Ding Liren and Ju Wenjun took gold on top board as the Chinese teams won both the open and women’s sections of the 2018 Chess Olympiad in Batumi. Both races came down to tiebreaks, with China tying with the USA (silver) and Russia (bronze) in the open section, while Poland were desperately unlucky to finish only fourth. The women’s race featured incredible late drama that eventually saw Ukraine take silver and Georgia bronze, with Russia finishing out of the medals. Let’s look at some conclusions from the tournament.
China are the first team since the Soviet Union 32 years ago in Dubai to win both the open and women’s sections of the Olympiad. Of course they also claimed the Nona Gaprindashvili combined Olympiad trophy, while Ding Liren (5.5/8, a 2873 rating performance) and Ju Wenjun (7/9, 2661) won the prestigious 1st board individual gold medals.
It was a continuation of China’s recent team success, with the Chinese women defending the Olympiad gold they won in Baku in 2016, while the Chinese men’s team disappointed in Baku but won the 2015 and 2017 World Team Championships.
Neither victory was smooth, with the Chinese men falling to a shock 3:1 defeat to the Czech Republic in Round 5, drawing 2:2 with Ukraine and winning three of their matches by the smallest possible margin. In the final China-USA showdown a win by either team would have guaranteed gold, but with the cost of defeat so high it was no surprise that the emphasis, at least on three boards, was on solidity. The curiosity was that two of the boards featured identical openings!
The one game that looked as though it might produce a decisive result was Nakamura-Bu Xiangzhi. Bu Xiangzhi won a bronze medal on board 4, but his contribution to the team was more than that - three of his wins occurred in matches where all the other games were drawn. Hikaru Nakamura, meanwhile, found himself in the unfamiliar role of being the weak link. He won the first game against a 2300-player, before a sequence of six draws in a row. Those did little harm to the team, but the run ended with a match-losing defeat against Kacper Piorun of Poland. In the end Nakamura would lose 17.3 points in Batumi to drop to world no. 17 and a rating of “only” 2745.7.
Hikaru was dropped in Round 10, but the last round was a chance for redemption. Bu Xiangzhi offered a pawn early in the game and it might really have been game on if Nakamura had accepted. Instead he declined, only to find himself in an uncomfortable position. Anish Giri, who had joined the live commentary at this point, had the following dialogue with his wife Sopiko Guramishvili:
Giri: If I were Hikaru I wouldn't have gone for this variation as it's very double-edged and there's so much pressure on him right now
Sopiko: He can be the hero!
Giri: You'd rather be the hero in a risk-free endgame than in a sharp position - he can also not be the hero!
In the end, though, neither player was burning any bridges, and the match ended in a tie that meant it was time for the team captains to get their calculators out.
In 2016 the USA and Ukraine were nearly perfect, dropping just two match points each in 11 rounds – the US team drew two of their matches, while Ukraine won 10 but lost to the USA. This time round, however, the teams tied for first all lost 4 points, with each having its weak link. We’ve already mentioned Nakamura (a 2602 rating performance), while for China it turned out to be Wei Yi. We wrote before the tournament began:
3rd seeds China boast world no. 4 Ding Liren on top board, and if he can extend his streak of over a year unbeaten they’ll have excellent gold medal chances. Yu Yangyi is also on a high, but a lot may depend on whether Wei Yi can dazzle us with some attacking masterpieces again.
Ding Liren did indeed make it 87 classical games unbeaten, but after a good start Wei Yi got crushed by Jorge Cori and Jiri Stocek and was dropped by China for all but two of the remaining six rounds. His rating performance: 2578.
For 2nd seeds Russia Dmitry Jakovenko lost two out of five games for a 2413 rating performance, while Nikita Vitiugov didn’t lose a game but still only performed at a 2645 level.
It was a similar story in the women’s section. China won gold despite the absence of Hou Yifan and Tan Zhongyi, with one of their replacements, Shen Yang, losing three games, all of which cost her team match points. Again that didn’t prove critical as the other teams had problems of their own. Anna Ushenina lost three games for Ukraine, while Natalia Pogonina lost two important games in a 2222 rating performance for Russia.
The one shining exception was the Polish men’s team, whose 4th place finish was their highest since winning silver medals in 1939. They deserved more, however, since they beat silver medallists USA, bronze medallists Russia, and faced perhaps the toughest opposition anyone ever has at an Olympiad. In the last eight rounds they played the top eight seeds!
