needing to take desperate attempts to try and save her husband!
At first Ding Liren correctly decided to play on instead of taking a draw by repetition, and then later he perhaps also correctly decided to take a repetition since it wasn’t worth running any risks for his team.
Teams that won to stay within 3 points of the lead include the young Norwegians, who beat Greece thanks to a 4th win in a row for Johan Salomon, and Russia, who finally had an easy day at the office as they beat Belarus 3:1.
Vladimir Kramnik improved on a game he played in Dortmund against Nisipeanu this year before unleashing a nice winning attack against Aleksej Aleksandrov:
24.Nxd5! cxd5 25.Rb6+ Kd7 26.Bf1!!, with that quiet move making the difference between a good position and a clearly winning one. Kramnik went on to claim victory in style, and has now gained rating in Batumi despite his disaster against Poland.
The other game we can’t leave the open section without mentioning is Croatian Ivan Saric’s win over Iranian World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo. On the one hand, Ivan played brilliantly with an early piece sac, but on the other… he missed a few too many wins for one game!
26.Rxb7! is simply crushing, since after any capture on b7 White simply plays Qxh6 and you can’t stop mate on g7, one of the simplest mates in chess. Instead after 26.Ne4!? Qh5! the game went on, only to soon give Ivan the chance to make amends with an exquisite mate instead:
He thought for 21 minutes, but still missed it!
31.Rg7+ Kf8 32.Rf7+ Kg8 33.Rd7? Bxd4! and 34.f7+! led only to a roughly equal ending. Fortunately for Saric’s sanity he went on to win anyway, giving his team a big win over the talented Iranians.
The standings at the top look as follows with just three rounds to go:
Before the round sole leaders Armenia had already faced top seeds Russia and 3rd seeds China, and if they could have got through their match with 2nd seeds Ukraine unscathed they could really have begun dreaming of an unlikely Olympiad gold. That was a big if, though, and after some self-inflicted damage in recent rounds Ukraine were on top of their game as they smashed their way to a 3:1 victory over Armenia.
Anna Muzychuk impressively beat Elina Danielian on top board, while Anna Sargsyan suffered a disaster against Anna Ushenina on Board 3. She was in deep trouble by move 7 (!) and could almost abandon hope by move 9:
The ugly 9…f6 was probably the best option, since what followed 9…fxe6 shouldn’t be shown to kids. The final positions:
Ukraine are joined in the lead by China, who crushed Romania 3.5:0.5, while there were impressive 3:1 wins for USA over Italy, Hungary over India and Kazakhstan over Georgia.
12 teams are within a couple of points of the lead with 3 rounds to go:
With Kazakhstan-China and Azerbaijan-Ukraine in Round 9 of the women’s section the expectation will be that the leaders continue to win, while in the open section we have the prospect of a fantastic day’s chess action:
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