Play got underway today in the 44th Chess Olympiad in Chennai, India, the team event that’s generally considered to be the chess highlight for both professionals and amateurs alike, where, despite notable geopolitical and Covid absentees, the biennial jamboree of the talents can still attract a record-breaking 188 teams in the Open competition and 162 in the Women’s event.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen leads the festival of top-titled players, with Norway as third seeds behind India and USA. But notably the Olympiad is weakened with the omission of multi-time winners Russia banned due to the Ukraine invasion, and also defending champions China because of lockdowns and travel restrictions.
With it, the USA moves up to claim the top seed spot, but missing is Hikaru Nakamura, though despite this the Stars and Stripes can still field a formidable team consisting of Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez and Sam Shankland that must make them strong favourites to once again win the Hamilton-Russell Cup.
The team to watch though, could well be hosts India – but which one! As hosts, India gets to field three teams. Missing is talisman Vishy Anand who has turned to politics by running for FIDE Deputy President, but they have an experienced first team with all their teenage superstars playing for India II, that World Champion Magnus Carlsen tipped as medal dark-horses…and even India III frightens him!
The opening rounds also sees the top seeds playing the minnows. While there usually isn’t many instances of team upsets, sometimes you do get the odd individual giant-killing opportunity, which gives an amateur something to brag about when they return home, or something to impress the grandkids later in life.
And while USA rested Caruana to beat Angola 3.5-0.5 in the opening round, there was a potential giant-killing moment in the offing, as top board and elite star Aronian found himself in a losing position but managed to agree a draw by “reputation” – a clear case of worrying that under pressure you might spoil a winning game by going all out for glory against a super-grandmaster, so you sheepishly bank the rating points.
Other (selected) opening round results: India I 4-0 Zimbabwe, Lebanon 0.5-3.5 Norway, UAE 0-4 India II, Spain 4-0 Wales, England 4-0 Cyprus . Women: Tajikistan 0-4 India, Ukraine 4-0 South Africa, Iraq 0-4 Georgia, Puerto Rica 0-4 USA. For full results, see the official Olympiad site or Chess24’s coverage.
Photo: The start of the top-board clash between USA and Angola – and Levon Aronian dodges a giant-killing moment | © Lennart Ootes/44th Chess Olympiad
GM Wesley So – FM Sergio Miguel
44th Chennai Chess Olympiad, (1.2)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Rubinstein Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e3 The Rubinstein Variation, named after the great Akiba Rubinstein – who first brought this line into praxis against Alexander Alekhine, during the famous St. Petersburg International of 1914 – is one of the most critical of White responses against the über-solid Nimzo-Indian. 4…0-0 5.Bd3 d5 This is the more common, orthodox response popularised during the golden era of chess through the 1950s – but equally popular is the alternative 5…c5 6.Nge2 d5 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 dxc4 9.Bxc4 Qc7 10.Ba2 b6 that came to the fore in the 1960s – and that featured in the epic Magnus Carlsen Tour Final between Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura back in 2020 that was brilliantly won by the world champion. 6.cxd5 exd5 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 b6 9.Ne2 Ba6 A common ploy when an amateur faces a titled-player/pro, is to exchange off all the pieces as quickly as possible to try to simplify the position – but this can often play to the strengths of the master. 10.0-0 Bxd3 11.Qxd3 Qc8 12.f3 Qa6 13.Qxa6 Nxa6 Miguel’s game-plan has worked so far, with lots of trades of minor pieces and the queens now off the board. And while this means there’s an unlikely chance of facing a withering kingside mating attack, So’s technique for exploiting strategical pawn weaknesses is very instructive – the very model of a Master v Amateur battle. 14.g4 c5 Nothing wrong per se with the move but, given the strength of the opponent Miguel is facing, and in view of his game-plan, I would have held tight for now with 14…h6 followed by …Rad8 and …Rfe8 and see what White does. 15.a4 Rfe8 16.Rd1 cxd4 17.cxd4 Nb4?! Miguel has a plan, but unfortunately it is a bad plan! The most tempting move for sure, but alas, in the long-term, it is weakening and leads to Black’s demise. Better was 17…Nc7 looking to bring the knight into the game via e6, and if 18.g5 Nh5 Stopping for now White’s knight coming to f4 or g3. 19.Bd2 Ne6 20.h4 Rac8 and take the struggle from here. 18.Rb1 a5? One bad move follows another, as So now expertly hones in on Black’s pawn weaknesses. That said, the alternative 18…Nc2 19.Kf2! h6 20.h4 Rac8 21.Rb5! leaves Black in a dilemma of what to do about the long-term safety of the marooned knight on c2, and also the worry of a timely a5 coming to leave two potentially ‘dead’ pawns to target on a7 and d5. 19.Bd2 Rac8 20.Rdc1 Now it is So who wants to trade off more pieces! The (full) point is that eventually Black will lose a pawn on the b-file. 20…Rxc1+ 21.Rxc1 h6 22.h4 g6 23.Rb1 Nc2 24.Kf2! Effectively ‘game over’, as So defends his only real pawn weakness and now sets about picking off one of the pawn weaknesses in his opponent’s camp. 24…Re6 25.Nf4 Rd6 26.Rc1 Na3 27.Rc8+ Kg7 28.Bc1! [see diagram] A very subtle and strategic retreat that leaves Black’s knight somewhat short of good squares, and forces it even further to the edge of the board. 28…Nb1 The only move. The obvious 28…Nc4? gets hit by 29.e4! Rd7 30.Rc6! and Black is more or less in zugzwang. 29.Ke2 g5 30.hxg5 hxg5 31.Nd3 b5 The only try, as Miguel desperately attempts to free his pieces from So’s grip of the position. The brave and only choice, but ultimately doomed. 32.axb5 Rb6 33.Ne5 Rxb5 34.Rc7! So quickly spots the flaw in Black’s bold bid to escape the bind. When the f7-pawn falls, in the fallout So will also pick-off more weak pawns. 34…Ne8 35.Rxf7+ Kg8 36.Ra7 A good practical winning plan as any, and certainly the most human approach, just putting the rook behind that passed a-pawn to keep it under tabs – the engine wants to go for 36.Kd3 a4 37.Kc2 a3 38.Ra7 Nd6 39.Ra6 Nc4 40.Nxc4 dxc4 41.Bxa3 Rb3 but So’s approach is the more pragmatic way to conclude the game. 36…Nd6 37.Kd1 Nc4 38.Nxc4 dxc4 39.Kc2 c3 40.d5! Taking full advantage of the fact that Black’s rook has to stay on the b-file to safeguard the knight marooned on b1. 40…Nd2 41.d6 Rd5 42.d7 1-0 And Miguel’s day in the spotlight comes to an end with no stopping Ra8 and d8=Q, as 42…Kf7 43.d8Q+ also loses.