Armenia remain sole leaders of the Chennai Olympiad after a rollercoaster match against top seeds USA. Wesley So found a stunning queen sac, Fabiano Caruana crashed to defeat against Gabriel Sargissian and Leinier Dominguez hit back only for Sam Shankland to “pre-move” and lose just when he was about to give the USA victory. It’s Armenia vs. India 1 and USA vs. India 2, for whom Gukesh now has 7/7, in Saturday’s Round 7.
There were some serious upsets in Round 7 of the Open section of the Chennai Olympiad, with Kazakhstan defeating Spain (Suleymenov 1-0 Anton), Brazil taking down England (Fier 1-0 McShane), Poland held to a draw against the Phillipines (Duda 0-1 Paragua) and Ukraine only scraping a draw against Greece after Anton Korobov escaped against Dimitrios Mastrovasilis.
Most of the drama, however, was concentrated in one match, Armenia-USA, which ended in a draw after four decisive games.
You could say the drama began even before the match, since the decision on whether to play Levon Aronian, a 3-time Olympiad gold medallist with Armenia, was a big one. On the one hand, the last thing he would want to do is harm the country he’s spent most of his life, but on the other — this wasn’t any match. Armenia were the sole leaders with just 5 rounds to go, and a win for the top seeds USA would be huge.
At first, however, thoughts such as those seemed irrelevant, since the US team stormed into a 1:0 lead when Wesley So played a risky 18th move, having seen a tactic that will be feature in tactics books and trainers for as long as chess exists.
Hrant Melkumyan could have spoilt all the fun with 18…Bf8!, when after 19.Bxf8 e4 Black is better. Instead, however, he spent under two minutes on the losing 18…e4?, which ran into the stunning 19.Rxe4!! Our commentators' best guess for why Black played so fast is that Hrant had expected only 19.Nxe4 and rightfully felt he’d be doing well there.
After the rook sacrifice, however, there was no defence. If Black isn’t going to just give up a crucial central pawn the only reply would be 19…dxe4…
That loses to the amazing 20.Qxf7+!, however, which is a completely forced mate-in-6. The two Peters demonstrated the win.
After thinking for half an hour Hrant played the sad 19…Nf8, but the outcome of the game was never in doubt, with Wesley wrapping up the full point in 28 moves.
As we observed in Round 6, however, when Gukesh scored an early win over Gabriel Sargissian, the Armenian team are the best in the business at doing what they need to rescue their teammates. That’s why Sargissian immediately went on the attack against Fabiano Caruana.
A curiosity is that Gabriel had already played 2, won 2 against Fabiano, even if the games were over a decade old.
Old wounds can reopen, and despite Caruana seemingly doing well in the middlegame, he lost his way in the run-up to the time control until, without doing anything dramatic, Gabriel was suddenly winning.
If Gabriel was nervous he didn’t show it, as he smoothly converted his advantage into a win.
The perhaps surprise star of the US campaign at this Olympiad has been Leinier Dominguez, and just when US fans were beginning to panic he calmly outplayed and beat Samvel Ter-Sahakyan — though the electronic board mixing up moves delayed the rest of the world finding out about his succeed.
That meant the US couldn’t lose the match, but it also at first looked unlikely they could win it, since Sam Shankland found himself in a seemingly hopeless position against the underrated Robert Hovhanissyan, who came into the game on 5/6.
Around move 80, however, Robert lost his way in time trouble, and suddenly Sam was making a draw. He was on course to be the hero for the top seeds, helping them to win an incredibly tough match and take their rightful place as the sole leaders of the Olympiad with four rounds to go. Until disaster struck.
With just 4 seconds remaining on his clock Robert made a long queen move. Sam anticipated a check from h1 and was ready with the only move not to get checkmated immediately: Kc2.
Making only moves fast is a good habit to get into, but Sam’s responding almost before his opponent’s piece touched the board while having two minutes on his clock was a moment of madness. To his horror it was only after he played Kc2 that Sam realised Robert had played 90…Qg2 instead.
The problem wasn’t the illegal move — it wasn’t considered made until he hit the clock — but the touch-move rule. Sam had to move his king, and the only legal square is c1, but after 91.Kc1 Qb2+! Black is simply winning (if he could move his queen 91.Qc4+ or 91.Qd6+ made a draw). Sam realised what he’d done almost instantly, but it was too late.
Sam had nothing better than to resign, the match was a draw, and Armenia remained the sole leaders.
“The last 13 months have really tested my threshold for emotional pain, but eventually I will come back stronger. I always do”, wrote Sam.
The US team were caught by five teams who won their matches: Germany (who beat Serbia), Kazakhstan (Spain), India (India 3!), India 2 (Cuba) and Uzbekistan (Peru). Those last two largely teenage teams got back to winning ways, with Uzbekistan winning 4:0 and Nodirbek Abdusattorov making it 6 wins in 7 games.
The star of the Olympiad so far, however, is 16-year-old Gukesh. At first it seemed a quiet opening against Carlos Albornoz of Cuba wouldn’t give Gukesh too much chance of reaching a 7/7 score, but he soon took total control.
He finished with a flourish.
45…Bf4! was an absolute killer. There was nothing better than to accept the sacrifice with 46.gxf4, but Carlos resigned without waiting for the next move. After 46…gxf4 the rook can no longer defend the c3-pawn and White’s position collapses. 7/7 is a phenomenal result on the top board of the Olympiad.
Gukesh is up to world no. 25 on the live rating list, with Indian no. 2 Harikrishna in his sights. He’s also reached heights from where even if he lost all his remaining games in the Olympiad he’d likely remain above 2700.
Other notable performances in the open section include Ireland’s Conor Murphy scoring 6/6…
…David Howell moving to 6.5/7, and a certain Magnus Carlsen moving to 5.5/6.
What’s notable in Magnus’ case is his willingness to put his sky-high rating on the line. It’s worked out so far, even if it must be a bit unusual for Magnus to come up against an opponent who plays on for some time almost a full queen down!
Saturday’s Round 8 will be critical, with Armenia playing India 1 while, in perhaps the most anticipated match of the tournament so far, we’ll get USA vs. India 2. “Doing a Caruana” has been taken to mean starting with 7/7, as Fabi did in the 2014 Sinquefield Cup. It could potentially be Fabi who stands in the way of Gukesh surpassing that with 8/8.
While the US men have really struggled to assert themselves as top seeds, the Indian women’s team have won all their matches. In Round 7 they were under pressure after Humpy Koneru lost her way in a winning position and fell to defeat against Azerbaijan’s Gunay Mammadzada.
They shrugged it off, however. At first Harika Dronavalli was on course to win, but even when she ultimately only drew it didn’t matter, since once again Tania Sachdev and Vaishali (both on 6/7) saved the day.
Tania’s win came against Ulviyya Fataliyeva, who had scored 5/5 before the game.
The India women now have a 2-point lead over Armenia (who beat Israel), Ukraine (who crushed the Netherlands 3.5:0.5) and Georgia, who owed their victory over Romania to a win for Lela Javakhishvili.
Nine teams are a point further back, including Poland, who could only draw 2:2 after Alina Kashlinskaya suffered a first loss, to Bulgaria’s Nurgyul Salimova. The day was saved by Oliwia Kiolbasa, who, like Gukesh, has scored a perfect 7/7!
India face arguably their biggest test yet in Round 8 as they take on 2nd seeds Ukraine, with Georgia-Armenia in match 2.
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