Who needs the likes of Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Shankland anyway, when you have the steely but slight Brooklynite figure of Aleksander Lenderman in your team? That’s what some were asking themselves as the “benchwarmers” of what effectively is the USA B Team pulled off a quite remarkable upset win at the FIDE World Team Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan, after sensationally beating Olympiad champions and top-seeded China in round two of the competition.
After beating Egypt in the opening round, and now out-rated by roughly 200 Elo points on all boards against China, not many fancied the USA’s chances. After all, at last year’s Batumi Olympiad, defending champions USA – with Caruana, So, Nakamura and Shankland – could only draw all their games with China, and had to settle for silver. But this time, with a squad of just 2600s, the USA managed to pull off the chess equivalent of a Miracle on Ice-like famous upset victory.
The USA prevailed 2½-1½ in what proved to be a very tense contest; the result denting China’s hopes of winning the competition to add to their Olympiad title, as the match dramatically swung in the favour of the Americans following unexpected results in two key games.
In today’s diagram, with a winning position on the board, Chinese teenage star Wei Yi (Black), up against the very experienced Alexander Onischuk, learned the vital importance from the wily veteran of tempo in the endgame. Wei erred with 56…g5?? that allowed Onichuk to save the game in the nick of time after 57. Kg7 h5 58. Kg6 e2, as he managed to trade off all but one of the remaining pawns before sacrificing his rook for the last remaining pawn on the board.
But instead, in what proved to be an endgame masterclass for us all to learn from, the Chinese teenager could have won with the more immediate 56…e2! The (full) point being that 57.Kg7 h5! 58.Kxg6 Ke3 59.Kg5 Kd2 and Black wins the rook, only this time, he’d be the one in the nick of time for his king to track back to f2 to defend the knight that is supporting what eventually will become the game-winning h-pawn.
And a Black passed h-pawn proved to be the decisive game-winner in Ni Hua v Lenderman – but not before Lenderman managed to pull off the remarkable concept of finding a combination that trapped his opponent’s queen in the middle of the board! Lenderman proved to be the hero of the hour, with even current US Champion Shankland tweeting his approval from the Prague Masters with “Who needs 2700s when you’ve got Lenderman!”
Open: 1-3. Russia, USA, England 4/4; 4. India 3; 5-6. China, Kazakhstan 2; 7. Iran 1; 8-10. Azerbaijan, Egypt, Sweden 0.
Women’s: 1-2. Russia, China 4/4; 3-4. Ukraine, USA 3; 5-6. Armenia, India 2; 7-8. Georgia, Kazakhstan 1; 9-10. Hungary, Egypt 0
Photo: Who needs the Dream Team when you have Aleks Lenderman? | © Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
GM Ni Hua – GM Aleks Lenderman
FIDE World Team Championship, (2)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 d5 4.Nf3 Be7 5.Bg2 0-0 6.0-0 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.a4 A less-risky, though popular Open Catalan continuation, looking to stop Black playing …b5 after the c-pawn is recaptured. More testing in praxis is 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2 Bb7 10.Bd2 or 10.Bf4; both being played by Garry Kasparov during his ill-fated title defence against Vladimir Kramnik in 2000. 8…c5 9.dxc5 Bxc5 10.Qxc4 b6 11.Ne5 Not really an embarrassment for Black, as the discovered attack on the rook is well-met with 11…Ra7 that can swing over to b7, c7 or even possibly later d7. 11…Ra7 12.Nd3 Be7 13.Bf4 Bb7 The exchanges only eases any pressure for Black – and at the same time, it also brings the rook into the game. 14.Bxb7 Rxb7 15.Nd2 b5 The opening has gone well for Lenderman, as this move comes with complete equality. 