Olympic Team Clutch Winners!
By Jennifer Shahade   
June 6, 2006
This pretty little street outside Turin is no where near the actual tournament site, held in an industrial center. Photo by John Donaldson

I. Best Team Spirit Ever

America’s first overall medal of the millennium was captured in May 21-June 4 in Turin, Italy. The American team scored 3.5-.5 against Norway in the last round to seal the deal. In describing the team’s success, IM John Donaldson who has captained eight other Olympic or World Team Championship squads said, “the team was closer than any other team I’ve worked with.” 

A lot of team spirit is about over-riding individual egos. This all started before the tournament, when the players decided unanimously to put Gata on board one rather than Hikaru, who would be chosen by pure rating formula. A lot of this was about style. Gata is more solid, and Hikaru is wilder. Hikaru’s also been in lackluster form, and what better way to get back into the groove than to be the tournament’s official board three terror? Hikaru had no hard feelings about being on board three- in fact, he suggested this himself. 2nd board Alex Onischuk recognized that this choice put the onus on Hikaru to be a win machine: “I knew we would only have a chance to earn medals if Hikaru was in good form, and made a big plus score.”

Things didn’t turn out quite that way. In fact, Hikaru had a bad start. But in the Olympiad, like all swisses- it’s all about the finish. Hikaru won his last three games, two of which were against world class players. (Stutovsky and Grischuk)

Gata, Alex and Hikaru had few free days. The highest scorer of the three was recently crowned U.S. champion Alexander Onischuk. He won five games, drew six and lost only one, scoring a performance rating over 2700. Gata’s stamina was particularly notable, because he came to Turin straight from a grueling and emotional tournament in Sofia, where he rolled the field for the first 7 rounds but faltered at the end, coming in second. Gata only went plus one, but he was the workhorse. John explained that Gata knew he needed to hold down board one to allow the other players to shine on lower boards. “Gata was very important to our success” said Alex, “he only got plus one, but he got more than his fair share of blacks and his field was incredibly strong.” In fact, it’s pretty difficult to determine the MVP, which is why we created a poll so that you can choose!

When I asked John who was the MVP, he remained diplomatic. “Everyone had their heroic moments,” said John. Ildar’s swindle over French player Christian Bauer, was a good example. Kamsky had already lost to Bacrot, so Ildar’s win secured a draw for the U.S. team.

Here Bauer (black) should simply accept a draw by perpetual check. (Qf8, Qe6+ Qf7, etc.) But Bauer was winning a few moves earlier. The ability to adjust to a new situation is difficult, so refusing to accept that he was no longer winning, Bauer went for the loss with Kg7??. After Bc3+ Kg6 Qa6+, Bauer teammates lost their cheese. His King was forced to h4!

Ildar found the best solution (there are many) here, Qe2! With the threat of Be1+ and Qg2 mate. Black resigned shortly thereafter.

The conditions in Turin were terrible. There were 40 minute lines for food, long walks to the playing hall. “It was a good place to go if you want to lose 10 pounds,” said John. The Olympiad was held in an industrial center, far away from the art museums, cafés and designer clad pedestrians of an American’s image of Italy. Donaldson pointed out that many of the players engaged in anti-social activities after the games, like online poker. “For every Olympic romance, there were 20 players on online poker rooms.”

Conditions and social activities were not that important to the U.S. men’s team, who were there to win and worked hard all the way through. There were few squabbles. For instance, Alex Onischuk and Gregory Kaidanov got 4 whites out of their first five games, while Ildar Ibragimov, Varuzhan Akobian and Gata Kamsky got a string of blacks. Not a word of complaint, reported John.

The happy team just before the awards' ceremony. There may be no color scheme to their suits, but smiles are worn by all. Photo by Irina Krush.

II. The Last Round

Team composition was crucial in the last round. It was clear that Alex, Gata and Hikaru would play. The fourth board was a difficult decision. “Gregory Kaidanov was the obvious choice,” said Donaldson, “but Varuzhan had been working so hard throughout the tournament and the rest of the team really though he deserved a shot.” Plus, the team knew that his probable opponent played the Advanced Variation of the French, a line that Varuzhan knew a lot about. 

Varuzhan Akobian had been benched for most of the tournament. Every day, he woke up early to help his teammates. He even showed Hikaru Nakamura special preparation to help him win his game against Maceja. In the last round, when he was released into the ring, he was the last man standing in the U.S.-Norway match. Without his victory, the medals would not be ours.

The team strategy in the final round was to win all the games, basically. “We knew our players were slightly stronger than all of their players,” said John “and figured we could only afford to give up half a point.

The first game finished was Kamsky’s draw against wunderkind Magnus Carlsen. Solid opening play by Carlsen led to a lot of trades and a quick peace offering.

The second game finished was Onischuk’s steady Karpovian win against Adgestein:

Onischuk-Adgestein (13) Turino Olympiad 2006

1. d4 Nf6

Alex Onischuk got a higher performance rating and winningpercentage than any player on the U.S squad. One of the secrets to his success was playing white in seven games out of ten! This is his third black of the tournament, and his first Olympiad game vs. 1.d4. Alex generally sticks to the same lines, so it probably was not too tough for Adgestein to prepare for him.

