With perennial top seeds Russia failing to capture the Olympiad title since the days of Garry Kasparov in 2002, teams such as Ukraine, Armenia and China have been the one’s capturing gold medals as the past six winners of the biennial team competition - but now, with a strong team anchored by Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So (three of the world’s top-10 players), the USA could now be set to join the ‘gold standard’.
And Team USA went a long way to capturing their first Olympiad gold medal since 1976 with an all-round team performance in round 6 at the 42nd Baku Olympiad, as they ended the sensational run of co-leaders Ukraine, following their back-to-back wins over Russia and defending champions China. It was the first ‘heavyweight’ match-up for the USA, and in an extremely tight match, they managed to squeeze home with a narrow 2.5-1.5 win thanks to a superbly sublime top-board performance from Caruana.
Interviewed before the match by IM Dorsa Derakhshani for Chess24.com, Caruana stated that “[Gold] would be a huge - not only team – success, but also I would consider it a huge personal success that I would be able to be in a team that could win the Olympiad.” And up against the Ukraine No.1, Pavel Eljanov, Caruana more than played his part in the team’s chances of capturing gold, as he held his nerve in an even position for a good part of the game, and then pounced at the right moment as his opponent began to lose the thread at the critical moment. And when the dust settled, Caruana turned in a masterclass in technique to convert the win to claim victory in the match.
Now on 11-points, Team USA are in outright second place behind India - the only team left with a perfect score of 12-points - and both teams now battle in round seven in Baku in a match-up that could well decide the outcome of the gold medal.
Leaderboard: 1. India 12/12; 2. USA 11; 3-12. Netherlands, Czech Rep., Georgia, China, Ukraine, Canada, Russia, Latvia, England, Romania 10.
Follow live games with GM commentary, results, standings, interviews and recap videos at the official 42nd Baku Olympiad site.
GM Fabiano Caruana - GM Pavel Eljanov
42nd Olympiad Open, (6)
Sicilian Defence, Rossolimo Variation
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 The Rossolimo Variation, named after the virtual one-man Olympiad himself, the US-French-Greek-Russian GM Nicolas Rossolimo - who started his Olympiad career playing for France in 1950, then played for the US until 1966, before reverting again to the French tricolour for his final Olympiad in 1972 - where White steers the game towards a quieter, sort of Ruy Lopez style set-up. 3...g6 4.Bxc6 bxc6 5.0-0 Bg7 6.Re1 Nh6 The Black knight invariably develops in this way in the Rossolimo, as after ..Nf6 it can get hit by e5 and c4 somewhat locking it out of the game. 7.c3 0-0 8.h3 f5 If 8...d6 9.d4 Qb6 10.Nbd2 cxd4 11.cxd4 Ba6 12.Nf1 White has a space advantage in the centre, and also better and more harmonious piece development. And if 8...d5 9.d3 White will have a good position heading into any endgame scenario, as Black's Nh6 is misplaced and the doubled c-pawns will become targets. 9.e5 Nf7 10.d3 As usual in this line, Black has problems with his pawn structure so White invariably plays d3 instead of d4 which would help Black to easily sort his messy pawns. 10...Rb8 11.Na3 Ba6 12.Nc4 Bxc4 13.dxc4 d6 14.e6 Ne5 15.Nxe5 Bxe5 16.Bh6 As indicated earlier, what Caruana is striving for from this variation, is to exchange off pieces and head to an endgame where he would have an advantage with his queenside pawn majority. 