US at the Halfway Mark: Avoiding Death by 1000 Cuts in Istanbul
By FM Mike Klein   
September 3, 2012
In rounds five and six at the 2012 Chess Olympiad, the two American teams are trying to avoid a “death by a thousand cuts”.  Numerous tied matches and one worse result prevent them from playing from the top of the tables.

The fifth-seeded U.S. men drew the Czech Republic in round five on Saturday, and followed with another equal match against Germany today. Both opponents are in the top 20 teams. All eight games ended in draws.

Top board GM Hikaru Nakamura finished first in round five. Although he obtained the bishop pair against former World Open Champion GM Viktor Laznicka, he could not muster anything and repeated moves. GM Gata Kamsky similarly could not get past longtime Czech leader GM David Navara. Although on different boards, both games were reprisals from the Turin Olympiad in 2006. There, Nakamura briefly had two queens but drew Laznicka in 113 moves (both becoming signature features of his recent play). Kamsky won six years ago but the team match was also tied 2-2. The two countries also squared off in the penultimate round in Dresden, 2008, with the U.S. winning 2.5-1.5.

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Captain IM John Donaldson & GM Alex Onischuk, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club

GM Alex Onischuk wanted more from his chance to play white. Against Zbynek Hracek (also a repeat from Turin), Onischuk was able to destroy his opponent’s kingside pawn structure. “I thought I was crushing, but there is just nothing,” he said. Onischuk pitched his d-pawn, then sent his troops on an assault. He said he overlooked the defensive move 21…Qe8, which combines defense for the looming h-file pressure and counterattack on the e-file. Without a breakthrough, he scuttled the plan and also repeated moves. Onischuk praised Hracek’s preparation. 


“Now there is a lot of pressure on Ray [Robson],” Onischuk said about the final game remaining. In the biggest game of his brief Olympiad career, GM Ray Robson had a chance to push his team over the top.

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Robson celebrating Sabina Foisor's birthday (today was Onischuk's birthday), Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club
He gained a sizable time advantage and picked off a doubled pawn early. “We’re really proud of Ray for playing so quickly,” Captain John Donaldson said, explaining that he encouraged his young charge to be more confident. “The guy knows a ton of theory and calculates so fast.” Despite the time advantage, with undeveloped pieces Robson was unable to consolidate his extra pawn. He eventually entered an opposite-color bishop endgame and agreed to peace, resulting in the tied match.

Playing on board three today, the U.S. again slipped slightly, with four draws against a solid German squad. The result came despite a provocative opening choice from Nakamura, who played the Modern Defense with black. “He’s really out for blood,” Donaldson said as the game progressed. The choice clearly surprised GM Arkadij Naiditsch, who found himself down nearly a half-hour after only seven moves. Eventually, the game petered into an ending, when Nakamura allowed a simplification that ceased any winning chances.

 

The three other matches ended similarly, without many serious winning chances. The four draws gave the Americans their third tied match in a row (they drew India in round four). They now have three wins and three drawn matches for a total of nine match points. 

“For me personally, really I’m going to have to play very well when we start playing against Russia, Ukraine these types of teams,” Nakamura said. “But we’ve shown in the past we can compete with them. We all just have to play well and if we do we have a good shot at medaling here.”

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GM Hikaru Nakamura in a press conference

The unspectacular start has been reasonably solid. All five players have plus scores and only one loss has been suffered. Performance ratings are a little higher for some, a little lower for others, with the outlier being Robson, whose 3.5/4 has him at 2727.

The big encounter today was top-seeded Russia versus perennially over-achieving Armenia. GM Vladimir Kramnik found an initiative-grabbing knight sacrifice to cripple all of GM Levon Aronian’s pieces. “He missed this tactic Nxb7,” Kramnik said. “I was surprised at how easy [the game was] because Levon is on such good form. His position is really no fun.” Kramnik said it was hard finding any new ideas against Aronian, especially since the two played a match in Zurich earlier this year. “I had used most of the ideas in my pockets.” 


