It was the capture of team gold – for the first time since 1976 – at the 2016 Baku Olympiad that arguably started the chess fire for the USA, turning the country once again into a force to reckon with on the international stage. Already this year, we’ve seen Fabiano Caruana becoming the World Championship Challenger and winning two elite events ahead of Magnus Carlsen, and then along came Sam Shankland to hit the headlines with a surprise trifecta of inspiring victories at the US Championship, Capablanca Memorial, and American Continental Championship.
With a world championship challenger, three players in the top 10 and Shankland surging, this is all good news for the USA ahead of defending their Olympiad title in Batumi, Georgia, in mid-September. And earlier this week, the US team selections for the Open and Women’s Olympiad were announced. The teams are, in rating order: Open: GMs Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland and Ray Robson, with GM Aleksander Lenderman as team coach and IM John Donaldson team captain. Women: GM Irina Krush, IM Anna Zatonskih, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan, FM Jennifer Yu, WGM Sabina Foisor, with GM Robert Hess as team coach and GM Melik Khachiyan team captain.
“I like the U.S. team’s chances of being only the second country besides Armenia to repeat as champions in the post-Kasparov era,” said team captain Donaldson. “It won’t be easy as Russia and China will also field teams with similar average ratings to the U.S. and India (with Anand), Azerbaijan and Ukraine will be over 2700 average rating per board. It’s really great Fabiano is back again heading the team. The Olympiad should be the perfect final tune-up before the World Championship.
“It also helps our chances that we have the entire team back from 2016 and Sam Shankland has recently made a huge leap forward.”
Apart from Carlsen winning Tata Steel at the start of the year, Caruana and Shankland have been the ones dominating the chess headlines with a very impressive haul of tournament victories so far this year – but could the USA team receive yet another big boost ahead of the Olympiad with Wesley So about to join them on the winners’ rostrum?
So was on top of his game at the Altibox Norway Chess in Stavanger, save for a dramatic last round mishap to Caruana that spoiled his otherwise perfect tournament. But he soon bounced back from his adversity in the opening leg of 2018 Grand Chess Tour season in Leuven, near Brussels, as he stormed his way through the Your Next Move Rapid tournament, convincingly taking first place with his unbeaten score of 14/18 – and with it, the added bonus of carrying forward a three-point lead going into the blitz session.
The former Filipino was playing smoothly and looked to be heading for a comfortable overall victory, only for another dramatic collapse to strike when everyone least expected it. So lost his last two games – and both to knight forks, against Shakriyar Mamedyarov and Nakamura respectively – of the Friday session, and with his lead now cut to 1.5 points, the tournament is wide-open again going into Saturday’s final day.
1. W. So (USA) 18/27; 2-3. S. Karjakin (Russia), L. Aronian (Armenia) 16.5; 4. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France), 5. H. Nakamura (USA) 15; 6. A. Grischuk (Russia) 13; 7. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan) 12; 8. V. Anand (India) 10; 9. F. Caruana (USA) 9.5; 10. A. Giri (Netherlands) 9.
Photo: Nakamura, So and Caruana in action in Leuven – and the top trio will soon also spearhead the US’s defence of their Olympiad title | © Lennart Ootes (Grand Chess Tour)
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Wesley So
Your Next Move Rapid, (1)
Ruy Lopez, Martinez Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3 The modest but solid ‘Martinez Variation’ has been seen numerous times at the highest level of play, regularly employed not only by Fabiano Caruana but also Magnus Carlsen, Vishy Anand, Alexander Grischuk, Sergey Karjakin, Peter Svidler and many other super-grandmasters. The reason for it’s new-found popularity, is that it simply sidesteps all of the big mainlines such as the Marshall Attack, Zaitsev, Chigorin, and the Breyer etc. that’s all been holding up well after the standard 6.Re1. 6…b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.a4 Also an option is 8.c3 and 9.h3. 8…Bd7 9.c3 0-0 10.Bc2 Re8 11.Re1 h6 12.Nbd2 b4 13.d4 Rb8 14.d5 bxc3 15.bxc3 Na5 16.Ba3 c6 17.c4 Qc7 Black has emerged from this quiet sideline to the Lopez just a little better, and all because his rook dominates the b-file – and this proves to be a thorn in Caruana’s flesh. 18.Bd3 Nb7 19.Nb3 a5 20.Bc1 Bg4 21.Be3 Nd7! It’s around here that So begins to take a firm grip of the game, as his knight(s) head for c5. Caruana can’t allow a knight to be established on c5, but in preventing this, So’s dominance of the b-file becomes more influential, particularly with his rook sitting like a rock on b4. 22.h3 Bxf3 23.Qxf3 Nbc5 24.Nxc5 Nxc5 25.Bxc5 dxc5 26.Bf1 For Caruana, his rationale for heading for this position was a very reasonable one: he’s hoping the opposite-coloured bishops will offer him salvation – but So’s powerful rook cemented on b4, coupled with his own chronic dark-square weakness, soon becomes a major headache for the world title-challenger. 26…Rb4! 27.Red1 Reb8 28.g3 cxd5 29.exd5 Bd6 30.h4 Qd7 Caruana’s a- and c-pawn are going to be long-term vulnerable targets – all So has to do, is make sure he can stop Caruana gaining counter-play down the long b1-h7 diagonal. 31.Bd3 g6 32.g4 Qe7 33.h5 Qg5 You can’t blame So for wanting to keep the queens on the board, as he has the better pieces, but arguably stronger and better was 33…e4!? 34.Qxe4 Qxe4 35.Bxe4 gxh5 36.gxh5 Rxc4 37.Re1 Rbb4 38.Bf3 Kf8! as it leaves White with a very uncomfortable endgame scenario to defend. 34.hxg6 fxg6 35.Qg2 Rf8! Now with So’s other rook commandeering the f-file, Caruana will soon be in dire straits – and not in a good way, with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar! 36.Re1 Rb3 37.Re3 Rf4 38.Bf5?! Caruana is in a tough spot, but he had to at least try 38.Be2 Rxf2 39.Qxf2 Rxe3 40.Rf1 that forces the trade of queens after 40…Qf4 41.Qxf4 exf4 42.Kf2 and some slim hopes of saving the game due to the notorious opposite-coloured bishops. 38…Rb2 The pressure on f2 forces the loss of the c4-pawn – and that in turn will leave the a4-pawn hanging by its finger tips. 39.Be6+ Kg7 40.Rf1 Rxc4 41.Qg3 Rbb4 With a total stranglehold on the position, So needn’t be too hasty here and rush in with 41…Rxa4 42.Ra3 Rbb4 43.Rxa4 Rxa4 as there’s 44.Qd3! and the plan of Qa6 suddenly makes things a tad awkward for Black. 42.Qh2 Rf4 43.Kh1 e4! [see diagram] So’s bishop entering the fray decides things, as he systematically now rips through Caruana’s defences. 44.f3 h5! The logical follow-up – now, if 45.gxh5 Rh4 wins on the spot. 45.Qh3 hxg4 46.Bxg4 Rb8! The sort of backward winning move that’s hard to spot, as the strategic retreat leaves Caruana with no answers to the threat of …Rh8. 47.Qg3 Rh8+ 48.Kg2 Rxg4 0-1 Caruana resigns, as after 49.Qxg4 Rh2+ 50.Kg1 Qxe3+ will soon force mate.