By Varuzhan Akobian
As soon as the 2016 Sinquefield Cup ended, America’s top five players headed to Baku, Azerbaijan, for the 42nd Chess Olympiad. The United States usually fields a formidable team, but this year is unprecedented, with three of the five teammates ranked in the top 10 in the world. Gone are the days when Russia, the perennial favorite for international competition, outranks other teams by a landslide. Team America, captained by International Master John Donaldson and coached by GM Alex Lenderman, is seeded second to Russia by just three rating points and is widely considered the favorite to take top honors.
St. Louis resident and U.S. Champion Fabiano Caruana leads the team from board one. Hikaru Nakamura, coming off an impressive victory at the 2016 Paris Grand Chess Tour, holds board two. The 2016 Sinquefield Cup winner, Wesley So, outclasses many opponents on board three. Rounding out the team on board four is Sam Shankland, who readers may recall won a gold medal at the last Olympiad. Finally, St. Louis’ second member of the team, Webster University student Ray Robson, is a tough opponent for anyone.
The tournament started last week, and with the first five rounds behind them, the U.S. is in excellent shape to find themselves in the winner’s circle.
The Americans started strong by sweeping Andorra 4-0. Round 2 was another win for the “good guys,” who gave up only one draw to beat Scotland 3.5 - 0.5. In Round 3, the U.S. team faced strong opposition from Argentina whose players have an average rating of 2600. The U.S. won 3-1 with Nakamura putting up a stubborn defense in his game against GM Mareco, forcing his opponent to make some crucial mistakes to draw the game.
The competition heated up in round four, but the Americans were able to keep an even 2-2 split with a very balanced and powerful team from the Czech Republic, led by GM David Navara. Each of the four games ended in a draw. Finally, the U.S. team bounced back from that draw to defeat Serbia 3-1. Thanks to another impressive performance by GMs So and Nakamura, the team went into the rest day with a solid standing among the other teams.
Today, the U.S. team will be facing the Ukrainians for Round 6, the leader in the standings thus far. Thumbing their nose at Putin, the Ukraine has been playing amazing chess, defeating both Russia and China - world top leaders in the sport. For the Americans to comfortably maintain chances for a gold medal, they must beat Ukraine today. As it stands, the U.S. is tied for fourth place, but with four rounds still left to play, the race to the podium is still in their hands. Nakamura and So have been playing exciting chess, and of the 20 games played, the U.S. team hasn’t suffered any losses.
Women at 8 out of 10 points
As the men’s team fights for gold at the Chess Olympiad, so does the U.S. women’s team, led by GM Irina Krush on Board 1, current U.S. Women’s Champion, IM Nazi Paikidze on Board 2, IM Anna Zatonskih on Board 3 and WGM Katerina Nemcova on Board 4.
Like the men’s team, the women’s team is in contention to win a medal with 8 out of 10 points. The women also won their first match 4-0 against a team from Tajikstan and have been seeing brilliant chess from Boards 3 and 4, not to mention the sublime performance from their reserve player, Sabrina Foisor. Today, the women’s team will be facing Turkey in Round 6.
Overall, the Chess Olympiad is promising for the U.S. teams. With continued strong performances from the top players and their fourth boards and reserves, the result will see some heavy metal returning home. The last day of the Chess Olympiad is next Wednesday, Sept. 14.
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