John Henderson
By John Henderson

It’s the big calm before the storm, as most of the world’s top players are now en route to Batumi in Georgia, with the opening ceremony for the 43rd Chess Olympiad getting underway on Sunday. This 180-nation mega-team tournament is one of the signature events on the world chess calendar for Fide, the game’s governing body. The first Olympiad was held in 1924 in Paris – born out of a side event run alongside the Paris Olympic Games – and, after an interruption for World War II, has been held every two years since 1950.

The postwar Olympiad hegemony of the Soviet Union, and then Russia taking over the mantle, is now something of a distant past. From their first appearance at the Helsinki Olympiad in 1952, the USSR/Russia teams dominated the top spot on the podium, winning the venerable Hamilton-Russell Cup (which since 2016 has been in-situ at the World Chess Hall of Fame in Saint Louis) no fewer than 24 times out of a possible 26 – but Russia has failed to capture gold now since 2004.

After their historic win in Baku in 2016, the United States (with Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Shankland) are not only the defending champions, but also top seeds (by virtue of the average rating over the first four boards) in Batumi, rated 2772, ahead of Russia (Vladimir Kramnik, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Sergey Karjakin and Dmitry Jakovenko) on 2764, and China (Ding Liren, Yangyi Yu, Wei Yi and Wang Hao) at 2755.

But that didn’t mean that before hastily packing suitcases this week, some of the Olympiad top stars didn’t make time in their busy schedules to play a little online chess to entertain the fans. On Thursday evening, the latest quarterfinal match in the Chess.com Speed Chess Championship witnessed Levon Aronian of Armenia, beating the Dutch No.1, Anish Giri, 18-11, to ease his way into the semifinal.

The match was full of tactics galore, some wonderful, some insightful, but also mainly of the thrilling coffeehouse variety due to the time controls getting tighter and tighter. And these two evenly-matched combatants and friends played in good humour throughout, with Giri humorously tweeting the next morning before departing for his flight, “Feeling ready for the Batumi Olympiad after an intense three hour Skype training with Levon Aronian last night.”