16...Bg7 The murky exchange sacrifice with 16...Rxb2 17.Qc1 Rb8 18.Bxf8 Kxf8 19.f4 Bf6 20.Qa3 a5 21.Reb1! just leaves White with good, long-term winning chances. 17.Bxg7 Kxg7 18.Rb1 As you would expect from two top-boards battling it out in a crucial match-up, there's nothing really in the game now, but Caruana has a persistent little edge due to Black's weakened pawns and his queenside majority - and this now begins to prey on Eljanov's mind. 18...Qa5 19.a4 Rf6 20.Re3 Qa6 21.b3 Qc8 22.Qe1 a5 23.b4! In such situations, a top player will envisage the board without any pieces on it apart for the pawns and the kings and try to work out if the resulting ending favours him or not. If it does, he begins the process of moving the game in that direction by exchanging off pieces - and this is what Caruana now starts to do. But it is far from clear he has a win here, though to his credit he begins to steer the game in this direction, probably safe in the knowledge that he's the only one playing for two results here as it's near impossible for him to lose without a big blunder. So now the pressure begins to mount heavily on Eljanov to find the right defence to save not only the game but the match for his country. 23...axb4 24.cxb4 cxb4 25.Rxb4 It all now begins to come together for Caruana. His bold decision of 23.b4! has created a dangerous passed a-pawn that complicates matters for his opponent. 25...Ra8 26.Qa1 f4 27.Re4 f3 28.g4 Kg8 29.Qd1 Rxe6? Eljanov cracks at the decisive moment - taking on e6 is bad, as Black's pawn on f3 was the more dangerous pawn as it was vital for counterplay. Instead, Eljanov had to play 29...Qf8! 30.c5 d5 31.Re3 g5 32.Qd2 Rf4! 33.Ra3 Rxb4 34.Qxb4 Rb8 35.Qe1 Qf6 36.a5 h5! and it is difficult to see how White's a-pawn can win this, as Black has excellent perpetual resources thanks to the f3 pawn. 30.Qxf3 Rxe4 31.Qxe4 The exchange of rooks has, if anything, added further burdens on Black's position, as his pieces are now awkwardly placed, his pawns easier to target, and his king looking vulnerable to an attack. And with all that going for Caruana, from here in, he plays the game flawlessly. 31...Qc7 32.c5! (See Diagram) Inflicting further structural damage on Black's pawns. 32...dxc5 Forced, as 32...d5? 33.Qe6+ Kf8 34.Rb6 Rxa4 35.Rxc6 Re4 36.Qxd5 Qe5 37.Rc8+ Kg7 38.Rg8+ Kh6 39.Qxe5 Rxe5 40.Rc8 and a technically won ending, helped by the extra pawn and Black's king shuffled off far away from it. 33.Qc4+ Kg7 34.Qc3+ Kg8 35.Qc4+ Kg7 36.Qxc5 Qd6 Instead, 36...Ra5 offered a little more resistance, but after 37.Qe3 it is clear that White will easily win this ending. 37.Qc3+ Qf6 38.Qe3 Rf8 39.Re4 Rf7 40.Re5 Qd6 41.a5 Qd1+ 42.Kg2 Qa1 Caruana has excellent technique, and sees that the passed a-pawn is going to be difficult to stop, so he prepares a6. 43.Qe2 e6 44.a6 Qd4 Eljanov can't play the tempting 44...Ra7 as his king gets caught in a mating net after 45.Rxe6 Qxa6 46.Qe5+ Kg8 47.Re8+ Kf7 48.Qe6+ Kg7 49.Rg8+ Kh6 50.Qe3+ g5 51.Qxg5#. 45.Rxe6 c5 No better is 45...Qd5+ 46.Kg1 Qb5 47.Qxb5 cxb5 48.Rb6 Kh6 49.Rb7 Rf4 50.a7 Ra4 51.f4 and again the king is getting caught in a mating net, forcing 51...g5 52.f5 Ra1+ 53.Kf2 Ra4 54.f6 Kg6 55.f7 Kg7 56.Rb8 and one of the pawns will pass. 46.Re7 Qd5+ 47.f3 With the rooks coming off, and Caruana's king safe from a perpetual, the rest is a formality now - but kudos to Caruana for keeping his cool and then to pounce when his opponent made the fatal error of 29...Rxe6? 47...c4 48.Rxf7+ Qxf7 49.Qe5+ Kh6 50.Qe3+ Kg7 51.Qd4+ Kh6 52.a7 Qb7 53.h4 1-0