With the absence of multi-time winners Russia and defending champions China at the 44th Chess Olympiad in Chennai, the smart pre-tournament betting was that perhaps only the Indian team, playing on home turf, could now stand in the way of top seeds USA once again capturing gold and the Hamilton-Russell Cup – but as many were quick to point out, including World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the top two host-nation teams are capable of a podium finish!
Remarkably, India’s passage to becoming the host nation of the biennial team contest came very late in the day, as they replaced original hosts Russia at short notice following the geopolitical fallout after the invasion of Ukraine – yet despite having only a matter of a few months to organise and sponsor the behemoth international event, with 188 teams in the Open competition and 162 in the Women’s event, India seems to have worked miracles with the logistics to produce arguably one of the best Olympiad’s of recent times.
But it is not going to plan for some of the top seeds and favourites, as they start to wobble early in the contest, which could allow India to shine big-time on the world stage. Dramatically, the first of the favourites to crash was Carlsen’s Norway in round three, with the 3rd seeds going down to a shock 3.5-0.5 defeat to unfancied Italy, the whitewash only prevented by Carlsen drawing with Daniele Vocaturo.
And in round four, there was another early shock in store as the star-studded USA team scrambled to just hold onto a draw against the young Uzbekistan team, with 17-year-old rising star Nodirbek Abdusattorov, the World Rapid Champion, sensationally beating world #5 Fabiano Caruana to tie the match with the top seeds – not just a set-back for USA, but also a personal set-back for Caruana who now crashes down the unofficial live ratings to #8, just below the absent Hikaru Nakamura.
Second seeds India I also had to be content with a 2-2 draw against a Firouzja- and MVL-less France, seeded 15th, to be slightly knocked off the pace of the leading pack on maximum points – but the young guns of India II rolls on, much to the excitement of the very patriotic home crowd and the national media.
With a teenage-team built around Gukesh D, Nihal Sarin, Praggnanandhaa and Raunak Sadhwani, they now nominally head the five-strong leading group tied at the top on maximum points – along with Israel, England, Spain and Armenia – after winning all four matches, their latest being an impressive 3-1 steamrolling over Italy.
1-5. India II, Israel, England, Spain, Armenia 8/8; 6-17. France, Turkey, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Canada, India I, Azerbaijan, Slovakia, Romania, Iran, Poland, USA 7. Women’s: 1-8. Poland, France, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, India I, India II, Romania, Georgia 8/8; USA tied for 12th-45th place on 6 points.
Photo: The young guns of India II could well be the team to watch | © Lennart Ootes/44th Chennai Olympiad
GM Gukesh D – GM Daniele Vocaturo