There was no weak link on the team. Jan-Krzysztof Duda (who played all three 2800 players in the event) and Radek Wojtaszek held their own on the top two boards, while the remaining three players were a revelation. Jacek Tomczak won silver on board 4 for a 2808 rating performance, Kacper Piorun took bronze on board 3 for his 2765, and Kamil Dragun’s 2687 performance on board 5 was over 100 points above his current rating.
In the end the 3:1 loss to China in the penultimate round deprived Poland of medals, though it was still everything to play for in the final round. They drew against India, which would have been enough for medals if there had been a winner in the top match, while if they’d beaten India they would have had better tiebreaks than China, Russia and the USA and taken fully deserved gold medals. Alas, it wasn’t to be!
In 2016 Russia went into the final round in 2nd place, knowing that if they beat China they’d take gold medals. Midway through the match it seemed that was just what would happen, but then it all went wrong and they lost to end in fourth place. Fast forward two years and the scenario played out once more, with only minor alterations. This time Russia started the day in 5th place, but a win would again tie them with China and bring home medals. Instead they again finished in 4th place after a gut-wrenching match.
At first it had all gone so well for Russia, as Aleksandra Goryachkina had the sheer pleasure of playing a brilliancy in a vital match for her team:
33…Nxc5! 34.dxc5 (of course 34.Nxc5 Qb1#) 34…Be5! 35.Ba6 (again 35.Qxe5 Qxb3+ 36.Kc1 Qb1#) 35…Qxa6 36.Qxe5 Qd3+ and Shen Yang soon had to concede defeat.
Gunina-Huang Qian was drawn while Kosteniuk-Ju Wenjun on top board was unclear, but it seemed that was irrelevant since Olga Girya (whose 7.5/9 earned her a silver medal on board 5) was completely winning against Lei Tingjie (whose 8.5/11 would give her silver on board 4). Black was two connected passed pawns up with computer evaluations climbing towards -10, but suddenly the advantage evaporated:
After the automatic recapture Black is still winning, but 54.Rf5! saved the day. There’s no way to avoid perpetual check, as became clear after 54…Qb6 55.Qc4+ Kb7 56.Rxf6 a2 57.Rf7+. The draw in that game meant that all now rested on whether Alexandra Kosteniuk could hold a marginally worse position against Ju Wenjun. The sudden, immense pressure was obvious for all to see.
Things went wrong for Russia by stages. First Black won a pawn, though it didn’t change the drawn evaluation of the position. Then Alexandra needlessly allowed the extra black pawn to make a dash down the board when she played 72.Qb8?! (almost any other move to maintain the d5-blockade would do):
72...d5! 73.Kg2 d4 74.Nc2 d3 75.Ne3 d2 swiftly followed. 8 moves later the game was interrupted by Kosteniuk claiming a draw by 3-fold repetition. The desire to seize any drawing chance was absolutely understandable, but the timing was strange. The black king was on a square it had never been on since the d-pawn was pushed, so it seemed the claim could be dismissed in an instant (at earlier moments the position had been repeated twice, but not three times). Instead the arbiters tried to work it out at the neighbouring board while the players, incorrectly, were left to ponder the position at the board while not using any time. Eventually the arbiters decided they needed the players’ help…
When the claim was finally ruled incorrect play continued with two minutes added to Ju Wenjun’s clock, but by this stage it seems Kosteniuk's nerves were shattered. Instead of passive defence she attempted to force a draw with an attack on the black king, but it backfired badly and, a piece down, she conceded defeat on move 95.
That was the last game to finish in the women’s section!
If Russia had gone on to win the match Ukraine would have finished a point above China and earned the gold medals their play merited. Ukraine had needlessly dropped points against their key rivals, with Anna Ushenina losing a dead drawn position against China and Natalia Zhukova losing a won position against Georgia. In the end they finished with an identical record to China, but had to settle for silver. China’s late heroics also meant that hosts Georgia squeezed onto the podium in place of Russia:
After the last Olympiad one of our conclusions was, “the tiebreak system needs to be changed”, but nothing changed except the matches that made the difference:
Alternatives include using easily understandable tiebreakers such as direct encounter then game points, having the top four teams play a knockout in the last two rounds while the remaining teams play the open, or changing nothing except to have a rapid playoff at the end if teams are tied. No system is perfect, of course, but it does seem desirable to know which team has won by the time their matches have ended…
Still, the system is the system, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose!
