The chess jamboree that was to be the biennial Moscow Olympiad 2020, scheduled to take place from 5-17 August, fell victim to the global pandemic. But in the spirit of these strange times, the game’s governing body, Fide, and leading online platform Chess.com quickly collaborated to run an alternative ‘Online Olympiad’ with 163-nations – featuring teams of six players: two Open boards, two Women’s boards, and two Junior boards (one of which must go to a woman) – going for gold in rapid (G/15+5) play, which began in late July.
It was a brave and bold move by Fide and hosts Chess.com that first and foremost had to be applauded, but the reality is that this was perhaps a venture just too large and complicated to contemplate, especially as it was likely to come with many technical problems and issues spread across several nations and time zones. And regretfully, the climax of the knockout stage descending into complete chaos and farce.
Team USA – GMs Wesley So, Sam Shankland, and Ray Robson (Open); IMs Carissa Yip and Anna Zatonskih, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan (Women); and GM Jeffery Xiong, IM Annie Wang (U20) – were seeded into the Group divisions, and duly won to join Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, India, Azerbaijan, Poland and Hungary in the knockout quarterfinals.
After emphatically beating Ukraine, the USA was unlucky to then be knocked out by Russia in the semifinals – but the tournament started to come under critical scrutiny and then bitter acrimony during the India-Armenia quarterfinal match, as one of the Armenian players was disconnected in a drawn position, and lost on time. Armenia’s appeal was rejected and the country withdrew from the competition in protest. But worse was to come.
In the showpiece final on Sunday between India and Russia, the first mini-match was tied at 3-3 with six draws, and with the second mini-match still very much in the balance, though with Russia narrowly holding the clubhouse lead on 2.5-1.5 with the only win of the match, India could only watch on in total disbelief and horror as two of their players – one likely winning, which likely would have taken the final to a tiebreak decider – were disconnected during the Cloudflare global internet outage, resulting in their team losing the match 4.5-1.5.
And after losing their appeal, India received an unlikely reprieve when Fide president Arkady Dvorkovitch – perhaps fearful of a bigger political backlash after the Armenian farrago – stepped in to announce that two winners would be the fairest result and that both teams would receive the gold medal. Dvorkovich’s executive decision was no doubt taken as a diplomatic/PR solution to something that was simply out of India’s control, but for the fans and the players, it immediately entered into the realms of Schrödinger’s cat syndrome with both nations winning while at the same time both not winning!
Although the result was accepted, there was disquiet and lots of grumblings in the Russian camp over the decision. “Let’s clarify one thing: India didn’t win the Olympiad, but was rather named by Fide a co-champion,” tweeted former world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk. “Imho, there is a huge difference between actually ‘winning’ the gold or just being awarded one without winning a single game in the final.”
And with his usual scintilla of sarcasm, her team-mate Ian Nepomniachtchi also chipped in with his tweet: “Smart decision to please Indian chess community. Meanwhile forgetting about other fans and players. Selective nobleness.”
They do have a valid point here as professionals, as many of the players involved in the match would have accepted and much preferred that the final be decided in a competitive sporting manner, with either all six players returning to replay the second mini-match from scratch, or even perhaps the two games affected by the outage being replayed from move 1.
GM Wesley So – GM Yasser Quesada Perez
Online Olympiad, | Group D, (5)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 The Petrov was a big favourite of the legendary US champion Frank J. Marshall. 3.d4 Nxe4 4.Bd3 d5 5.Nxe5 Bd6 6.0-0 0-0 7.c4 c5!? The vagaries of online play, as there was some speculation that this fairly rare continuation might well have been a mouse-slip, either that or deep preparation, as 7…c6 is usually standard here. I tend to subscribe to the former, especially how quickly the crisis point came to make it easy cannon fodder for we chess writers! 8.cxd5 Nf6 9.Bg5 cxd4 10.Re1 Be7 11.Nd2 Nxd5 12.Qh5 The attacking moves come naturally in such positions. 12…g6 13.Nxg6!?! Well, that throws Schrödinger’s cat amongst the pigeons! And especially as 13.Bxe7 gxh5 14.Bxd8 Rxd8 15.Ndf3 would have left So with a nice structural advantage heading into the ending, despite being a pawn down. The reality is that Black can never hold onto the extra pawn, and the question is whether White can exert enough pressure to win more than the pawn back? So either Wesley So felt there’s wasn’t quite enough there to guarantee him a win, he didn’t completely see the critical line, or he was bluffing in the hope his opponent would crumble under the pressure. 13…fxg6 14.Bxg6 hxg6 15.Qxg6+ Kh8 16.Qh5+ Kg8 17.Qg6+ Kh8 18.Qh5+ Kg8 19.Bh6 [see diagram] And we now reach the crunch position. Either So was going to take the perpetual now with 19.Qg6+, or make his opponent sweat it out by finding the right ‘only-moves’ to stay in the game. 19…Rf6?! And with it, So’s bluff pays off right away as his Cuban opponent does indeed begin to crumble under the pressure. The brave hold was 19…Qe8 20.Qxd5+ Qf7! 21.Qe5 (It’s a bit risky to try 21.Qxd4 Nc6 22.Qd3 Re8 23.Qg3+ Kh7 24.Bg5 Bxg5 25.Qxg5 Bf5 it’s likely still going to be a draw, but Black marginally has the better of it here.) 21…Bf6 22.Qd6 Rd8 23.Qg3+ Kh7 24.Bg5 Bxg5 25.Qxg5 Nc6 26.Re4! It looks dangerous, and perhaps seeing ‘ghosts’ in lines like this explains why Black collapsed, but after 26…Qg7 27.Qh5+ Qh6 28.Qf7+ Kh8! 29.Nf3 Rf8! forcing 30.Qb3 Qf6 and Black has successfully repelled the attack to emerge with a slight edge due to the extra piece and that problematic passed d-pawn. 20.Re5 Rd6?? Quesada is drinking at the last-chance saloon. His only way to hang on was with 20…Rxh6! 21.Qxh6 Nc6 22.Rh5! Kf7 The king has to take the walk of shame, but it is not easy to try to galvanise your defences here. 23.Re1! Qf8! 24.Qh7+ Qg7 25.Qxg7+ Kxg7 26.Rxd5 Bb4 27.Re2 Bxd2 28.Rxd2 Be6 29.Rc5 White emerges with a solid edge with the three passed kingside pawns – but then again, the minor pieces combined with the passed d-pawn offer excellent chances to hold for Black with careful play. 21.Rxd5! Quesada has overlooked that 21…Rxd5 22.Qg6+ is followed by a mate – and with it, Black is doomed. 21…Bf8 It’s all academic now as there’s no defence. After 21…Nc6 22.Ne4 it’s either mate with a Qg6+ or Black faces a heavy loss of material – just as happens in the game. 22.Rg5+ Qxg5 23.Qxg5+ Kf7 24.Qh5+ Kg8 25.Bxf8 Kxf8 26.Qh8+ Kf7 27.Qxc8 1-0