Americans on the Orient Express in Rounds 7 and 8
By FM Mike Klein   
September 5, 2012
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The US Women's team, on the comeback trail in Istanbul, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club

The last two days of the 40th Chess Olympiad in Istanbul have done much to reverse the middling fortunes of the two American teams. The women have been nearly perfect and the men’s squad is back in the mix for a medal.

Yesterday, the U.S. went 7.5/8 as a collective unit. The women went 4-0 in defeating Belgium, with IM Irina Krush moving to a perfect six out of six. Her 2861 performance rating after the round was second best out of all the female players – even higher than anyone on the men’s team.

The quickest game of the entire Olympiad was turned in by top-rated IM Anna Zatonskih. She dispatched her 17-year-old opponent with some nifty tactics. The game ended in under an hour. It was not clear if WFM Eva Baekelant missed that Qxd5+ won a piece, or the zwischenzug Be6+, which did the same.



WGM Sabina Foisor won her second straight with a strong attacking game. Krush then put the finishing touches on the error-free round by winning a technical endgame. The huge margins of victory on consecutive days vaulted the team from 29th place after round five to 12th place after round seven.

“We’re coming back,” Coach GM Melikset Khachiyan said. “Rusa’s [Goletiani] draw [in round six] was important for tiebreak purposes. We are leading our score group. What I told my girls, ‘If we can win two matches today and tomorrow, we are right back in it.”

The women responded. They followed the crisp round seven with another dominant performance today in round eight against the Philippines. Krush finished first. She won again, this time ending matters in the middlegame with the clever 37. Nh5+. If the knight is captured, then 38. Nxf5+ and the black king cannot hide on f7 because of the newfound fork on d6. “I’ve never had anything like 7-0,” she said, even including her first U.S. Championship title when she won 8.5/9.



“I don’t think I played it so great,” Krush said. “She’s playing these weird moves that aren’t part of any system. I couldn’t predict any of her moves because they weren’t married to any plan. My strategy at some point was to play fast and take advantage of her time trouble, and it worked.”

Krush said the team’s comeback, which now has them back in the top ten, was “bound to happen. We got some weaker teams and we couldn’t go on doing terribly forever. We’ve enjoyed playing the 2100 teams, but for a while, we were like, ‘Can we actually get past these teams?’”

Krush noted that Uzbekistan and Vietnam, who took 1.5/2 from the Americans, were playing on board four and five this round. “They’ve definitely been overachieving.”

From there WGM Tatev Abrahamyan put the finishing touches on her win. She trapped her opponent’s queen early on and had little trouble converting. WGM Rusudan Goletiani tried her best to win, essaying the provocative 8…Ng4?! Her opponent did not take the bait, but the machines suggest that 9. Bxg7! was best, with the continuation 9…Qxf2+ 10. Kd1 Rd8 11. Bh3 with the tactical point 11…Rxg7 12. Qb2 and the black bishop on c8 is overworked. Instead, the game simplified and eventually became drawn, making the final margin 3.5-0.5 for the U.S.

The men’s squad also had a brilliant day in round seven. For the third Olympiad in a row, they faced the home nation. A young Turkish team included the new transfer GM Dragan Solak on board one and the recent champion of the world junior, GM Alexander Ipatov, on board two. Both have had rating increases and are both cresting 2600.

GM Hikaru Nakamura produced the first wrinkle by starting 1. g3, a flexible choice that has become his Olympiad leitmotif. However, he does not often play an early Nf3, and in doing so, obtained a sort of King’s Indian Attack, which netted the bishop pair.

“He feels like he understands chess better than the other guy,” Captain John Donaldson said of the opening choice. “He wants a chance to show it.”

After the round, Nakamura had his own explanation. “I felt like my opponent played just about everything under the sun,” he said. “I just wanted a slow position. I didn’t feel like spending six or seven hours looking at everything. In general I try never to study [that long]. It’s very counterproductive.”

Eventually he pried open Solak’s king with a timely h5, and invaded on the seventh rank. With his pieces all on aggressive posts, Solak inexplicably overlooked Qe6 mate, though his position was already difficult. “If Rd6 I’m not entirely sure what is going on,” Nakamura said.



