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Olympiad Round Two: Big Wins Over Baltics Print E-mail
By FM Mike Klein   
August 29, 2012
On the chessboard, sometimes GM Hikaru Nakamura turns water into wine. Other times, he starts with vinegar. A recap of his 2012 Chess Olympiad round two: six hours of chess, the final game remaining, four queens on the board, several squandered advantages, and finally beating a grandmaster by a single tempo in an unremarkable queen-and-pawn versus queen-and-pawn endgame.

The 107-move win was not needed for match victory – the American men were already up 2.5-0.5 – but may be crucial for tiebreak purposes much further down the road.  Of course none of the large crowd who stayed to watch the finale and who know Nakamura were seeing this magic for the first time. Stepfather Sunil Weeremantry offered a wry smile, teammate GM Varuzhan Akobian a more generous version, and Captain John Donaldson a muted pat on the back. GM Ray Robson, watching from the in-house television feed, guessed that Nakamura might pull it off.

 Robson reminisced about watching the Turin Olympiad as a boy. “In 2006 he had two completely lost positions against strong players and I think he scored one win and one draw,” Robson said while watching the finish. Robson sprinted to meet his team leader after Nakamura exiting the playing hall.

“Somewhere between moves 38 and 40 I went from better to worse,” Nakamura said. “I had to win this game like five times. I don't get it. He could have forced a draw so many times but then he started playing for a win.”


After this win, Nakamura is 2784.7 on live ratings, making him effectively tied with Fischer’s peak rating of 2785.

The team dynamics made the round exceptionally interesting to watch. Robson won first, setting up the decision making of Nakamura, Akobian and GM Gata Kamsky. Akobian was mired in his own queen-and-pawn endgame, and had to decide whether to force a repetition. If Nakamura were to lose and Kamsky not convert a somewhat tricky endgame advantage of piece for two pawns, then Akobian would have to shun the draw and play all out. After a bit of stalling, Kamsky converted the technical endgame, thus allowing Akobian to play on a bit, always having a draw in hand in case Nakamura did not have another Houdini in his bag.

IM Irina Krush, watching the action, said Kamsky relishes chances to show his endgame technique, which he duly converted. In the end, Akobian could not find a win, so the U.S. ended the day 3.5-0.5 to continue their impressive start.

At the beginning of the day, that result may not have been too surprising, since the Lithuanian team arrived in Istanbul with a much weaker squad than in prior editions. In the past, the country has given the Americans fits. GM Edward Rozentalis, who had played board one in nearly every Olympiad of his country's two decade existence, recently moved to Canada according to Donaldson. Several other of their grandmasters are also off the team, meaning Nakamura's opponent was the team's lone GM (in 2002 and 2004 the U.S. could only muster drawn matches against Lithuania, despite outrating them on all boards both times, though America did win their 1994 encounter).

Robson is no stranger to playing in Turkey. He represented the national team for the first time at the 2010 World Team Championship in Bursa, and played a junior event in 2007 in Antalya. He said he was a little nervous yesterday for his first Olympiad match “but it didn't really affect me.” His 2-0 start, albeit against much lower-rated opposition, may help to convince Donaldson that he is back on form after a subpar U.S. Championship. That will be an important determination, as the lone-alternate system that has been in place since 2008 means that captains usually like to rest their top players as much as possible in early rounds, saving them for tougher matches in the second week. So far Nakamura and Onischuk have been able to rest.

Robson said that in a team event the first win is crucial. “In a tense match situation it's great if you're ahead. It gives you a lot more freedom (to decide the direction of the position).”

Without needing as much drama, the American women also won, beating Estonia 3.5-0.5. Three of the four games ended right at time control and within five minutes of each other.

WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, who admitted to still being somewhat jetlagged, scored the first point by throwing all of her pieces at the enemy king. The game was a Sicilian Dragon with opposite sides castling. Abrahamyan, playing white, still had her queenside pawns on a2, b2 and c2 in the final position, while her opponent was missing all of her kingside pawns. That should be a pretty big clue as to whose attack succeeded.

 “She just got really passive,” Abrahamyan said. “I got in that mentality that it would be over. It always happens. The second you think you have the game won, it starts slipping.”

After finding the mate, Krush and Foisor followed suit with victories of their own, and Goletiani held the draw in a pawn-down endgame.

 “Today my player was a much more serious opponent, much more experienced,” Krush said. “It was an equal position after the opening, but when you're black, you can't expect to win right away.”
Some insightful research led Krush to her opening choice. “I knew [she] was a very active player. Equal positions are not her thing. Eventually she pushed forward and I was able to push back.” Krush said the risk was getting a stale position without winning chances, but that a draw on board one with black is not a bad result.