44th Chennai Olympiad, (4.1)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 c5 5.cxd5 cxd4 More normal in the Semi-Tarrasch is 5…Nxd5 – but the text, I believe, was originally played in the fabled Zurich Candidates Tournament 1953 by Paul Keres. Currently back in vogue, the whole line though looks more like an improved version of the Schara-Henning-Gambit (without the gambit), and apparently has a reputation of being “drawish”. 6.Qxd4 exd5 7.Bg5 Be7 8.e3 0-0 9.Rd1! “Study my Chessable course, win the World Cup!” boasted Sam Shankland immediately after JK Duda beat Sergey Karjakin en route to the biggest tournament victory of the Pole’s life. The US Grandmaster had indeed published the winning ideas in his “Lifetime Repertoire 3 course“, showing all the key moves and motifs that Gukesh D now deploys to win this game! 9…Be6 10.Qa4 h6 11.Bxf6 Bxf6 The d5-pawn is lost anyway, but Vocaturo is hoping his active bishop-pair and better king security offers good compensation. 12.Nxd5 White can try a more subtle approach with 12.Be2 but after the forcing 12…Qb6 13.Rd2 Na6 14.Bxa6 Bxc3 15.bxc3 Qxa6 16.Qxa6 bxa6 17.0-0 Rfc8 we see why this line has a “drawish” reputation. To avoid this, Gukesh D is willing to play on the edge. 12…Bxd5 13.Qb5 Bxb2 The safer option was 13…a6 14.Qxd5 Qxd5 15.Rxd5 Bxb2 16.Be2 Nc6 and take your struggle from here. 14.Rxd5 Bc3+ 15.Kd1 Qe7 More challenging was 15…Qf6! 16.Bc4 Nc6 17.Ke2 a6 18.Qb1 (It’s too dangerous to snatch the b-pawn. After 18.Qxb7?? Rab8 Black has a winning advantage already.) 18…Ne5 19.Nxe5 Bxe5 20.Qe4! Rae8 21.Bd3 g6 22.Qf3 and once again, one of those “drawish” positions. 16.Bc4 Na6 17.Ke2! With the rook now able to come into the game and his king perfectly safe in the middle of the board, all of White’s problems have been resolved. 17…Rac8 18.Qb3 Nb4 19.Rf5 Bf6? It all starts to irrevocably slip away from Vocaturo from this moment. Best was the tactical point 19…Qd7! 20.g4 Qc7 21.Bxf7+ Rxf7 22.a3! Bf6 (If 22…Na6 23.Rc1! Qc4+ 24.Qxc4 Rxc4 25.Rxf7 Kxf7 26.Kd3 the game should eke out to a draw.) 23.axb4 Qc2+ 24.Nd2 Qxb3 25.Nxb3 Rc4 26.f4 Rxb4 27.Nc5 Rb2+ 28.Kf3 a5 and, if anything, despite the material being equal, Black’s passed queenside pawns look the more dangerous. 20.Rb5! a5 21.Rxa5 Nc6? One mistake begets another, and and all the begets begin to mount up for the Italian. Better was 21…Rc7 defending f7 and b7, and if 22.Ra4 b5! 23.Rxb4 bxc4 24.Rxc4 Rb7 25.Qa4 Rb2+ 26.Rc2 Qe8! A timely tactical response quickly found by the engine, that seems to resolve Black’s problems, as now 27.Qxe8 Rxc2+ 28.Kd1 Rxe8 29.Kxc2 Ra8 White can’t defend the a-pawn, and the resulting ending R+N v R+B plus 4 v 3 on the kingside, should end in a draw with careful play. 22.Rb5 It’s not just losing the b-pawn that gives White a big advantage, it’s the also the mounting pressure on f7. 22…b6 23.Bd5 Not 23.Rxb6?? Na5! that completely turns the tables. 23…Na7? Vocaturo was in a bad way, but now he’s rapidly going downhill with all the velocity of Franz Klammer! The best try was 23…Na5 24.Qa4 Rfd8 25.Rhb1 Qe8 26.Qe4 Qd7 27.Kf1 Rc3 and although the engine prefers White, Black’s active pieces offers genuine hopes of salvaging the draw. 24.Rxb6 Rc3 25.Qb1 Qc5 26.Rd1 All of White’s pieces are now actively-placed and in the game, and his king is set to walk to safety by castling by hand. 26…Rc2+ 27.Kf1 Rd8 28.Ne1! Shunting the annoying rook, the only thing that’s keeping Black in the game. 28…Rc3 29.Bxf7+! [see diagram] The tactical finesse decides the game. 29…Kf8 No better was 29…Kxf7 30.Rxf6+ Kxf6 31.Rxd8 Nc6 32.Rd1 and White is simply three-pawns to the good with a secure king. 30.Bh5 Nc6 31.Rxd8+ Bxd8 32.Qg6! With multiple mates now threatened, the end comes swiftly. 32…Qc4+ 33.Kg1 Ke7 34.Rb7+ 1-0 And Vocaturo resigns with mate to follow after 34…Bc7 35.Rxc7+ Kd8 36.Qd6#