We all talk of the postwar Olympiad hegemony of the Soviet Union/Russia – but before the war, the United States was the game’s leading superpower. In the early formative years of the biennial event, the US was the team to beat, winning gold four times in-a-row from 1931 to 1937. Now we’ve gone full-circle with Team USA re-emerging as the game’s leading chess superpower and once again the team everyone wants to beat.
In Baku 2016, with the assistance of wealthy Saint Louis chess benefactor Rex Sinquefield, Team USA fielded their strongest-ever team – Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Sam Shankland and Ray Robson – to clinch a historic victory, their first gold since the Soviet and Eastern bloc boycotted Haifa Olympiad back in 1976.
And with the same gold medal-winning lineup, Team USA are the top seeds – a role normally reserved for the Soviets/Russia since they made their debut in Helsinki 1952 – and favourites to retain their title at the 43rd Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia, as play officially got underway earlier today following Sunday’s very spectacular opening ceremony.
One of the joys of the Olympiad is its egalitarian status in the early rounds, as many untitled, non-professional players get to play on equal terms with some of the game’s leading grandmasters. And while there was no giant-killing team wins, there were a couple of standout individual grandmaster takedown performances, specifically: Morocco’s Mohamed-Mehdi Aithmidou taking down the 500-rating points higher-rated GM Li Chao of China, and 1937-rated Rijendra Rajbhandari of Nepal beating GM Aman Hambleton of Canada.
And Team USA even survived an early scare – and even before they got into the playing hall to make a move in defence of their title! With it being the opening round, there was the inevitable lengthy delay with the players’ security, and despite arriving well before the start, the team narrowly avoided being defaulted to Panama, reportedly only saved by the fact that the opening round was delayed by seven minutes!
With World Championship challenger and US No.1 Fabiano Caruana sitting out the first round, when Team USA did finally manage to get to their boards, they soon made up for the lost time on the clocks by getting off to a flying start with an emphatic 4-0 win over Panama, with the rout lead by an inspired Hikaru Nakamura miniature on board two. And in the Women’s Olympiad, Team USA, seeded ninth, also had a resounding 3-1 win over Uruguay.
Round 1 (Top results):
1. USA 4-0 Panama; 2. Uganda 0-4 Russia; 3. China 3-1 Morocco; 4. India 3.5-0.5 El Salvador; 5. Zambia 0.5-3.5 Ukraine; 6. France 4-0 Yemen; 7. Japan 0.5-3.5 Armenia; 8. England 3-1 Angola; 9. Bolivia 0-4 Israel; 10. Poland 4-0 Guatemala; 11. Madagascar 1-3 Hungary; 12. Netherlands 4-0 Lebanon; 13. ICCD 0.5-3.5 Georgia1; 14. Czech Republic 4-0 Trinidad & Tobago.
Photo: Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So lead the way with quick wins | © David Lada / Batumi Chess Olympiad
IM Jorge Baules – GM Hikaru Nakamura
Batumi Chess Olympiad, (1)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Capablanca Variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 b6 A provocative answer to Capablanca’s Classical variation that’s been a long-time pet-line of Alexander Morozevich. With b6, Black is going “full Nimzowitsch” by overprotecting the e4 square with his bishop, which will go to b7. 5.e4 c5 As White expands his central pawns, Black must counter by undermining them immediately. 6.e5 cxd4 The constant chipping away at the pawn centre is the right strategy. 7.a3 Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Ng8 The retreat is not really a waste of time, as, long-term, the knight will re-emerge better placed on f5 via e7. 9.cxd4 Bb7 10.Nf3 Bxf3!?N It’s a novelty from Nakamura, but not by some hard work burning the midnight oil, more a hunch at the board that this strategic ploy will confuse his lower-rated opponent – and his gamble works. 11.gxf3 Nc6 12.Bb2 Nge7 13.Rg1 Rc8 14.Qe4 Too timid. When playing a much higher-rated player, you have to show no fear and create an element of chaos, otherwise, you will just be systematically squeezed off the board. Not that Nakamura isn’t up to the challenge, but Baules should have tried ‘mixing it’ with 14.d5 and double-edged possibilities after 14…exd5 15.Rxg7!? Ng6 16.cxd5 Ncxe5 17.Qf5 Qe7 18.Be2 where at least White’s bishop-pair has a lot of active possibilities. 14…Nf5 15.Bh3 Nce7! It’s amazing how, in the space of a couple of very accurate moves, Nakamura takes full control of the game and makes his knights stronger than his opponent’s bishop-pair. The key is how White’s pawns become undermined and the safety of Black’s king. 16.d5 b5! Nakamura relentlessly chips away at the pawn centre. Also, a tricky alternative was 16…Rc5!? as now 17.d6 Ng6 18.Bxf5 exf5 19.Qxf5 0-0! and White’s position is on the verge of collapse with c4 and e5 likely to fall with devastating consequences for the White king. 17.dxe6 Qa5+ A nice little intermezzo that soon seals the fate of the White king. 18.Kf1 dxe6 19.Qb7 0-0! 20.Rd1 White is in dire straits, and not in a good way with Mark Knopfler on lead guitar! If 20.Qxb5 Qd2! and White is either going to lose his king or his Bb2 – both quickly losing. 20…bxc4 21.Bc1 Qxe5 White’s position is on the verge of collapse now – the rest may be academic, but Nakamura finishes with a flourish. 22.Rd7 Rcd8! 23.Rxe7 There’s no salvation in this desperate position. If 23.Qc7 Rxd7! 24.Qxe5 Rd1+ 25.Ke2 Rxg1 26.Bxf5 Nxf5 27.Bd2 Rc8 there’s no stopping …Rb1 and …Rb3 to push the c-pawn up the board. 23…Rd1+ 24.Kg2 Nh4+ 25.Kh1 Qe1! 0-1 It’s always nice to finish your opening game in an Olympiad with a flourish with a queen sacrifice that forces mate!