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Kramnik,  Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club

It looked like the win would lead to match victory, but GM Sergei Movsesian of Armenia was trying to overrun Russia’s GM Alexander Grischuk. “You know Sasha, always time trouble, always sharp, but it usually turns out well,” Kramnik said of his second board. The optimism did not hold true, as Movsesian successfully invaded Grischuk’s king. The final position bore resemblance to the way in which Grischuk scored the decisive win for Russia over Hungary the previous round – a queen, rook and knight all working against a helpless king. The win for Movsesian leveled the match 2-2.

“The Olympiad is maybe the toughest tournament you can play,” Kramnik said. He compared it to the Tal Memorial, where the competition is the same strength, but at least in a round-robin you can prepare more thoroughly.

The U.S. women’s team, coming off tied matches in rounds three and four, suffered an unexpected loss to a young Vietnamese squad in round five. IM Anna Zatonskih fell for an opening trap on board one. The not-obvious bishop sacrifice on h7 was known to IM Irina Krush, and she looked over in shock to see her teammate succumb. While not winning by force, “it’s supposed to be dangerous for black,” Krush explained.

Third board WGM Sabina Foisor found herself down a piece in a hopeless endgame, meaning the Americans were back to the same situation as in round three versus Uzbekistan – win the final two games, or lose the match. Krush converted her central pawn advantage, despite being bummed by the events on other boards. After seeing boards one and three, she said she “made two horrible moves in a row. I tried to do something, took all my pieces back, then restarted again. That’s why it’s dangerous to look at your teammates’ games.”  


But unlike round three, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan could not pull out another miracle. She lost, making the final margin 3-1 for Vietnam.

“We’ve played horrible three days in a row,” Coach GM Melikset Khachiyan said.

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Donaldson, Krush & Shulman, Photo Mike Klein

The team had the off day to brood or forget about the misgivings. The previous night was the famed Bermuda party, but several players said they were outgrowing the event. “I’ll show up briefly, but I’m a little bit older, a little bit wiser,” Nakamura said. “So I probably won’t go as crazy as I have the past few Bermuda parties.”

Onischuk, who turned 37 today, also said he had probably outgrown the event. True to form, both were up early to join a Donaldson-led walking tour of Istanbul. Krush joined, as did several others from the American contingent. They toured some of the city’s sights, including Suleymaniye Mosque, Galata Tower, and the neverending Istiklal Street, known for boundless shopping. Hours of sightseeing can tire out even the heartiest sportsman.
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Irina Krush, Photo Mike Klein

Today, the women rebounded resoundingly, winning 3.5-0.5 against Canada. The border battle is not really a traditional rivalry, as the northern neighbor was outrated handily on all four boards. “We knew we would win today,” Krush said.

Krush stayed perfect, moving to 5-0, although she said she does not feel much pride yet since she has played down every round. “Somehow I don’t feel like celebrating because the team is doing so bad. It’s a little bit of an unusual experience. Ever since I’ve played at the Olympiad, we’ve always done quite well.”

The other three members rebounded, to differing degrees. Zatonskih got back to her winning ways with a passed d-pawn, while Foisor’s active rooks and bishops reversed her personal two-game losing streak. WGM Rusudan Goletiani, who has struggled thus far, may also be able to get back on form by salvaging a half point. Playing the white side of a King’s Indian Defense, at one point the computer evaluation reached an incredible -13.58. After making time control, her opponent missed the simple 41…Bh6, winning outright. Several other winning chances were also wasted afterward. The draw made the final margin 3.5-0.5 for the U.S. Time will tell if the lucky escape portends a reversal of fortune for Goletiani. “She’s a world-class player,” Krush said of her teammate.

Krush remained confident. “The reality is that we can still finish well. We just need to win some matches.” Asked if she may have to play without another break, Krush said, “I think that’s the plan. I’m here to help the team.  I think Anna and I will both be playing the rest of our rounds. We have no more room for mistakes.”

The official site for live games and standings is www.chessolympiadistanbul.com  (also bookmark the chessresults Olympiad page). Look for FM Mike Klein's next report on Wednesday night, after round eight.