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U.S. Teams Celebrate Bronze Medals Print E-mail
By FM Mike Klein   
November 26, 2008
The U.S. men's team at the closing ceremony. Yury Shulman, Gata Kamsky, Varuzhan Akobian, Hikaru Nakamura, Alexander Onischuk and women's coach Gregory Kaidanov, Photo FM Mike Klein.

In 1994, with one game left in the season, David Robinson was locked in a duel with Shaquille O’Neal for the NBA scoring title. He decided to pour in 71 that night, a franchise-record, to clinch. The U.S. men needed 3.5 points yesterday to medal, which must have seemed just as improbable. The difference? Three men previous to Robinson had gotten to 70, but Ukraine had never lost a match 3.5-0.5 in the history of the Olympiad.

The U.S. women also faced a steep challenge. Needing a match win and a little help, top board IM Irina Krush had to face her third 2500 of the tournament and the other three team members had opponents of like ratings. The tension for them was arguably greater as their chances going into round 11 were appreciably higher than the men. There was no point in asking Team Captain Mikhail Khodarkovsky how he felt before the match. His response all tournament had never wavered: “Ask me after the games.”

Watching the games and waiting for results to come in turned into election-night viewing, with excitement building as each state was splashed with color. Since so many results mattered for tiebreaks, every one of the hundreds of teams was seemingly in play. Even small states, for once, were significant. The press room produced a cacophony of reporters trying to verify results: “What was the result of the Hong Kong match?”; “Did Spain really draw Russia?”; “Did India beat Slovenia or Slovakia?”

One dubious circumstance at the beginning of the round turned into a non-issue. France, slated to play Azerbaijan, forfeited on fourth board when GM Vladislav Tkachiev failed to show (some reports say his team has not seen him for several days). Initially this seemed to help the U.S. since they played Azerbaijan earlier, but since they performed so poorly against them, that tiebreak score ended up being dropped anyway.

From the start, it was clear that the men were out to fight. Their two Whites – on boards one and three – chose very aggressive systems. GM Gata Kamsky, who almost never gets out of his seat during games, dispatched his world-class opponent without much of a fight. GM Vassily Ivanchuk’s five king moves in the middlegame highlighted the ineffectiveness of Black’s position, and he resigned after Kamsky broke through on the queenside.


Now up 1-0, remaining team members could sense a big score coming. GM Hikaru Nakamura was quite the opposite of Kamsky, constantly rising out of his chair to follow the action, including the women’s games, as their boards were very near. “It was nice that he came to encourage us,” Krush said of Nakamura’s pregame chat with her team.

Nakamura, as is often his style, barely ever retreated his pieces, and after 28…bxc3, his confidence was palpable.
Position after 28...bxc3

“He’s in the zone,” said stepfather Sunil Weeremantry, after Nakamura declined to trade into an opposite-colored bishop ending. Meanwhile, GM Alexander Onischuk played the same pawn sacrifice that Nakamura employed earlier in the tournament. The idea was a product of several training sessions that Onischuk had with GM Varuzhan Akobian prior to the Olympiad.

 Can you see what Onischuk played in the following position?
Position after 29...Bb2

Show Solution

 GM Pavel Eljanov seemed to continue defending a lost position only out of inertia, but after making the time control, he looked at a teammate’s game, turned back despairingly, and capitulated.


Now up 2-0, Nakamura deemed GM Yury Shulman’s position winning, and simplified into an equal ending to ensure match victory. Nakamura and Onischuk gathered with Team Captain IM John Donaldson in front of a computer to follow Shulman’s endgame and to gather tiebreak results. They hurled variations at the monitor and pleaded with their teammate to hear their appeals.

Asked if he was nervous, Onischuk said “a little.” Then Donaldson advised him that a bronze medal would also earn the U.S. an automatic invite to the World Team Championships. “OK, now I’m nervous,” Onischuk corrected. Meanwhile, Nakamura was self-critical, not yet knowing if his inability to win what he considered a better position would cost the team the bronze. After Shulman played 55…Nxd3, his teammates seemed satisfied that victory was imminent.

Position after 55...Nxd3

Still, Shulman had only two minutes (with a 30-second increment). He shuttled his rook along the 7th rank, causing Akobian, the de facto captain for the round, to constantly leave and return. Eventually Shulman pushed forward and earned the point.


“Because of time pressure, I couldn’t find the correct order,” Shulman said of his final moves. He insisted no thoughts of medals went through his mind. “I just totally concentrated on the game. Just found a plan.”