GM Ray Robson remained unbeaten, drawing as black against IM Mustafa Yilmaz. After the thematic exchange sacrifice, he sensed he had the better position, but bailed out into a unique repetition to ensure the half point. After finishing the game, a frustrated Robson rushed to the computer to find the elusive win. He said he got too carried away with various mating ideas and should have played more slowly on the queenside.



“Man we could have been 4-0 today,” he said, “but I messed up.” After the game, Yilmaz admitted that he could not guess what Robson would play. Robson was happy that he is becoming a more versatile player, something he admitted was not his forte until recently. “I play the Grunfeld and the Semi-Slav. I even play the King’s Indian sometimes. Even though I’m not as good at [other openings], people still have to think about them.”

Nakamura praised the play of the undefeated Robson. “Considering this is his first Olympiad, he’s doing pretty well,” Nakamura said.

GM Alexander Onischuk also grabbed a win, as did GM Gata Kamsky, who outmaneuvered his opponent in the endgame, thus making the margin 3.5-0.5.

The men entered today’s match with Macedonia in fifth-place, exactly their pre-tournament ranking. They avoided the upper echelon teams for one more round (among those in their score group were Armenia, Hungary, Azerbaijan and England). Donaldson said that a team has to overachieve to finish on the podium. “It’s not sufficient to perform at your rating level, or even a little bit above it. To medal at this tournament, you’ll probably have to perform at 2730-2740.” The U.S. has an average on the top four boards of 2702.

Donaldson recalled the last two Olympiads (which also used 11 rounds and match-point scoring) and estimated that a team would need 17 match points and good tiebreaks to have a chance. The Americans entered round eight with 11 match points, meaning they would need three wins in the final four matches. Nakamura did not seem eager to worry about the math – he thought a medal would require three wins and one drawn match, for a total of 18 points.

Either way, the U.S. got two points closer today, outplaying their Balkan opponents to score two wins and two draws. GM Varuzhan Akobian, fresh off a rest day, held the draw as black without issue. Onischuk won again, as did Kamsky. They each had rook endgames. Kamsky, who bravely eschewed an earlier repetition with the match outcome in doubt, won by a single tempo.



Robson pressed with a better position but agreed to a draw with the match in hand, making the margin 3-1.

Sensing the impending battles with top-tier opponents, it was natural for Donaldson to rest one of his 2700s today, but he made the interesting decision to rest Nakamura for the second time. Kamsky has played all eight games thus far. Donaldson was evasive when asked the reasoning, except to say, “When you look at the top teams, it is important for all five guys to play.” All five players are on form, so it is not clear who will rest in round nine.

Nakamura will almost certainly be called on tomorrow. “I hope we can make a push for the podium,” he said. “We still haven’t faced any of our major competitors yet. I’m really looking forward to how it all plays out.”

In top-of-the-table action, Russia continued their dominance with a 2.5-1.5 win over Ukraine. GM Sergey Karjakin, a 2785 board three, achieved the Lucena Position against GM Andrei Volokitin for the only decisive result. Like the U.S., Russia has only lost one individual game and is merely one point off of a perfect match score (they now lead all teams by two match points). Also consider that in the past few days they have run the gauntlet: China in round four, then Hungary, Armenia, Azerbaijan and today defending champion Ukraine.  GMs Alexander Grischuk and Dmitry Jakovenko have been their big point-scorers.

Also today China and Azerbaijan tied 2-2. Armenia, who had not won since round five, beat Uzbekistan 3-1.

More titanic battles are sure to come in the closing three rounds. “This system is well designed to determine a winner,” Donaldson said. “But for bronze and silver, you might as well throw the medals up in the air. It’ll be a dogfight to see who gets them.”

In round nine the men will face Russia while the women play Ukraine. Look for an update on these key matchups by Mike Klein after the games tomorrow. The official site for live games and standings is www.chessolympiadistanbul.com (also bookmark the chessresults Olympiad page ).