Fatigue seemed to take over Indian men as they suffered a 1.5 – 2.5 point defeat against Ukraine on the top table in the ninth round, while the women came up with a much better show to improve their medal prospects, at the Chess Olympiad being held at Baku, Azerbaijan.
For Panaiappan Sethuraman, this was the third game of extreme intensity and ninth game in a row without rest – a cushion generally possible in team tournaments. Most of his games have been long tactical affairs, with the last two rounds reaching a crescendo of complexity and importance for the team.
It probably told on his form on Sunday against the higher-rated Anton Korobov, where he essayed a sharp Richter Rauzer attack against Classical Sicilian. Sethu got into a passive position by the 18th move when Queens were exchanged, and was always under pressure. He briefly looked capable of saving the game in mutual time pressure, but it was Sethu's turn to go astray, to lose the game in 62 moves. It is a common chess principle that, when both players are under pressure to complete time control moves, energy levels of the players have a big say.
The scenario looked even bleaker for India at a certain point, when Baskaran Adhiban with the other White too was in discomfort against former World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov. From the white side of a Guico Piano, Adhiban saw his position deteriorate slowly against precise strategical play. Black won a pawn on the 26th move and just when a phase of technical conversion loomed, a momentary lapse of concentration found Ponomariov giving up the extra pawn on the 32nd move, and game ended in a draw shortly.
It was a completely different story for Pentala Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi, who shut down their opponents effortlessly with Black pieces, almost never being in any danger in holding the draws.
Facing Pavel Eljanov on the top board in a Reti opening, Harikrishna's effortless play saw him develop his pieces steadily, keep the pawn structure without weaknesses, solve the question of controlling centre into the middlegame, and hold the draw easily in the endgame in 48 moves. Truly, a masterclass copybook display of positional chess with black pieces!
In contrast, Vidit Gujrathi played even more simple, essaying the Berlin Wall of the Ruy Lopez against higher-rated Yuriy Kryvoruchko. Following the moves of world champion Magnus Carlsen in a game against Anand last year, Vidit came up with a new idea '15...Bg6', and liquidated into an endgame with Rooks and opposite coloured Bishops, where he was never in danger.
Indian women came up with an improved display, defeating the 21st seeded Netherlands with a 3-1 margin. In a team tournament, an early win by a players gives their team mates a big boost, and pressure for the opponents, subconsciously affecting smallest decisions subsequently. And on Sunday it came from Dronavalli Harika, who effortlessly defeated fellow GM Zhaoqin Peng on the top board. From the white side of a Sicilian Taimanov, Harika sacrificed a pawn in the opening to catch the black King in the centre, and was completely winning by the 19th move, finally romping home in 30 moves.
This probably helped Soumya Swaminathan on the 4th board, as her opponent Maaike Keetman blundered a pawn on the 17th move. In-form Soumya won the game in 40 moves, to increase her score to 7.5 points from nine games.
Tania Sachdev came back after a rest in the previous game, but struggled with her form. Though she had an inferior position against untitled Anna-Maja Kazarian for most of the middlegame, she was rewarded for her tenacity when her opponent blundered in the endgame.
Sunday was a bad day at office for Padmini Rout, who held a strategically worse position for most of the game. Defending an inferior Rook and opposite coloured Bishops ending, she had her chances to fightback after the first time control, but failed to hold precise defence.
With just two rounds to go, both the Indian teams find themselves in similar situations – chances to finish on the podium, but acid tests on Monday.
In the open section, Ukraine are in joint lead with USA on 16 match points. Top seeded Russia is third with 15, followed by Georgia, Czech Republic and India on 14. India's chances for a medal depend on Monday's encounter against Russia, the strongest hurdle they can face at this point. A win with any margin giving 2 match points and a draw giving 1, India needs a win on Monday to stay in medal hunt.
Grandmaster R.B.Ramesh, the non-playing captain is an integral part of the Indian team, and a major factor behind India's good showing for the past couple of years, including the Bronze medal at the Olympiad 2014, Norway. Speaking to Firstpost, Ramesh said, “We have our chances for a medal, provided we beat Russia on Monday, and the players are eager for a fight! We are playing a very strong team, and it is a good opportunity for the players to show the stuff they are capable of on the big stage”.
India will be up against reigning World Championship Challenger Sergey Karjakin and former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, and three more Grandmasters from top 30 in the world. Ability to rebound from the loss in ninth round, and compensating for the difference in strength on paper with team spirit and youth will decide their performance.
In the women section, top seeded China leads the table with 16 match points, followed by Poland on 15, and Ukraine, Russia, India and USA all at 14. India takes on the second seeded Ukraine who have two former Women World Champions, Mariya Muzychuk and Anna Ushenina among their ranks, and are high-rated than the Indians in all the boards. The Indian eves have to raise their level