It was a story of the top and bottom wilting under pressure, while the middle being broken under the strength of the opposition, as India crashed to it's first defeat in the seventh round of the Chess Olympiad at Baku, Azerbaijan.
A probable draw with USA slipped out of hands for the luckless Indians, as they crashed to a heavy 0.5 – 3.5 defeat to the star-studded second seeds. Harikrishna and Sethuraman in the first and fourth boards were well on way to scoring full points, but drew and lost respectively, while Adhiban and Vidit Gujrathi on the 2nd and 3rd boards were found wanting against their formidable opposition.
In the women's section, India suffered a reverse at the hands of the lower seeded Azerbaijan, and thus tasted their first defeat of the event too, completing the story of a Black Friday for the Indian contingent.
The USA was never going to be an easy opponent for the Indians, outranked by ELO rating in all the boards. Where Harikrishna and Sethuraman were atleast comparable on paper against their opponents' ratings, Adhiban and Vidit Gujrathi faced opponents more than 100 points above them. A winning surge and youthful team-spirit could always compensate for the deficit, as a chess team is never the sum-total of its players' individual strengths alone. However, on the top and bottom boards, Indian players were ultimately found wanting of keeping their nerves under pressure, whereas they were slowly and surely outplayed by their stronger opponents in the middle boards.
The USA team features a star-studded line up of Fabiano Caruana (Rated 2811 and ranked second in the world), Hikaru Nakamura (2792, sixth in the world) and Wesley So (2787, seventh in the world), joined by Samuel Shankland (2679, ranks under top 60 in the world). Curiously, Caruana and So are not really home-grown talents, but emigrated to the US from Italy and Philippines respectively.
Just as the middlegame phase was unfolding, Adhiban, against Nakamura and Gujrathi, against So were already in trouble, bringing in the pressure element into the match for India. Adhiban with Black opted for a variation of the English Opening employed by his most illustrious countryman, Vishwanathan Anand himself against Nakamura just a couple of months ago. Probably sensing Adhiban to have based his opening strategy from that very game, or by sense of danger about falling into opponent's pre-game preparation, Nakamura varied with 7.d4, thus entering virgin territory.
By the 20th move it was clear that Adhiban was under pressure and Nakamura was increasing his advantage on the Queenside. Adhiban's 22nd move of '...b6-b5' was clearly a case of an attempt to free oneself from pressure with a pawn break – typical reaction of a mind oppressed by long defence on the chess board and screaming for release of tension, but which almost always leads to a worse position.
The seasoned Nakamura pocketed a pawn on the 28th move and mercilessly converted his advantage in 53 moves.
Vidit Gujrathi employed the solid Catalan Opening, but didn't get any advantage from the initial stages with White. Tentative conducting of early middlegame saw Wesley So taking over the initiative and by the 20th move, Gujrathi was in for long defence. In a technical endgame with Rooks and opposite coloured Bishops, So played precisely to pocket the point in 41 moves.
Facing his world renowned opponent on such a big stage as the olympiad, Harikrishna showed his daring and confidence by employing 1.e4 on the first move and entering into a cutting-edge theoretical duel in the sharp Open variation of the Ruy Lopez. A Black pawn travelled as far to the 'd3' square in the early stage itself, eliciting debate whether it was a strength or a weakness. The psychological side of the duel appeared to be even more complicated, as Harikrishna had employed the same setup to defeat Chinese heavyweight Ding Liren just a month ago. By employing it again in such a crucial game, he seemed to invite Caruana to an open duel with confidence in his own preparation. A more curious fact was that, this setup has been employed by Caruana himself with White pieces about five times in the past, which he now faced with Black pieces!
In such a background, Hari introduced the first innuendo with 16.Bf4, a 'Novelty' – Chess term for a move which has never been employed in the past. The game prodded on a risky terrain for both players, and with 26...Nc4, Caruana seemed to lose his nerve and enter an endgame with a piece lesser than Hari. Seemingly in the driver's seat, it was Hari's turn to succumb to pressure with the blunder 35.Qe4, which unfortunately for Hari and India, allowed Caruna to get the piece back and reach a drawn result.
The most dramatic game of the match was definitely played between Sam Shankland and Sethurman. Employing the Slav defence with Black pieces, Sethu seemed to have fallen into Shankland's original preparation after the Novelty 9.f3, and seemed to be playing too risky. However, by the 20th move, both the players had thrown caution to the winds, as White and Black's Kings occupied the e2 and d7 squares respectively – both living a risky life against the conventional wisdom of being guarded behind pawns in a corner of the board.
Shankland played poorly in a complicated middlegame and allowed both of Black's Rooks to penetrate to the opponent's seventh rank. White's King was precariously placed at the d3 square, and Black was expected to deliver checkmate anytime. By the 30th move, Sethuraman's advantage was so huge that, the software analysis engines were predicting that White could already resign! But, the chess clock proved to be Sethuraman's undoing, as he played series of poor moves under time pressure to finally lose the game in 75 moves.
Thus, after seven rounds India occupies the second to seventh places with 12 match points, with the USA leading the table with 13 match points, with four more rounds to go.
It was a bad day at the office for the Indian Women as they lost to the lowly rated Azerbaijan team by 1.5 – 2.5. Padmini Rout and Tania Sachdev both lost with oversights from equal positions, while Dronavalli Harika on the top board looked off-colour in not able to penetrate into the defences of her much weaker opponent. Once again, in-form Soumya Swaminathan scored the only victory for the team, and curiously it was Soumya who seemed to be having a slightly inferior position at a certain point.
Indian Women have 10 match points and are placed in a tie for 11th to 19th places, while Russia and China are among the leading group of five nations with 12 match points.