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Nakamura Beats Fischer's Record in Istanbul Print E-mail
By FM Mike Klein   
August 31, 2012
Tatev Abrahamyan, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club

In the last two rounds of the 2012 Chess Olympiad, the two American squads have one win and three tied matches. Candidly, they admitted that even those results required some good fortune. Meanwhile, top player GM Hikaru Nakamura just surpassed GM Bobby Fischer as the all-time highest rated American. His draw yesterday and win today place him at 2786.7, nearly two points clear of Fischer's peak.

The near-horror for the teams began yesterday in round three. While the men were cruising to another dominant result, winning 3.5-0.5 over Venezuela, the women’s team nearly got whitewashed against a young quartet from Uzbekistan. WGMs Sabina Foisor and Rusudan Goletiani both lost, creating an 0-2 hole. Top board IM Anna Zatonskih blundered an exchange in a winning position, and fourth board WGM Tatev Abrahamyan faced the prospect of a passed pawn on her sixth rank, supported by her opponent’s rook.

“At some point, it looked like we would go o-fer,” Captain Michael Khodarkovsky admitted. “It was like a Houdini act.”

Needing to win at all costs to salvage a drawn match, the first eye-opener was Abrahamyan’s opponent capturing back 42. Rxe6. Though capturing with the pawn is not winning by force, white keeps the initiative. Khodarkovsky was looking on but could not explain the move.

A few minutes later, Abrahamyan seized the chance to active her pieces, and the suddenly well-posted knight on e5 became the key piece in a three-mover, which won the game. If instead 47. Rf1 or something simple, Khodarkovsky thought white should hold.


Meanwhile, Zatonskih busied herself with completing the comeback. After obtaining a winning position earlier in the game, she overlooked the simple discovered attack 33…Ng4. “When I blundered the exchange, I thought, ‘What am I doing here? I should just go home and study tactics. I was so upset at myself.'”

Eventually she used a knight fork to recover the lost material, then chased the enemy king all over the board. Her queen rampaged, making nine of the final 11 moves, racking up pawns along the way. “I had to win twice but unfortunately they only gave me one point.”


The unlikely 2-2 tie would have been a huge disappointment before the round began, but given the circumstances, the team accepted the close escape. Several other top women’s teams also suffered similar setbacks, so the U.S. did not lose as much ground in the standings as they could have.

“We were a bit lucky and unlucky yesterday,” Zatonskih said.

Anna Zatonskih & Sabina Foisor, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club
The result also helped assuage Foisor, whose loss came on her birthday. While trainers and coaches fretted over the results, Tony Rich was out securing celebratory items like cake, balloons and champagne. “It’s very difficult (to get these things) at the store when you don’t speak the language,” Zatonskih said. A “team meeting” was called after dinner, but Foisor entered to see a surprise party in her honor.

Today, things also looked bleak for the women, despite Khodarkovsky pulling out all the stops for his players. After complaints of how bad the coffee is, he took everyone’s order and sent out for Starbucks. “I told them I’ll bring them whatever, just win today,” he said. In the end, he would have to settle for another half-caff kind of day.

Tatev Abrahamyan, Sabina Foisor, Rusudan Goletiani, Anna Zatonskih, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club

Anna Zatonskih, Photo Mike Klein

Foisor got the day to rest, while the other four women faced Slovenia, led by fast-improving world number two GM Anna Muzychuk.

Zatonskih would play up for the first time, while the other three women – Krush, Goletiani and Abrahamyan, were all reasonable favorites.

Collectively, the Slovenians have had a tough time against the U.S., going 0-4 in their previous Olympiad matchups. They came within a whisker of breaking through today, but again Abrahamyan saved the day.

Zatonskih and Muzychuk have played numerous times in recent years, the most recent being a draw in the European Club Team Championships. Their last Olympiad game was in 2006 when Muzychuk was several hundred ELO points lower; Zatonskih won.

GM Anna Muzychuk, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club

The U.S. leader, playing white, got confused in the opening and got no advantage. She had to instead mark time to get to move 30 in order to offer a draw (as per rule). The dead equal and somewhat boring game was not her intention. “It looks like I just played for a draw,” she said, “but it’s not true. My coach (GM Melikset Khachiyan) told me to play a solid line. She played a different move order (from their last meeting) and I didn’t know what to do after …a6.”

Goletiani then got stuck with her king in the center and fell victim to a brutal attack out of the opening. The U.S. was now in the familiar territory of playing from behind. Krush evened the score by using her unopposed dark-squared bishop to engage the helpless pawns.


