With the Sinquefield Cup now over, the next big event on the horizon is just over a fortnight away now with the 42nd Baku Chess Olympiad taking place in Azerbaijan, which has a field of 180 countries, and the top-rated Open set to become a four-horse rather than a five-horse race for gold with news of the late omission of Armenia, one of the pre-tournament favourites and three-time former champions, who announced recently that they would be boycotting Baku.
In the absence of the triple gold medallists and one of the favourites, whose players felt that it would not be safe to travel to Azerbaijan - a neighbouring country with whom they have had a protracted border dispute, and one which flared up again in April - perennial top seeds Russia, defending champions China, the US (with a strong team of Caruana, Nakamura, So, Robson and Shankland) and host nation Azerbaijan are expected to do battle for gold and the Hamilton-Russell Cup.
Since 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in dispute over the mountainous separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, with their forces separated by a demilitarised buffer zone, but small clashes have frequently broken out, with each side blaming the other. Although several Armenians, both those living in Armenia and those living in other countries, competed in last year's World Cup in Baku, since then tensions resurfaced in the disputed territory in April, with 30 being killed in a deadly clash that threatened to escalate into full-blown war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
And the boycott has now also spread to hit America. Other players of Armenian descent have started to pull out of Baku, including would-be American women's board three, WGM Tatev Abrahamyan. This all comes as bad news for the governing body of chess, FIDE, and especially their president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was warned of the possibility of such a scenario when he announced Baku as the controversial Olympiad hosts, and had given his 'personal promise' that there would be no such boycott.
Armenia was due to be led in the Baku Olympiad by their talismanic No.1, Levon Aronian. Despite losing out to US winner Wesley So in the Sinquefield Cup, Aronian’s penultimate round win over Hikaru Nakamura moved him narrowly into second place in the Grand Chess Tour standings, behind new tour-leader So, going into December’s final tour event of the London Chess Classic.
GM Levon Aronian - GM Hikaru Nakamura
4th Sinquefield Cup, (8)
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 More common in the QGD is 5.Bg5, but this flexible move is not as innocent as it looks. It has an English pedigree, having been first played in 1887 by the leading English master, Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924). However, the player who did much to pioneer this line and bring it to prominence was, in fact, Hungary's Lajos Portisch, who in the late 1970s and 1980s won many wonderful endgames using this system. The cudgels were then taken up in the noughties by Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov - and then championed by Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian. 5...0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.Bd3 dxc4 9.Bxc4 a6 10.Bd3 Nc6 11.0-0 Nb4 12.Bb1 Qxd1 13.Rxd1 Nbd5 14.Nxd5 Nxd5 15.Be4! It all looks like an innocent position with the queens coming off early - but this move suddenly makes Black's position just a little awkward to handle. 15...Nf6 In reality, the instant reaction would have been to play 15...Nxf4 16.exf4 as Black has the bishop-pair and White has doubled f-pawns. But even here, it is even more awkward for Black, as he hasn't resolved the problem of developing his Bc8 - and White is ready to make life even more difficult with Rac1 and Ne5. 16.Nd2 Re8 17.Bf3 e5 18.Bg3 Ra7 It looks wrong, but Nakamura take's the radical approach to solving how to develop his Bc8 without losing the pawn on b7, nor let White's rook(s) infiltrate the seventh rank. 19.Rac1 b6 20.a3 Bd7 Finally Nakamura gets his bishop out - but at what cost to his position? 21.Nc4! Hitting e5 and looking at invading into d6 to put those weak pawns on b6 and a6 under pressure. 