Chess: Russia capture Olympiad gold, edging weakened US team 7-5

Russia’s highly rated squad won gold at last week’s 150-nation online Olympiad, yet the US silver medal team could argue that they were moral victors. Playing without all their top stars, the Americans were defeated by only a narrow 7-5 margin in a tense final match.

Earlier in the semi-finals, Russia beat China while the US, again the rating underdogs, eliminated India in a speed tie-break. These four countries are in a class apart, the superpowers of world chess.

USA v Russia/Soviet Union is a chess pairing with historic resonance dating right back to 1945, when the USSR team led by Mikhail Botvinnik scored a crushing 15.5-4.5 win against a US team which had won four successive Olympiads in the 1930s.

Later matches also had memorable moments, such as Leipzig 1960 when the rising stars Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal drew a sharp French Defence, Varna 1962 when Fischer was close to tears after mishandling a won endgame against Botvinnik, or Siegen 1970 when Boris Spassky won brilliantly against Fischer.

More recently Yasser Seirawan beat Garry Kasparov at Dubai 1986, while at Baku 2016 the US won gold with Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Sam Shankland on the top four boards.

Move on to 2021, and the Baku quartet were all absent from this week’s gold medal match because the online Olympiad clashed with the annual Champions Showdown in St Louis, whose date is fixed around 7 September, the birthday of America’s chess benefactor Rex Sinquefield.

Would the missing quartet have made the difference? That it is not clear. Playing over the games suggests that one or two of the Russians, confident in their paper superiority, took the match lightly. The under-20 board, where Awonder Liang won 2-0 against Andrey Esipenko, was the prime example, as the player who defeated Magnus Carlsen at Wijk 2021 made basic errors.

Russia were also superior on the women’s boards, though they had a significant reversal in the semi-final against China where the all-time No 2, Hou Yifan, defeated Aleksandra Goryachkina, Russia’s candidate to be the next champion. The most spectacular game of the match, featured in this week’s puzzle, was also on a women’s board.

Meanwhile, Magnus Carlsen made a dramatic late spurt to win first prize in Stavanger after Friday evening’s final round. Stavanger’s unique scoring system awards three points for a classical win, while draws are immediately replayed as Armageddons where 2.5 points are split 1.5-1.

The net outcome was that Carlsen, who started slowly and lost in an early round to his old rival Sergey Karjakin, trailed well behind the leader, Richard Rapport, as the Hungarian, 25, at one stage advanced to No 6 in the live ratings. Then came the world champion’s surge, which climaxed with a typical endgame grind against Rapport.

Alireza Firouzja, 18, won four games in a row at the end, enabling the former Iranian prodigy who now represents France to reach No 9 in the live ratings. Firouzja is six years or more younger than anyone else in the top 10, so his new success further cements his status as the heir apparent to Carlsen..

While Carlsen has been playing maximalist full throttle in the final rounds at Stavanger, his world championship opponent, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi, has played a more relaxed tournament, at times barely going through the motions and conserving energy for the $2m, 14-game month-long showdown which starts in Dubai on 24 November.

If Norway was the last tournament for Carlsen before the world title match, that would allow two full months for preparation and recharging batteries, but it is not. Carlsen is listed as top board for his Norwegian club Offerspill in the European Club Cup which starts this weekend in Ohrid, North Macedonia.

He is also scheduled for the $300,000 final of the Meltwater Champions Tour starting 25 September where he faces nine formidable rivals in an all-play-all format. Nepomniachtchi was qualified for the Tour final but has since withdrawn.

Is Carlsen pushing himself too hard? The answer will only become known at Dubai in two months time.

3781: 1 Ng5! Qc7 (if Qxe2 2 Rxh7 mate) 2 Qe5+! Rg7 3 Rd8+! Qxd8 4 Rxh7+ Kg8 5 Qxg7 mate. The complete game is here.