16.axb5 axb5 17.Qc2 Nd5 There’s nothing really in the position, and all Black needs to do is make sure he doesn’t leave a big hole on c5 that can be successfully filled by a White knight. 18.Rfc1 Nd7 19.Nb3 Nxf4 20.Nxf4 Bd6 21.Qe4 Rb6 I thought a little better and more fluid was 21…Qb8 with the idea of 22.Nd3 Nf6 23.Qf3 Rd7 24.Nbc5 Bxc5 25.Rxc5 Rd5! with easy equality. 22.Nd3 Nf6 23.Qd4 The main reason I felt 21…Qb8 was better, is that here, Black’s pieces are a little bit more uncomfortable, and unravelling is not so easy as it will take time. 23…Nd5 24.Ra7 Be7 If not a couple of moves ago, then certainly now 24…Qb8! was the more pragmatic move. 25.Nbc5 Rc6 26.Nd7?! It looks suspiciously as if Ni Hua has totally miss-assessed the position and his prospects, believing this move to be good. Admittedly, it does look strong – but it isn’t. He should have put pressure on the b-pawn with the stronger 26.Rb7! Qa8!? (It is better to jettison the pawn now and go for active piece-play, rather than trying to hang on to the pawn with 26…Rb6 as after 27.Rd7! Qe8 28.Rxd5! exd5 29.Nd7! Qxd7 30.Qxb6 the brace of pawn weaknesses on d5 & b5 offers White excellent prospects for the coming endgame.) 27.Rxb5 Rd8 28.Qe4 Bg5 and it will not be easy here for White to make something of his extra pawn – but he does have the extra pawn! 26…Rxc1+ 27.Nxc1 Qc8 It makes me all rather suspicious that Ni Hua simply missed this easy move that solves all of Lenderman’s problems – and from here in, his troubles go from bad to worse. 28.Nd3 Rd8 29.N7e5?? With the pressure mounting on the Chinese players to win the match against a much weaker team, Ni Hua unwittingly commits an outright blunder now that loses a piece. The only realistic move available for him was to offer the bail-out with 29.Nb6 Qb8 30.Nd7 Qc8 (If 30…Qd6 then only now does 31.N7e5 work, as after 31…f6 32.Nf3 e5 33.Qe4 and White should be able to hold this easy enough.) 31.Nb6 Qb8 32.Nd7 and a repetition. 29…f6 30.Nf3 e5! Oops, the queen is somewhat embarrassed for squares! 31.Qh4 g5 32.Nxg5 What else is there? If 32.Qe4 f5! and the queen is well and truly trapped in the middle of the board, as after 33.Qxe5 Bf6 wins. So there’s now no other option for a somewhat embarrassed Ni Hua other than to lose a piece – and even more embarrassingly, a crucial loss for China in the match. 32…fxg5 33.Qe4 Qe6 34.Qxe5 Qxe5 35.Nxe5 White at least as some slim hopes with a couple of pawns for his mishap in the middle of the board – but Lenderman proves ruthless in converting his material advantage. 35…Re8 36.Rd7 Nf6 37.Rb7 b4 38.Nd3 Bf8 39.Kf1 Ne4 40.Rb5 h6 41.h4 Trying to exchange off as many pawns as possible is the correct thing to do in this scenario, but Lenderman is equally canny enough to make sure his h-pawn stays on the board. 41…gxh4 42.gxh4 Nd2+ 43.Kg2 Rxe2 44.Nxb4 Without the h-pawns, Ni Hua would have good prospects of holding on for a draw – but the Black h-pawn make all the difference. 44…Re4 45.Nd5 Rxh4 46.f4 Rg4+ 47.Kh3 Marginally better was 47.Kf2 Rg6 48.b4 Rd6 as the White king doesn’t have to worry about falling into any possible mating nets – but regardless, the extra piece should see an easy Black win. 47…Rg1 48.Rb7 Ne4 49.b4 Bd6 50.b5 Rd1 51.Ne7+ Kf7! White will have good saving chances after 51…Bxe7 52.Rxe7 Nc5 53.Kg4! as the active White king has designs on the all-important h-pawn. If that falls, then it is just a technical draw, even if Black wins the two remaining White pawns – and this could better explain the rationale of why Ni Hua opted for 47.Kh3 risking his king being cut-off. But Lenderman doesn’t fall for it and takes advantage of his opponent’s plight to decisively now bring his king into the game. 52.Nc6+ Ke6 53.Nd8+ Kf5 The knight checks have only succeeded in helping the king move up the board to pick-off the f-pawn. 54.Rf7+ Nf6 55.Kg2 Bxf4 The game is effectively over now. 56.Nc6 Rb1 57.Kf3 Rb3+ 58.Ke2 Kg6 59.Rb7 h5 60.Nd4 Re3+ 61.Kf1 h4 62.Ne2 Be5 0-1 Ni Hua resigns, as the only way to stop the h-pawn is going to see the White knight also being lost.