21...e4 22.Be2 a5 23.Nd6 Re7 24.Nb5 Bxb5 25.Bxb5 Now the seeds of a win are there for Aronian, who has the advantage of a good bishop-pair and active rooks donating the d- and c-files. 25...Ra8 26.Kf1! With the bishops a dangerous threat to Black's position, Aronian affords himself the luxury of not having to force anything immediately, so simply better readies his king for the ending. 26...Re6 Unfortunately for Nakamura, he can't do likewise: 26...Kf8? 27.Rxc5! bxc5 28.Bd6 Rc8 (28...Rd8 29.Ke2 Rxd6 30.Rxd6 and the pawns on c5 and a5 look doomed.) 29.h3 g6 30.Rd2 and White will simply slide his king quickly over to the queenside with Ke1-d1-c2-b3, and at the right moment he'll capture on e7, and have an easily won ending with the king supporting the attacks on the weak pawns on c5 and a5. 27.Ke2 g5 28.Bc4 Ree8 29.h4 h6 30.hxg5 Aronian has an easy life, but Nakamura is doing all the right things he needs to do here to salvage any possibilities of a draw by seeking out pawn exchanges. 30...hxg5 31.Bd6 More accurate was probably 31.Bb3 with the idea of Rc4, Bc2 and b4 leaving Black in a bad way trying to defend all the pawn weaknesses. 31...Kg7 The only move, as 31...Bxd6 32.Rxd6 and Black's position is hopeless after White takes on b6. 32.Bb5 Bxd6 33.Rxd6 Re5?! Nakamura's only chance to fight for survival here was with 33...Rec8! 34.Rcc6 Rxc6 35.Rxc6 Rb8 36.Bc4 (If 36.Rc7 Nd5! 37.Rd7 Nf6 38.Rc7 Nd5 39.Ra7 Rc8 and Black is still in there fighting, where he has at least got his rook and knight back in the game without losing any pawns.) 36...Rb7 and trying to hang in here. Not an easy position to have to defend as Black, but better than what happens in the game as he just drops a pawn with nothing to show for it. 34.Rxb6 Rh8 35.Rb7 Rf5 36.Rf1 Rh2 Admittedly, it does look as though Nakamura has found 'something' by how he has managed to activate his rooks - but some precise and clever play from Aronian soon shows there is nothing here for Nakamura. 37.Bc4! Ne8 38.Rb5! Precision from Aronian. With a set of rooks now being exchanged off, Nakamura will have difficulties getting his other rook back into the game to stop White's advancing queenside pawns. 38...Rxb5 39.Bxb5 Nd6 40.Bd7 (See Diagram) 40...Kf6 And if you are wondering why Nakamura doesn't capture the pawn on g2, it is because Aronian has set a fiendish little trap for him: 40...Rxg2? 41.Rd1 Nc4 42.Rh1! Trapping Black's rook and threatening simply Kf1 winning it. 42...g4 43.Kf1 Nxe3+ 44.fxe3 Rxb2 45.Rg1 Kf6 46.Rxg4 and White will win the e-pawn and with it the game. 41.Rc1 Rh8 Once again, 41...Rxg2? is hopeless: 42.Rh1! Nf5 43.Bxf5 Kxf5 44.Kf1! Rg4 45.Rh8! and Black's rook is awkwardly out of the game, while White's rook is quickly threatening to capture the a-pawn. 42.b3 Ke7 43.Rc7 Rh1 44.Ra7 Ra1 45.g4 More clinical was 45.Bg4+! Kf6 46.Ra6! Ke7 (46...Ke5? 47.Rxa5+ easily wins.) 47.Rxa5 and Black may as well resign here. 45...Rxa3 46.Ba4+ Kf8 47.Rxa5 Ra2+ 48.Kf1 f6 Nakamura is a pawn down and his knight is badly placed; Aronian will easily engineer the rapid push up the board of his passed b-pawn. The rest now is simply just a matter of good technique. 49.Ra8+ Ke7 50.Bc6 Rb2 51.Ra7+ Ke6 52.Bd7+ Ke7 53.Bf5+ Ke8 54.Be6 Not good technique but in fact excellent technique! Aronian has engineered his bishop to a better diagonal to protect b3, while at the same time confined Nakamura's king to the back rank. 54...Rb1+ 55.Kg2 Rb2 56.Bd5 Rb1 57.Bc6+ Kf8 58.Rd7 Nf7 59.Bxe4 Another nice finesse from Aronian to win a second pawn - if Black plays ...Rxb3 then Rxf7+! and Bd5+ wins on the spot. 59...Rb2 60.Rb7 Nd6 61.Rb8+ Kg7 62.Bd5 Rd2 63.e4 f5 64.gxf5 Nxf5 65.Rb7+ Kh6 66.Rb6+ Kh7 67.Rb7+ Kh6 68.exf5 It's an easy rook and pawn endgame win now, as Black's king can't cross over to cover White rapidly advancing b-pawn, as it has to keep tabs on the f-pawn. 68...Rxd5 69.f6 Rd4 70.Kg3 Kg6 71.f7 Kg7 72.b4 Nakamura should really have resigned here, as there's nothing he can do. But probably frustrated, he dragged the game on longer than it should have. 72...Kf8 73.b5 Rb4 74.b6 Kg7 75.f3 Kf8 76.Kf2 Rb3 77.Ke2 Kg7 78.Kd2 Kf8 79.Kc2 Rb5 80.Kc3 Kg7 81.Kc4 Rb1 82.Kc5 Rc1+ 83.Kd6 Rb1 84.Ke7 Re1+ 85.Kd8 Re6 86.Kc7 Re3 If 86...Kxf7 the simplest win is 87.Ra7! Re7+ 88.Kd6 and the rooks are exchanged. 87.Ra7 1-0