2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Nc3 Bb4

Alex is attracted to this line, theRagozin, in high pressure situations. He also used it in the decisive U.S.
Championship playoff game against Yury Shulman. "I play the Ragozin when I'm playing for a win."

5. g3 dxc4

Maybe Agdestein should have thought twice about this pawn sacrifice. A theme in this tournament was Onischuk collecting pawns and converting them. (See his games against Hansen and Zhang.)

6. Bg2 Nc6
7. O-O Rb8
The main move, which eases the pressure along the long diagonal and announces an intention to hold into the c4-pawn.

8. a3

More typical is the immediate Rel or Qc2.

8...Ba5 9. Qc2 O-O

9... Nxd4?? 10. Nxd4 Qxd4 11. Qa4+

10. Rd1 h6

A prophylactic move preventing a nasty trick. For instance, (10... Re8 ?? 11. d5 ! exd5 12. Nxd5 Nxd5 13. Ng5)

11. e4

11. d5?! exd5 12. Nxd5 Nxd5 13. e4 Nce7 14. exd5 is great for black.

11... Bxc3

It's hard to make progress without this capture, because Black wants to play b6 and also be able to respond to e5 with Nd5. But if there's a Knight on c3 to capture the d5 Knight, black's a5 bishop can be stranded. (11... b6 12. e5 Nd5? (12... Nd7 is of course better, but still white is happy after} 13. Ng5) 13. Nxd5 exd5 14. b4! is one problem.) (11... Re8 is OK , though black will probably end up taking on c3 soon anyway to prepare b6.)

12. bxc3 b6 13. a4

(13. e5 is now positionally suspicious, giving black a nice outpost.} Nd5) (13. d5 exd5 14. exd5 Ne7 when white's pieces lack coordination to justify the pawn deficit. (14... Nxd5 15. Ng5 hxg5 16. Rxd5 Qe8 17. Bxg5 and white has some attacking chances!)

13... Bb7 14. Ba3 Re8 15. Nd2 Na5
{Nb3 is a threat}

16. Ra2 Ba6 17. Bf1

Don't count your pawns till you're fiddling with them in your hands! As white tries to take the c-pawn, black consistently distracts him with other problems. Obviously, the gambit went badly for white. He wanted to be attacking not struggling for material equality.

This gets the queen off the same file as the White rook into a great spot.

18.Bb4 e5! 19.Bxa5
19. dxe5 Rxe5 20. f4 Re8 has helped Black's attacking chances more than White's. The White king is indecently exposed.

Position after 20.f3?!

19... bxa5 20. f3 ?!
(20. Re1 ? Moving the Rook from one useful square to another is a lesser evil than weakening the kingside with f3. But Re1 allows black a nice tactical idea. exd4 21. cxd4 c5! Normally this move would be a positional error in view of d5, which obtains a protected passed pawn but d5 loses because 22. d5? (22. e5 cxd4) 22... Nxd5! and the pawn is pinned due to the loose rook on e1. (20. Bxc4 {leads to complications} exd4 {Taking first stops white's annoying in-between move e5, which only becomes possible once the knight lands on c4} (20... Bxc4 21. Nxc4 exd4 22. e5! (22. Rxd4 c5 23. Nd6 {this move is the reason White can consider this variation. Moving the Rook just loses a pawn for nothing.} Qh3 24. Nxe8 Ng4 25. f3 cxd4 26. fxg4 Rxe8 27. cxd4 Qxg4 {is scary for white, because his King is wide open}) 22... Nd5 23. Rxd4 Qe6 24. Ra1 c5 25. Rd2 {In this line, white looks better.}) 21. Bxa6 (21. cxd4 ?! Bxc4 22. Nxc4 Nxe4) 21... Qxa6 22. cxd4 {With so few pieces on the board, white's central pawn duo is more of a target than a strength. Black has a safer king too, all of which make him better in spite of his queenside pawn weaknesses.} Rb4 (22... Qe2) 23. e5 Nd5 24. Nf3 Reb8 {and black is in control.}) (20. d5 {looks best, bagging the c-pawn for sure but not eliminating all problems} Qg4 {Just like the game, black puts pressure on the e pawn to make it hard for
White to round up the c-pawn.} 21. Re1 c6 22. Nxc4! (22. dxc6?! Qe6) 22...cxd5 (22... Bxc4 23. Bxc4 cxd5 24. Bxd5) 23. Ne3)

20... Qe6
Black will not make it easy for white to recapture c4. Immediately the downside of f3 is evident. White can't play d5 because of Qb6+

21. Kh1

White wants to play d5 and win the c pawn gracefully. So he gets his king off the g1 a7 diagonal only to be hammered by another distraction. 21. Kg2 stops the check and protects the f-pawn. Black can still hold into the c-pawn though, with Qc6! 22. d5 Qc5)(21. dxe5 looks ugly in view of white's dark square weaknesses.) Qxe5 22. Nxc4 This is a hard move for to make, cause it involves allowing some annoying pins. (22. Bxc4?? Qc5+) 22... Bxc4 (22... Qc5+?! immediately gives black nothing after 23. Qf2) 23. Bxc4 Qc5+ 24. Rd4 Rb4! 25. Qd3 Rd8 26. cxb4 Qxd4+ 27. Qxd4 Rxd4 28. Rc2 axb4 {and black's up a very important pawn)

Position after 21... Nd7!

