This week I have the final wrap-up from the Olympiad, where the medals were ultimately decided by tiebreak. The United States, China, and Russia all ended up tied for first with eight match wins, one loss, and two draws. This time the tiebreak was not kind to the U.S., and the Chinese team took the gold medal. The US Settled for silver, with the Russians, who came from way back to reach the podium, earning bronze.
Since we left off last week, the Americans scored a huge match victory in round eight against the Azeris, who had looked invincible to that point. Wesley So dropped the point to Radjabov, but Shankland and Caruana ground out long victories to turn a potential loss into a match win. The legend of Fabi grew as his relentless pressure wore down Mamedyarov:
Unfortunately, the tournament took a dramatic downturn in round nine against the upstart Poles when the stars and stripes dropped a bizarro version of the previous match. This time the Americans suffered a loss on board three, when Piorun took down Nakamura. Caruana and Shankland had highly favorable positions, but this time instead of two wins, they both came up empty and Poland squeezed out a narrow victory. Shankland’s extra pawn in a rook ending sure looked promising, though perhaps not winning, but the miracle man, Jacek Tomczak, held the draw. Caruana definitely missed a win against Duda. In a seesaw battle, Fabi emerged with an extra piece, though very few pieces left. His technique could certainly be questioned in this case, though to me it wasn’t easy to win. But he did have a giant opportunity at a critical moment, which we will now examine.
The U.S. bounced back with a big win over Armenia, with Shankland scoring the decisive point against Melkumyan in a game chronicled by Yermo in his Olympiad recap. China made their big move, leapfrogging Poland by delivering their only loss in the event. Yermo has also analyzed the decisive game with a great ring to it - Ding-Duda - which was an immensely complicated game that went for the still-on-a-roll Chinese top gun. In the last round, U.S. vs. China resulted in four draws.
Last round: USA vs. China - Photo: © David Lada
It was a very difficult match to play, as the final tiebreak tends to be unpredictable. Many pundits predicted a tie would be good enough for the Americans, and perhaps they thought so too, but it was not to be. Meanwhile, the hard-charging Russians had no margin for error over the last several rounds, but managed to medal by defeating France in the final round, the following short win by Nepomniachtchi providing the difference:
That win dashed the medal hopes of Poland, who tied with India 2-2. Every Olympiad, it seems, there is an outsider (not U.S., China, or Russia and its former republics) that performs way above expectations. Poland played all the top ten seeds and was in medal position for every round but the last. So it’s a great result, but a bittersweet finish. England took fifth, a fine result for them, while Azerbaijan found themselves behind the likes of Sweden and Austria in the final standings.
Okay, let’s do a little post-mortem on the American team. Caruana, who played every round after arriving for round three, finished +4 with several key victories.
The missed opportunity against Duda shows he is human, but he is a great leader for this team, and I think, looking good for his big match with Carlsen.
Wesley So played in every game, also scoring +4, five wins and oneloss. His last four games produced the loss to Radjabov and three draws, so perhaps he was a bit worn out, but he certainly gave it his all for the U.S.
USA GM Wesley So - Photo: © David Lada
Once again, Shankland produced in the Olympiad, also notching +4. He lost to Sutovsky of Israel, but countered with three wins over 2600+ guys - van Foreest, Mamedov, and Melkumyan. And he did this with only one game off.
Ray Robson wasn’t given much to do, but two wins and two draws in four games certainly didn’t hurt the team’s chances.
The weak link was Nakamura, who produced no wins after the first round, and suffered the gold-crushing defeat against Poland. I haven’t looked at all his games in detail, but his play did look lackluster. I’m sure that he is deeply disappointed at his lack of production - it would be quite unfair to suggest, as I’m sure many fans will, that he doesn’t care. But he is certainly in some kind of funk. I can only speculate on the cause - not getting to participate in the Candidates, dropping from #1 in America to #3, or perhaps something away from the chessboard. I don’t think we should write him off; he is still young enough and too talented. But he has to find a way to get his mojo back. Looking at how the seemingly more impressive result from the U.S. came second to China, and the Poles, who had a great tournament, lost the bronze to the Russians, who had a poor tournament, some fans and even players have suggested the system or format has to be changed. I have sweated out tiebreaks in the Olympiad myself; it may be cruel, but it’s fair. As Caruana pointed out after the last round, the tiebreaks didn’t come through for them this time, but they did in 2016.
I don’t think playoff would be an improvement. The bottom line is that chess produced draws, and playoffs may have to come down to rapid, blitz, or even worse, Armageddon games, which would defeat the purpose. The Swiss System is exciting for fans, and though it produced heartbreak and seemingly unjust results, that’s just part of sports.
On the Women’s side, the gold was also decided on tiebreaks, with China again winning over Ukraine.
The Chinese women were particularly fortunate as Ju Wenjun wore down Alexandra Kosteniuk in a dead drawn ending to tie the final match with Russia.
Ju and Kosteniuk
Georgia took the Bronze. The Ukrainians put themselves in position to win by soundly trouncing the U.S. in the last round. The American team can still be proud of their result, tying for fourth and coming seventh on tiebreak. They also had their weak link, as Sabina Foisor had a very uncharacteristic three losses in four games, leaving a heavy load for the other players, who thrived at the extra work. The other players performed at or above their ratings. I believe Jennifer Yu notched an IM norm with 8/10 before dropping the last game, while Tatev Abrahamyan overcame a slow start and scored 3.5 in the last four rounds, including a defeat of a former Women’s world champion, Anna Ushenina, though admittedly one who demonstrated she cannot checkmate with knight and bishop. So a good Olympiad for the U.S., and nearly a great one. That does it for this week, next time I’ll have non-Olympiad news as tournaments start cranking up again.
GM Joel Benjamin