Like the men, the U.S. women have a long history with their Baltic opponents, often in the same point in the tournament. In both the 2006 and 2010 Olympiads, the two teams battled, also in round two. They also squared off in 1992 and 1994. The U.S. won these four encounters, but the Americans had some demons to exorcise in Turkey - in Istanbul in 2000 the match ended tied 1.5-1.5.

 “I cannot remember a single time playing them,” Krush said. “I don't remember the early rounds well!” 

IM Anna Zatonskih had the day off today. She planned to go sightseeing in the afternoon. She is seen here with Onischuk and Donaldson, returning on the metro after some morning shopping.


It remains to be seen who will get a rest tomorrow. Captain Michael Khodarkovsky may wish to follow suit with Donaldson and rest Krush, saving a top player for later rounds. If he does not, she will have black three times in a row.

Grumblings still remain about certain aspects of the organization. Krush and Robson both complained about the lack of reliable web access in the hotel. “That's a big deal for chess players,” Krush said. The hotel did issue local hotspot USB cards, but only one per team. Krush said coffee in the hotel cost 10 Turkish Lira, about $6. Krush enjoys sightseeing and immersing herself in the cities she competes in (she recently published the first of several pictorial reports from a tournament in Georgia).

Krush elaborated. “Comparatively, Bled, Mallorca and Dresden were wonderful. I mean, we're by the airport. There's no place to walk. It's like having it in some backwater place.”

There is a modest outlet mall just behind the Americans' hotel, but to reach it on foot (which the hotel staff discourages), you must be willing to hike through a trash-filled dirt footpath and cross a rusted footbridge that traverses a river of pungent wastewater. The trip takes 15 minutes to travel about 100 meters in total. “I'm not quick to be critical, but some things are just basic,” Krush said. She said the hotel room and food were both reasonable.

Robson had no complaints on the location. “I'm not a big touristy person,” he said. But his tribulations are of another sort. The bathroom for male players is a collection of portable toilets that are actually outside but within the security area. Robson reported having to wait each time he visited them during his games (the women have a proper restroom that can be used inside the playing hall).

Due to the design of the ballroom, male spectators and other officials have a regular bathroom to use outside the secure area. Each urinal has a unique chess study to solve. Here was mine today:


Show Solution

Coffee, tea and water are still not available to competitors inside the playing area. Khodarkovsky has been making runs to the coffee machine while Donaldson, lugging a backpack that must be at least 30 pounds, packs a heavy thermos for his players. One top player, an IM who plays board one for his country, said that in his 11 previous Olympiads, he has never had tea and water not available to the players. He said this was a contributing factor in his long game yesterday.

Officials are still carefully guarding access to the playing hall. Those with credentials must pass several checkpoints to enter, and twice today I had security twist my lanyard to verify the proper accreditation, even though I was well into the tournament hall. At present, USCF President Ruth Haring is still being denied access to the playing hall. As reported by Chessvibes, one Russian journalist was refused any credentials, even as a spectator, ostensibly because of previous criticisms of the Turkish organizers.

In other American chess news, GM Susan Polgar gave a press conference and talked about her recent move to Webster University in St. Louis. She said her program has eight grandmasters, five of which are in Istanbul representing five different federations (Robson, an incoming freshman, is one of them).

She said Webster has more than 100 satellite campuses all over the world, including the Netherlands, China and Thailand. Most of the domestic campuses are located on military bases. “It is a wonderful opportunity to further grow,” she said. “We are planning events on international campuses.”

Next month her traditional Spice Cup will make its inaugural St. Louis debut, this time with an open section to accompany the round-robin, which she expects will be either Category 17 or 18. “I am trying to do a lot to develop chess and promote chess, and inspire. I don’t always succeed but my heart is in the right place.”

Polgar said it is her first time in Turkey. “I think they are a great example to the rest of the countries for how to promote chess in schools. As you can see by Turkey23, they are planning ahead.”

The team being referenced is a squad of gum-chewing and candy-craving eight-year-olds, who are competing in Istanbul and being tapped to lead their country in the next decade.


Tomorrow the American men play Black vs Venezuela while the women will face Uzbekistan with White. Update 8/31/2012: The US men defeated Venezuela 3.5-0.5 while the women drew Uzbekistan. The official site for live games and standings is www.chessolympiadistanbul.com. Find FM Mike Klein's next report after four rounds on Friday.