The U.S. has not reached the podium in the Chess Olympiad since 2008, and the country’s last gold medal came in 1976 in Haifa, when the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations boycotted the Israeli event. But now, going into the final two rounds of the 42nd Baku Olympiad in Azerbaijan, Team USA could well be on course for not one but two podium potential finishes, and with a strong possibility of a gold medal in the top-rated Open section of the biennial competition.
Anchored by bulwark stars of Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, the top trio have turned in an impressive combined +13 score with no losses - and with Sam Shankland and Ray Robson also producing on the lower boards, Team USA have put in an almost flawless performance so far, and they remain the only team undefeated in the competition.
Since Friday’s column, USA has comprehensively beat leaders India by 3.5-0.5, drawn 2-2 with perennial top seeds Russia, and demolished 3-1 a Magnus Carlsen-led Norway. Now, going into today’s penultimate tenth round, they have the joint lead with Ukraine at the top on 16-points - but the gold medal is theirs now to lose, as very crucially they hold a huge tiebreak advantage over their rivals.
Also, a podium finish for Team USA could be an outside possibility in the Women’s Olympiad. After the US sensationally beat defending champions Russia on Saturday, they moved into medal-winning territory. In round 9, they lost to favourites China but are tied in third place for bronze with Ukraine, Russia and India, though lag behind in tiebreak scores.
Open Leaderboard: 1-2. USA, Ukraine 16/18; 3. Russia 15; 4-6. Georgia, Czech Rep., India 14.
Women’s Leaderboard: 1. China 16/18; 2. Poland 15; 3-6. Ukraine, Russia, India, USA 14.
Follow live games with GM commentary, results, standings, interviews and recap videos at the official 42nd Baku Olympiad site.
GM Frode Urkedal - GM Sam Shankland
42nd Olympiad Open, (9)
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 Nbd7 As we all know from the games of Bobby Fischer and Walter Browne, the Sicilian Najdorf mainline proper comes after 6...e6 - however, here's where psychology plays a big part in chess, as Shankland's opponent is not a known 1.e4 player, and obviously he had something prepared for those big lines - so Shankland avoids that pitfall in preference for one of the more murkier Najdorf sidelines, and almost immediately the gamble pays off for him. 7.Qe2 h6 8.Bh4 g6 9.0-0-0 Faced with an unknown sideline, this looks the natural continuation. However, in the latest Quality Chess book on this big mainline from Parimarjan Negi, 1.e4 vs The Sicilian, the young Indian recommends going straight for the jugular here with the stunning early piece sacrifice 9.f4 e5 10.fxe5 dxe5 11.0-0-0! with double-edged play. Certainly, it looks as if the young Norwegian Urkedal has been caught cold with his preparation because, from here, White is forced on to the back-foot and gives Black everything he wants from a typical queenside attack. 9...e5 10.Nb3 Be7 11.Kb1 b5 12.a3 Qc7 13.f3 Kf8 In such sharp positions, this is can be much safer than ...0-0, as the rook is better placed on the h-file, and the Black king can easily reach safety on g7. And White just seems bamboozled by it all, not managing to generate any attacking possibilities. 14.Bf2 Kg7 15.h4 Nb6 16.g3?! This is slow, way, way too slow for the Sicilian Najdorf - you have to have the courage to play for all-out attacks here with committal moves such as 16.g4 rather than the timid 16.g3. But Shankland's canny approach to the opening has paid off for him - and a lot of this is down to doing homework on your opponent before the game, so kudos to Shankland (and maybe perhaps team coach Alex Lenderman) for doing all the necessary background research. 16...Rb8 17.Bxb6 Qxb6 18.Bh3?! Again wrong, as White now has one less piece attacking ...b5, and in any case, exchanging bishops just helps Black to build-up a winning queenside attack. However, after seeing 16.g3 played, it is therefore not surprising we see this follow-up. In truth, the young Norwegian is like a fish out of water here, not knowing what to do. 18...a5! But Sam Shankland knows exactly what he's doing! 19.Bxc8 Rhxc8 20.Nd5 Nxd5 21.Rxd5 a4! (See Diagram) This leads to a text-book winning Sicilian attack from Black. 22.Nc1 b4 This invariably comes as a companion piece to ...a4 in such Sicilian queenside attacks. 23.axb4 Qxb4 24.Nd3 Qc3 The end is nigh, as the doomsday soothsayers carrying a placard would say. There's nothing White can do here apart from waiting for his opponent to move in for the kill to put him out of his misery. 25.Kc1 Qc4 26.Rh2 a3 27.bxa3 Qa2 28.Kd1 Rb1+ 29.Nc1 Qxa3 30.Qd2 Qxf3+ 31.Re2 Qxg3 0-1