GM Levon Aronian – GM Anish Giri
Chess.com Speed Chess Championship, (3m+1spm)
Queen’s Pawn: Mason Attack
1.d4 Nf6 2.Bf4 The Mason Attack – named after the 19th-century Irish master, James Mason, who made his mark in the chess world after he and his family immigrated to America to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine in the early 1860s – is a close cousin to the London System. But, by delaying the development of king’s knight, White has other options rather than going for the full London. 2…c5 3.e3 Qb6 With the early development of the bishop, b2 is the obvious target – but White has lots of active ways to play from here. 4.Nc3 cxd4 It all gets ‘a bit messy’ if Black takes on b2, for example, 4…Qxb2 5.Nb5 Nd5 6.a3! and suddenly Black has to be careful not losing his queen to Rb1 and Qc1. Also, apart from the queen to worry about, in addition there’s the threat hanging in the air of a Nc7+ should the …Nd5 move. 5.exd4 a6 6.Bc4 Aronian doesn’t care about b2 now, as he just gets on with the job of rapidly developing his pieces on active squares. 6…e6 7.Nge2 d5 8.Bb3 Bd7 9.0-0 Aronian is fully-developed and ready to attack – but Giri has a very solid position that’s not so easy to breakdown. However, the ever-creative Aronian finds a wonderful way to coordinate all his pieces for a spectacular attack. 9…Be7 10.Qe1 It looks innocuous, but Aronian has a cunning plan in mind. 10…0-0 11.Rd1 Nc6 12.Rd3!? This is Aronian’s plan, with the queen shuffling to the side to make way for him going ‘all in’ with the dramatic rook lift of Rd1-d3-h3. 12…Na5 13.Rh3 Rfc8 14.Bg5 Qd8 15.f4 Aronian is ‘pot-committed’ to the attack – there’s no holding him back now. 15…h6 Perhaps better was 15…Nxb3 16.axb3 (White could try 16.cxb3 saving the c-pawn, but Black’s game comes to life after 16…b5 17.f5 b4 18.Na4 Rc2 with both sides having chances.) 16…b5 17.Qh4 b4 18.Bxf6 Bxf6 19.Qxh7+ Kf8 as there’s no winning attack for White and, long-term, Black – with the bishop-pair – will pick-off the weak queenside pawns. 16.Qh4!? Aronian is not going to hold back now! 16…Kf8 You can understand why Giri might want to remove his king from the danger zone, but he might have offered more resistance by putting the queen rather than the king on f8, as after 16…Qf8 the bishop sacrifice doesn’t work anymore – though Black will have to awkwardly rejig his pieces to defend accurately with …Re8 and …Bd8 etc. 17.Bxh6! This is just too tempting – and especially in a blitz game, where suddenly everything can turn random! 17…gxh6 18.Qxh6+ Ke8 19.Qh8+ Bf8 20.f5 If Black’s defences are ripped open, White’s pieces will move in for the kill. 20…Nxb3 21.axb3 exf5 It’s defending ugly, but ugly was the only way to defend now. 22.Nf4 Rc6 23.Ncxd5 Nxd5 24.Nxd5 Be6 It’s the natural way to defend, and kudos to Giri for hanging in there amidst the swirling storm – but alas, in such flying by the seat of your pants scenario, it is always easier to be the one attacking rather than the one defending! 25.Nf6+ Ke7 26.Re3? The adrenalin of blitz is kicking in now, and Aronian can only think of going in for the kill now – but he had to play 26.Qh4 f4 27.Rd3 Bf5 28.Ne4+ Kd7 29.Qxf4 with a double-edged position, that will more or likely fizzle out to a draw, as the extra piece is countered by the two pawns and Black’s king exposed. 26…Rxc2 27.Kh1 Aronian wants to plough on with d5 – but to do so, he has to waste a valuable move removing his king from the threat of …Qb6 pinning the rook. 27…Kd6 The position certainly isn’t as easy as it looks, as Black simply can’t sacrifice the rook to parry the threats and simplify everything. If 27…Rd2 28.d5 Rxd5 29.Qh4! Looks good enough for equality. Now, if 29…Ra5 (No better is 29…Rd6 30.Rg3! Qa5 31.Rc3! Rc6 32.Rd1! Rxc3 33.Ng8+ Ke8 34.Nf6+ Ke7 35.Ng8+ forcing a draw be repetition.) 30.b4 Rb5 31.Ne4+ Ke8 32.Nf6+ Ke7 33.Ne4+ Again forcing a repetition – of course, all easy for me to show from the comfort of my playing engine pointing this all out! 28.d5 [see diagram] 28…Be7? It’s crunch time with the clock ticking and his king exposed to the elements, as alas Giri errs big time by moving the wrong bishop. Instead, after 28…Bd7! it is not easy to see how White saves the game with his material deficit now, as the Black king runs to safety on the queenside via c7 – the likely scenario running 29.Nh7 Kc7 30.Nxf8 Qxf8 31.d6+ Qxd6 32.Qxa8 Bc6! and the hit on g2 looks to be a decisive one. 29.Qh6 Ah, the joys of blitz in a time-scramble! The clinical win was 29.Ne8+! Qxe8 30.Qe5+ Kd7 31.dxe6+ fxe6 32.Qxe6+ Kc7 33.Qe5+ Kb6 34.Qd4+ Kc7 35.Qd3 Rc6 36.Qe2 and Black can’t prevent the loss of the bishop. 29…Bxf6 30.dxe6 fxe6?? Giri blunders away his queen, and the pendulum swings wildly once again! Black wins with the simple 30…Qh8! 31.Rd1+ Kc6 32.Qf4 Rd8 and once again, White is the one fighting for survival. 31.Rd3+ Kc6 1-0

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