Reigning Olympiad double champions China are once again the talk of the town at team chess, as they captured yet another major title by “beating” USA 2-2 in the Superfinal of the Online Nations Cup on Sunday – the culmination of a week-long, six team international tournament initiative from FIDE/chess.com, and held during a global pandemic lockdown that proved to be a winner for the players, media and the many chess fans who followed the intriguing contest.
China made all the early running to dominate and claim victory in the preliminary round-robin stage – and ultimately this proved to be the deciding factor in determining the outcome of the title. Going into the final day of the preliminaries, only one match-point and one board-point separated Team USA and Team Europe in the big battle for who would be joining China in the Superfinal.
After dramatically losing 1½-2½ to Europe in round 9, USA looked down and out – but in what proved to be a nerve-wracking final round 10 of the hard-fought contest, USA rallied to inflict on China their only defeat of the tournament, while Europe were held to a 2-2 draw with the Rest of the World. And with both USA and Europe tied on match-points, USA went forward to join China in the Superfinal by the slenderest of tiebreak margins of just half a board-point.
In the Superfinal, with the benefit of draw odds, China never really looked to be in trouble in the match, and they comfortably held the USA to a 2-2 draw to be the deserved winners of the inaugural title. China earned $48,00 for the victory, while the USA took $36,000. The remaining four teams also got $24,000 each. The MVP for the winning side was Yu Yanghi who scored 7½/10.
China may well have won the team plaudits for their victory, but kudos also has to go to the event’s overall MVP, Fabiano Caruana of Team USA, who was undefeated on 7½/9 – an impressive 3000+ rating performance from the world #2 that will go a long way to dispel those rumours from some commentators who say he isn’t a good rapid player!
A lot of credit has to go to the organisers and teams who showed plenty of goodwill throughout this elite-level event held at short notice during a global crisis. That said, the Superfinal – which was played in good spirits with no complaints whatsoever – proved to be something of an anti-climax, as those draw odds were just too generous to China in the shortened one-match scenario. If the tournament is to be repeated, then the organisers have to find a fairer way to decide the title.
Superfinal: China 2-2 USA
Ding Liren ½-½ Hikaru Nakamura (b)
Wei Yi 0-1 Fabiano Caruana
Yu Yangyi 1-0 Wesley So
Hou Yifan ½-½ Irina Krush
Photo: China – Wei Yi, Ding Liren, Wang Hao, Hou Yifan, Yu Yangyi & Ju Wenjun – win again! | © Online Nations Cup
GM Fabiano Caruana – GM Wei Yi
FIDE/Chess.com Online Nations Cup Final
1.e4 d5 A popular choice at club-level, the Scandinavian Defence – previously known as the Center Counter – was brought back into chess popularity by the great Dane himself, Bent Larsen. 2.exd5 Qxd5 For those with a spirit of adventure, there’s also the alternatives of the “Portuguese Variation” with 2…Nf6 3.d4 Bg4!? or after 3.c4 e6!? the “Icelandic Gambit”. 