Donaldson said he had never seen a last round win as improbable as this one. When the returns came in, the U.S. received their second consecutive bronze medal. For Akobian, this one was sweeter. Criticism followed their bronze in Turin, as their last round crush of Norway gave them a come-from-behind third-place finish. This time, they had to go through the number two seed. “We’re showing the world that we are a chess power,” Akobian said. As for the naysayers: “This kind of win shuts down everything. We silenced them.”

“Last time, we came through the back door, this year we came through the front,” said Weeremantry.
Gold medalist Anna Zatonskih, with fireworks in the background.

The women now had had the chance to follow suit. Their score mattered less than the men, but they still had to beat France. WGM Anna Zatonskih finished first with a draw. After her opponent offered, she deemed her position worse. But because of the layout of the boards, she could only see Krush’s position from her seat. With about a minute left on her clock, she got up to look at boards three and four.
“I only had five seconds to evaluate the positions,” she said, before rushing back to her board and agreeing to the draw. The result also ensured her an unbeaten Olympiad and an individual gold medal on board two.


WGM Katerina Rohonyan found herself in several unbalanced positions in the Olympiad, and her round 11 game was no different. Former coach GM Sam Palatnik said he admired her “stamina” in the Olympiad, often edging her opponent with superior fifth-hour play. Her king wandered but remained upright, and her win completed a successful first Olympiad. She finished +2 including several key wins in the second half of the tournament.

Fittingly, WGM Rusudan Goletiani was asked to close it out. She played an opening similar to Nakamura’s Olympiad repertoire (though the two teams trained separately). By pushing all her pawns to the third rank, she kept the position out of theory but remaining with volatility. “It is actually a very cool structure because they don’t know what to prepare for,” she explained. The only American to play every round, she finished with seven wins and four draws, a 2500+ performance rating, and a silver medal.


When the Ukraine defeated Poland, leaving the U.S. tied for third with the Poles, they waited out their own tiebreaks. But unlike the men’s team, most went out to dinner instead of calculating. Goletiani, Zatonskih, Rohonyan and WFM Tatev Abrahamyan (whose role mostly included helping with preparation) then gathered in Goletiani’s hotel room, which happened to be adjacent to Team Coach GM Gregory Kaidanov’s room. Zatonskih was talking to her mother on her cell phone. A faster internet connection meant her mother got the news first and the room erupted with screams and shouts, which is how Kaidanov got the news. He hurried over to join the celebration but Zatonskih had to rush out to buy a new dress for the awards ceremony.

Rusudan Goletiani and Anna Zatonskih, receiving their individual awards at the Olympiad. 

Krush had imagined the worst. After a deflating final round loss, she did not know if her result would be the deciding factor in the team’s tiebreaks. After the game, she went out to eat, then was joined and consoled by Khodarkovsky at an art gallery. The captain also did not know the result at the time. Krush returned to the hotel only 15 minutes before the closing ceremony. That is when a Turkish player came up to congratulate her on the team’s bronze.

Both teams celebrated on stage together!

“I’m gonna dance and scream,” Krush said as the ceremony began. “I’m gonna hug my teammates and tell them that they are great.”
The double bronze is a first for the U.S. at the Olympiad and is only the second medal the women have ever won. The pride of team members in their achievements and their teammates seemed to cast them in a new light – not as erudite masters of an individual game, but as typical sportsmen working together for a common goal. As grandmasters were mobbed with hugs after final-round games, the Olympiad showed its special place in chess history.

A joyous moment: Alexander Onischuk, Varuzhan Akobian, Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Yury Shulman and Gregory Kaidanov.

After a decade hiatus from the event, Shulman could not stop smiling. “[This was] my whole goal when I won the U.S. Championship. I didn’t care about first, I wanted to make the Olympiad.”

As the closing ceremony ended, the Olympiad flag was passed to Khanty-Mansiysk (correction, 11/26), Russia, who will host the games in 2010. In their last night in Dresden, American players and captains gathered their awards and flowers and prepared for a night of celebrating.

“They say pack first, then drink,” Goletiani said. She was still calculating.

Look for FM Mike Klein's Olympiad cover story in your February 2009 Chess Life Magazine. Also check out his articles from earlier in the event, Let the Games Begin in Dresden , USA Stumbles in Round Two, USA Almost Perfect in Round Three , Rested Squads Resume Action, U.S. Men Win Bronze Too!! and Women Take Bronze He's also using his sabbatical from his Charlotte chess coaching business to travel the world-and blog about it.


November - Chess Life Online 2008

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