That left only Abrahamyan, who for the second round in a row played an early …Bg4 in the King’s Indian Defense, and again got a rotten position. With all of her center pawns  being assailed, out of nowhere her few remaining pieces came to life, led by a previously dormant rook landing on the second rank. Abrahamyan nearly pulled out the full point, but even the draw kept her team from another would-be disaster. They now have two wins and two draws for six match points.

The men’s team did not allow for any tense moments in round three. Against a young Venezuelan team, GM Ray Robson improved to 3-0 personally by dispatching his IM opponent in a miniature. Robson sacked a pawn for quick development, and his opponent never got his king out of the middle. After 17. Qh5, castling would have been unwise after the white queen repositioned to the g-file. When asked after the game if he always had compensation, an attacking-minded Robson said, “I forgot I was down a pawn. In this whole line I knew I was going to give up a pawn anyway.” He said he knew he was better after Nxf7. “I’m pretty sure I’m forcing a technically won position. He has to play 18…Qxf7 and I play 19. Qxd5 0-0 20. Qxc5 Qxf6 21. Qxd4. I’m up a pawn and it should be winning.”


Top-rated GM Hikaru Nakamura could not break through the unambitious pawn structure of fellow young talent GM Eduardo Iturrizaga, but GM Alex Onischuk won without issue to clinch the match.

All that was left to decide was the margin of victory, which is quite important given the complicated pairing system. Consider that in round three the Venezuelans were a much lower-rated opponent for the U.S. than other top contenders who also had two wins but fewer game points. One example of several was Ukraine, who had to play Israel in a battle of 2010 medal winners, and only escaped with a win when GM Ruslan Ponomariov upended GM Maxim Rodshtein from a losing position. The pairing system, too complicated for even Deputy Chief Arbiter Carol Jarecki to explain without a printout, is as follows: match points, followed by game points, followed by Buchholz tiebreaks, which are tabulated by multiplying a team’s score versus a particular opponent by that opponent’s current score, and finally dropping the low opponent. The system is so hard to figure that teams cannot offer any pairing complaints as it is too hard to ascertain the process.

GM Gata Kamsky made the victory a resounding 3.5-0.5 by winning a long and interesting endgame, which began with queen for two bishops. In unintentional imitation of Nakamura from the previous round, he also needed two queens to net the point.


Hikaru Nakamura, Photo Tony Rich for STL Chess Club
Today, the Americans had a big challenge, playing white against India. As the U.S. began the round leading the tournament – with six match points and 11/12 game points, they had the honor of playing on board one. “This is our first true test,” Captain John Donaldson said going into the round. He decided to sit the hot Robson, giving the U.S. their highest-rated team for the first time, which was not necessarily the intent according to the captain. “We’re just trying to give everyone a chance to play,” Donaldson explained. “We need to use all five players.”

After a few hours, it was clear the Indians had the upper hand. Though Nakamura was getting to attack for the first time in the tournament, his teammates were all struggling. “We had one game where we were better and three where we were slightly worse,” Donaldson said.

Playing GM Krishnan Sasikiran, Nakamura played 1. e4, as he did several times en route to winning the 2012 U.S. Championship. After 1. e5, the game became a relatively normal Scotch. Readers may remember that it was against the same opponent that in 2005 Nakamura played 2. Qh5 and reached a decent position, ultimately losing. Nakamura, now largely beyond his former opening repertoire profligacy, can of course still engineer blistering attacks. After chasing Sasikiran’s king to the center, Nakamura searched for a fleeting coup de grace. Without finding one, Sasikiran almost escaped, but just before time control he erred with 36…Ra8, allowing a forced mate. Looking on from the press room, Robson preferred 36…e5, after which Nakamura could get yet another two queens position, but it would not be winning because of the loose rook on e1.


From there Kamsky could not hold his position against GM Pentala Harikrishna, whom Donaldson called “really 2700 strength.” The result hinged on GM Alex Onischuk and GM Varuzhan Akobian to hold pawn-down endgames, which they were both able to do to salvage a drawn match 2-2.

The Indian team had fared well against the Americans in the early part of the 2000s (playing with GM Viswanathan Anand), winning in 2002 and 2004. But recently the U.S. has dominated them, winning handily in 2008 in Dresden and also in the last two World Team Championships. Both teams now have seven match points.

“We had chances to win and we had chances to lose,” Donaldson said afterward.

The official site for live games and standings is www.chessolympiadistanbul.com  (also bookmark the chessresults Olympiad page). 

In round 5 of the Olympiad, the US men drew against the Czech team while the US women lost to Vietnam (Krush scored the sole win of the round). Sept 2 is a free day, look for more coverage by Mike Klein after round six on Monday