3.Nc3 Qd8!? “I don’t know anything after …Qd8,” commented Caruana after this game. Certainly somewhat unchartered territory for elite level, but some years ago, English IM Andrew Martin proposed this move backed with a very interesting article he published in CHESS Magazine, which he dubbed “The Banker”, as it was “simple, strong and very reliable”. Instead, there’s also two other queen retreats, those being the more common 3…Qa5 and 3…Qd6!? – but all three retreats aim to reach a sort of Caro-Kann type of position, while cutting down White’s attacking options. 4.d4 g6 5.Bc4 Bg7 6.Nf3 Nf6 7.0-0 0-0 8.h3 More usual here is 8.Re1 but Caruana goes for a simple yet good option, with a slower build-up. 8…Nc6 9.Bf4 b6 10.d5! It’s very tempting to play 10.Nb5 but after 10…a6! White can’t capture on c7 and now forced into the humiliating retreat of 11.Nc3 b5 12.Bb3 Bb7 where Black stands fine. Instead, Caruana opts to grab a little space with his 10.d5 that cramps Black’s play. 10…Na5 11.Be2 e6 It looks as if Wei’s risky experiment with 3…Qd8!? has backfired somewhat, with this pawn sacrifice being his only logical option to free his game – but with the queens being traded, he has good saving chances. 12.dxe6 Bxe6 13.Qxd8 Raxd8 14.Bxc7 Rc8 15.Be5 Nc6 16.Bh2 Bf5 17.g4! Black has “some play” for the pawn – but Caruana totally defuses all the potential dangers, and now looks to cash-in with his extra pawn. 17…Be6 As Caruana pointed out, Black can’t recapture the sacrificed pawn with 17…Bxc2 as White has 18.Rac1 Be4 19.Nd2! (Not 19.g5?! Bxf3 20.gxf6 Bxe2 21.fxg7 Rfe8! and Black is doing more than OK.) 19…Nd4 20.Ba6 and Black is in trouble. 18.Rad1 Apart from the pawn, White also has the better-developed pieces – and with it, Caruana relentlessly presses on to eke out a win. 18…Na5 19.Be5 Bc4 20.Rfe1 Rfe8 21.Nb5 Bxe2 22.Rxe2 Nc4 23.Nxa7 Much stronger may well have been 23.Rde1! a6 24.Nd6! with a clear advantage – but not so the immediate 23.Nd6?! Nxd6 24.Rxd6 Nxg4! 25.hxg4 f6 which Caruana felt was unclear. 23…Nxe5 24.Rxe5 Rxc2 25.g5 Rxe5 26.Nxe5 Ne8 27.Nac6 Bxe5?! It’s the critical moment of the game, and Caruana felt Wei had to try 27…f6!? which the engine certainly concurs with, noting that after 28.Rd8 Kf8! 29.Nd7+ Kf7 30.gxf6 Bxf6 and Black seems to have equality, the best scenario White having being 31.Rc8!? Rxb2 32.Rxe8 Kxe8 33.Nxf6+ Kf7 34.Nxh7 Rxa2 35.Ng5+ Kf6 36.Ne4+ Kf5 which pretty much looks like its heading for a draw. 28.Nxe5 Rxb2 29.Rd8 Kf8 30.Rd7 Re2? The fatal error. Wei had to play 30…Rxa2 31.Rxf7+ Kg8 32.Rd7 Ra8 and try to defend from here, although White’s more active and dangerous pieces offers genuine winning chances. 31.Rxf7+ Kg8 32.Re7 Re1+ 33.Kh2! [see diagram] Caruana’s winning technique is impressive, as it would have been so easy to fall into 33.Kg2 only to see that 33…Ng7! and White still has a lot of work left to do to convert any possible win. The point being that 34.Nxg6? walks right into 34…Ne6! and White is in trouble. 33…Ng7 34.Nxg6! Just winning now, as Black no longer has the …Ng7-e6-f4+ potential game-saver. 34…Ra1 35.Ne5 Rxa2 36.Ng4 Not only defending f2, but also threatening Nh6+ or Nf6+ winning. 36…Kf8 37.Rb7 Not only does White have the extra pawn, but he also has easy targets of other weak pawns to hit. 37…Ne6 38.h4 Ra4 39.Kg3 Defending the knight and the f2 pawn – the end is now nigh, as those placard-carrying street soothsayers would say. 39…Nd4 40.Nh6 Ne2+ 41.Kf3 Nd4+ 42.Kg4 Cool play from Caruana, as Black can’t even get anything from the discovered check. 42…Ne6+ 43.Kg3 1-0 Wei resigns, faced with 43…Ra3+ 44.f3! Nd4 45.Rf7+ Ke8 46.Kg4 and White will slowly but surely push forward his g- and h-pawns to victory.