In what was a most memorable day for Indian chess, the men's team defeated Netherlands by a slender 2.5-1.5 margin in the sixth round of the Chess Olympiad and take sole lead in the open section, for the first time in its history. India has won all six matches of the Olympiad so far, followed closely by second seeded USA, and the two teams clash in the next round.
Five rounds remain in the biennial event, the grandest of all chess tournaments, with the current edition attracting 180 teams. Each team is represented by five players, matches being held in four boards and one reserve player.
Indian women secured an identical 2.5-1.5 win over Latvia and are tied for third place with four wins and two draws. Favourites Russia and Ukraine lead with five wins and one draw apiece, their head-to-head clash the only time either team failed to win.
The men, however, were in scintillating form. After brushing aside lowly ranked Bolivia and Costa Rica in the first two matches with identical 4-0 scorelines, they faced Grandmaster teams in the next three. Wins over Azerbaijan (3-1) and Cuba (2.5-1.5) took them to the top of the table, a lead they shared with Netherlands and Ukraine.
Drama in the top-of-the-table clash against the Dutch started in the third board between Vidit Gujrathi and Loek van Wely. The Indian has been in great form, with wins in all five previous rounds. However, their game lasted just 15 moves and under half an hour, when both sides repeated moves three times to reach a draw — the so-called "Photographic Position" appearing three times on the board. Interestingly, however, all 15 moves were played out in a game between Grandmasters Kazhgaleyev and Gelfand just two months ago, matching move by move right to the end!
It definitely put the other Indians under pressure, as a precious White thus got "wasted" in no time! In two other games too, Indians looked to be in mild trouble. On the fourth board, SP Sethuraman faced the solid Benjamin Bok, and had to endure a mildly defensive middlegame to finally force a draw in 33 moves, though being about 50 points more than his opponent in ELO Rating, the measure of a chess player's strength and form. Sethuraman has scored an unbeaten four points from his six games.
The top board clash between Pentala Harikrishna and Anish Giri was the most followed game for Indian fans. Harikrishna (ELO 2752) and Giri (2755) belong to the elite category of grandmasters, ranked in the top 15 of the world. True to their fighting nature, a complex position from the 'h3' variation of the dynamic Sicilian defence came up, guaranteeing a full-fledged clash. However, Harikrishna's handling of the middlegame seemed to lack clearcut direction of play, and he seemed to be battling for a draw after conceding a pawn by the 25th move. But, true to his reputation as an endgame specialist, he put up a stubborn resistance to draw the game in 49 moves. Hari has now scored 2.5 from 4 games.
And so it was Baskaran Adhiban, with Black pieces, who secured the most crucial win for India, over Erwin L'Ami on the second board, in the last game of the match to end.
In any team event, the tried and tested method is to win with White pieces (a natural advantage, as the player with White gets to move first) and draw with Black pieces. Probably sticking to this role, Adhiban defended with a solid variation of the Nimzo Indian defence, but still got into a mildly unpleasant position, not a good sight for his team members. However, L'Ami turned adventurous and sacrificed an exchange (a rook for the opponent's bishop or knight) on the 22nd move, to complicate the game.
Adhiban, however, was defending coolly. Just as the game was proceeding towards a draw, playing under pressure and needing to reach the 40th move line (which completes the time control within the stipulated 90 minutes plus the cumulative of 30 seconds which get added to the clock after every move by a player), L'Ami blundered on the 35th move and Adhiban pounced instantly to grab a free pawn with a tactical stroke, taking just four seconds on the clock for the dramatic move, proving his mettle as a sharp tactician. Adhiban secured the win in 66 moves, thus scoring an impressive five points from six games.
The player to be rested for the day was young Murali Karthikeyan, who was used only in the first two games.
The guts shown by the team was instantly appreciated by non-playing captain, Grandmaster RB Ramesh, who tweeted, "Tough match today. Players made it through sheer determination and will. Proud of you guys!.
— Ramesh RB (@Rameshchess) September 8, 2016
In the women's section, Grandmaster Dronavalli Harika finally hit form in the sixth round as she won her first game of the tournament against Dana Reizniece-Ozola, who is also the Minister of Finance of Latvia!
In the second board, International Master Padmini Rout was held to a draw by lower rated Laura Rogule. Padmini seemed to be in trouble for most of the game, but skilfully led into an endgame where she had a lone rook against her opponent's rook and knight, a theoretical draw.
Tania Sachdev crashed to her second defeat in a row, in a game featuring successive mistakes by both players. Tania's opponent Ilze Berzina wrongly sacrificed a piece on the 28th move, only to see Tania accept it and go astray against a mating attack. Instead, not accepting the piece instantly and postponing the capture by a move would have enabled Tania to take the upper hand.
Soumya Swaminathan has been the most consistent player of the women team till date with a score of four out of five, and she scored another crucial win over Inguna Erneste to give the much needed winning score for the team. The women team faces Azerbaijan on Saturday, the latter seeded much below India.