For all the drama, the top three seeds in the open section finished in the top three places, while in the women’s section it was the top four who finished from 1st to 4th. That was still a disappointment for Russia who, as in 2016, were 4th in the women’s section and took only bronze in the open.
As Magnus Carlsen commented on Russia leaving out Peter Svidler and Alexander Grischuk:
They’re not doing themselves any favours this year by excluding two of their strongest players… a luxury that most teams cannot afford. And it may turn out it’s a luxury they cannot afford either!
The experiment of playing Dmitry Jakovenko and Nikita Vitiugov failed, but the fight back at the end was still impressive, with Russia winning their last four matches. Kramnik made up for the blunder against Poland with five wins, while Ian Nepomniachtchi also got five but felt it should have been more:
Overall the tournament was pretty tough. I scored +5 in the end (5 wins and 5 draws). In the match against Peru Jorge Cori cynically played for a draw, but in the other drawn games I wasted an advantage of around +30-35 according to the computer evaluation. For example, in the game against McShane I was winning, but I decided to play more solidly so that we won the match against England with no risk. Against Anand I had an overwhelming position but missed a not so difficult win. In the matches against Italy and Georgia it was the same. It’s probably not something I can really complain about, but nevertheless, I of course should have scored much more. That’s partly why our tiebreaker turned out worse than that of China and the USA.
Nepomniachtchi ended on a high, though, playing the game of the final round to beat Etienne Bacrot and give Russia victory over France. The variation featured in the game was one the Russian team had worked on in a training camp before the Olympiad. Anish Giri had guessed as much during the live show:
Nepo gets to play so many ideas and he didn't find one, I think, in his life! He is such a great parasite, but in a good way... I don't think he works himself, at all.
Nepo suggested another factor in the game, “I’m not a specialist in morning rounds, but Etienne, it seems, is even less of one than me.”16…f5? was losing on the spot:
Nepo said afterwards he stopped and calculated everything here, though if he did that took him all of 55 seconds! (he did spend 11 minutes on the next two moves): 17.gxf6! N7xf6 18.Ng5! Nxe4 19.Qxe4 (Nepo says he decided to do without the “superfluous beauty” of 19.Bxg7+! Kxg7 20.Nxe6+):
It was game over by move 24.
The one top team not to finish at the top were 4th seeds Azerbaijan, who despite a near perfect start finished only 15th. For six rounds they had a perfect score, with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov setting new personal rating bests as he beat Mickey Adams, Levon Aronian and David Navara in consecutive rounds. Then, after a draw against Poland, it all fell apart. The Azeris lost their next three matches to the USA, China and Ukraine. Once again they’d underperformed at an Olympiad, though it wasn’t exactly clear why:
Perhaps our expectations were too high when Vishy Anand and Humpy Koneru returned to teams that had already managed to punch above their weight and finish in the top 5 in previous Olympiads. Gold medals seemed an outside possibility, but although neither team particularly underperformed (in fact everyone but Vidit on the men’s team performed above their rating) they failed to engage in a fight for gold. Both teams were seeded 5th, with the men finishing 6th and the women 8th.
The same story was repeated elsewhere, with Vassily Ivanchuk’s return unable to energise Ukraine for a repeat of 2016 and stars such as Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave not quite able to lead their teams to heroic victories. The Chess Olympiad often isn’t a place for romance, at least not at the board!
In 2016 the only teams to finish unbeaten in the open section were champions USA and… Greece. In 2018 it was Germany who “did a Greece”, winning five matches and drawing the remaining six, though that was only enough to finish in 13th place. Daniel Fridman was the hero, scoring 7.5/9 for a 2814 rating performance that won him personal gold on board 4.
Plenty of teams had something to celebrate. England finished 5th for their best result in 22 years, with David Howell ending the tournament just a point shy of 2700:
Vietnam were 7th despite being seeded 27th, with Nguyen Ngoc Truong Son taking gold on board 2 for a 8.5/10 2804 performance, 35th seeds Austria finished 14th and 40th seeds Egypt finished 19th:
Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Mongolia were among a long list of overperforming teams, but of course for some to overperform others must underperform. Mongolia, for instance, beat the Netherlands in the final round to condemn the 13th seeds to 40th place. It wasn’t all bad for the Dutch:
They were also kept company there by 10th seeds Israel, who finished 39th.