Alex allows his Queen access to f6 and improves the position of his knight. The knight goes to c5 in certain variations, when white plays d5, and b6 in others, to protect the c-pawn.

22. Bg2?
{The decisive mistake according to Onischuk. White's position is not enviable, but this move allows a forcing line that is just crushing for black. The bishop on f1 is necessary in a lot of lines, so White should have tried something else like
22. d5 Qf6, the tactical point of Qe6 23. Kg2 {may be a better try than 22.Bg2?, because even though black can hold onto the pawn with Nb6, his Ba6 and Nb6 are passive.} (23. Bxc4 Bxc4 24. Nxc4 Qxf3+) 23... Nb6) (22. Kg2 exd4 (22... c6) (22... Qc6 {both hold on to the pawn, and are preferable to ed4}) 23. cxd4 c3 {This move is not as strong as the game variation, because it really helps white to trade off his ugly light squared bishop for black's menacing one.} 24. Bxa6 Qxa6 25. Nb1)

22... exd4 23. cxd4 c3
{After this blow, white's position falls apart.}

24. d5
{This in between move prevents white from having to resign.} (24. Nb1 Bc4 25. Ra3 (25. d5 Qd6 26. Ra3 Rxb1) 25... Bb3)

24... Qf6 25. Nb3
(25. Nb1
seems like the most obvious of three very ugly spots for the white Knight because at least it attacks something, but it loses tactically 25...Nc5 26. Ra3 (26. Qxc3?? Rxb1!) (26. Nxc3 Bc4 wins the exchange) 26... Nd3!! If I hadn't seen this move, Alex said, I probably wouldn't have gone for this variation.

Position after 26...Nd3 (variation)

27. Rxd3 Rb2 ! 28. Qd1 c2) (25. Nf1 Rb2 26. Rxb2 cxb2 and black has one very beautiful passed pawn. 27. Qxc7? (27. Nd2 Rb8 28. Nb1 and somehow, I don't think Nimzovitsch would be so happy with this particular Knight blockade. (Nimzovitsch, in My System, explained that Knights are the best blockaders, because they retain activity at the same time as halting a pawn. Obviously, the activity part is more applicable on higher ranks.) (27. Rb1 Bxf1 28. Bxf1 (28. Rxf1 Rb8 29. Rb1 Qd4 30. Qxc7 Qd3) 28... Qxf3+) 27...Rc8! 28. Qxd7 Rc1)

25... Bc4 26. Ra3 Qd6 27. Rda1
Every one of black's pieces is happier than white's counterparts. And for this, Alex is up a pawn! Black's position is crushing.

27... Bxb3 28. Rxb3 Rxb3 29. Qxb3 Qb4 30. Qd1 Rb8 31.Bf1 Nc5 32. d6
This move hastens white's loss.

32... cxd6 33. Bb5
(33. Qxd6 loses instantly cause of Nb3)

33... Qb2 34. Rc1 Qd2 35. Qxd2 cxd2 36. Rd1 a637. Bc6 Rb6 38. Bd5 Rb2 39. Bc6 Rc2 40. Kg2 Nd3 {White resigns in view of Nb2.}

Position after 40....Nd3

Hikaru was next, playing against GM L.Johannessen. His game was typically crazy, giving fans and fellow players heart attacks. He was probably worst at some moment. “A lot of his games are like that,” said Alex, “but I was confident he’d win.” Varuzhan Akobian clinched the victory. He played a beautiful game in the French defense- almost too beautiful when he chose an aesthetic move over one that would induce immediate resignation. Luckily his technique was strong enough to bring home to point, and secure medals for the team.

Position after 29.Be1

Varuzhan played 29...Ng3? here, an aesthetic but inaccurate move. It must have scared the American team a bit, because after the smoke clears (30.Bxg3 Ref5 31.h4 Rf1+ 32.Kh2 Rxb1 33.Rxb1 Rd8 etc.), it's not as easy for black to win as before. Luckily for the American team, Akobian's technique from this point on was smooth. If 29...Ne3!, black doesn't have to bother with technique because white will resign in a couple of moves. 30.h3 Rf1+ 31.Kh2 Nd1 32.Bd2 Bg1+ etc.

The majestic playing hall was a 20 minute walk from the Olympic Village, a pain or a refreshing walk depending on your disposition. "We were lucky it never rained" said Donaldson. Photo Bill Hook

The women's team had an excellent result, coming in 4th place! Here's one of two MVP's, IM Irina Krush, who scored plus five on board two for the U.S. Women's team. She is enjoying a free day by the river Po. WGM Rusudan Goletiani also scored plus five, on board three.