32nd seeds Sweden finished 11th, with Nils Grandelius scoring an unbeaten 8.5/11 on top board. The reason to flag them up, however, is to mention an extraordinary game we’d skipped in earlier reports – Tiger Hillarp Persson 1-0 Tomas Laurusas. You seldom see such a beautiful variation on the theme of a king march for a mating attack:
30.Kf4! Qxf2+ 31.Kg5 Kg7 32.Rf4 Qxh2 33.Qf6+ Kh7
34.Qxg6+! Kh8 35.Kh6 Black resigns
We mentioned the young Iranian team as one to watch at the Olympiad, but although they did perform slightly above their seeding (finishing 17th instead of 23rd), a difficult run midway through the event meant they’ll need to wait another two years to make a real impact.
Another fearsomely gifted team to watch out for in future, however, will be Uzbekistan. The 36th seeds finished 16th, with 13-year-old prodigy Nodirbek Abdusattorov, the 3rd youngest player to become a grandmaster ever, on board 2. The colour allocation looked like child abuse at times, but he shrugged it off to finish unbeaten:
Then there was 2002 born Nodirbek Yakubboev on board 3:
12-year-old 2500-rated Javokhir Sindarov didn’t play in Batumi, but if in two years’ time those kids can be still be combined with the experience of Rustam Kasimdzhanov on top board it’s going to be a formidable team.
Peru finished a disappointing 49th, but they had the top performer at the Olympiad, 23-year-old Jorge Cori, whose 2925 rating performance on board 3 bettered that of Ding Liren (2873) and Fabiano Caruana (2859). Ian Nepomniachtchi should perhaps be grateful if Jorge played for a draw in their game!
As you can see, one perfectly acceptable “trick” at the Olympiad is to choose your team selection for each match to keep a player on the same colour!
6th place for Armenia and 7th for the USA doesn’t begin to give an impression of how well the two teams performed. Armenia drew against China, beat Russia then beat the USA in consecutive rounds, and would have gone into the final round tied for first place if one of their players hadn’t stumbled into a stalemate cheapo against Azerbaijan. They lost 3:1 to the powerful Georgian team in the final round.
The US team led after six rounds, with stunning performances in particular by Irina Krush (an unbeaten 7.5/9) and 16-year-old Jennifer Yu (8/10) before the final round. Alas, they both lost their first games of the event in a 3:1 defeat to Ukraine, but it didn’t stop Jennifer claiming an IM norm and bronze on board 5, while Irina Krush took silver on board 2.
Every four years the Olympiad coincides with the FIDE presidential election, and for as long as many can remember that’s always meant the same old story: a fiercely fought election campaign ends with the incumbent president crushing the latest challenger. This time, though, the acting FIDE President Georgios Makropoulos was unseated 103:78 by the new FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich (for more details, see here).
Let’s hope this is the start of positive change in the chess world. After all, for anyone who can produce “real mermaids”, a FIDE that works for the benefit of chess and sustainable commercial sponsorship should be a piece of cake!
It was looking shaky for a while, as Fabiano Caruana beat Vishy Anand, Boris Gelfand and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov over the space of four rounds before missing a forced mate against Jan-Krzysztof Duda, but at the end of the Olympiad Magnus Carlsen continues his 7-year reign as world no. 1 with a 6.7 point lead at the top.
The gap might almost have vanished if Caruana could have beaten Ding Liren in the final round, but he wisely decided this wasn’t a battleground worth dying on:
17.g3 had been played after a 27-minute think, allowing Ding Liren to force a draw with 17…Rg6 18.Nxc6 Rxg3+ 19.hxg3 Qxg3+ and perpetual check.
Here are the new rating performances of the players for 2018:
Fabiano Caruana may now play no official classical games until his match with Magnus starts in London in just over one month’s time, but there’s less than a week to wait until we’ll get to see the World Champion in action in the European Club Cup. You’ll be able to follow all those games live here on chess24!
There’s a little more business to attend to before that for Magnus, who will play the PlayMagnus Challenge in Hamburg this Monday. Some of his opposition is surprising!
First we’ll all need a couple of days to recover from the exertions of the Olympiad!
We hope you enjoyed the show!
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