With just three rounds to go, the competition had intensified at the 43rd Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia. After 8 rounds, the United States were leading the tournament with a score of 15 points. A close second were Poland, who were unbeaten with a score of 14/16. India shared the third place at 13/16 with six other teams.
Clashes between some of the strongest teams in the tournament had begun: the USA were playing Poland on the top board; Azerbaijan were pitted against China on board two; India took on Armenia on the third board.
The ninth round, however, brought some big changes to the leaderboard. In what was the biggest upset of the round, Poland managed to give the top-seeded United States their first loss of the tournament. With their win, the Polish team managed to overtake the USA in the standings and take sole lead in the tournament. China finished with a win over Azerbaijan and are now in the third place behind the USA. As for the Indian team, they suffered a catastrophic loss at the hands of Armenia.
For the antepenultimate round, the Indians had decided to rest their third board player, Vidit Gujrathi. Instead of Vidit, Baskaran Adhiban played board three and Krishnan Sasikiran occupied board four. Viswanathan Anand and Pentala Harikrishna played on the top two boards, respectively.
On the top board, India was outrated. Levon Aronian, the top board player for Armenia is rated 9 points higher than Anand. Also, as per the statistics of their previous classical encounters, Aronian had a better score against Anand. Out of the 47 classical games they had played before, Anand had won five times while Aronian had beaten Anand in nine games. The remaining 33 games were drawn. On the other hand, Anand has scored some of his best wins over Aronian, including but not limited to the one at the 2013 Tata Steel.
When the game began, an Italian opening was on the board with Anand on the white side of the position. The opening is high fashion in top-level chess currently and both players know it like the back of their hand.
On the 10th move, however, Aronian managed to surprise Anand with a new move. While Aronian had his ideas in playing the move, it also allowed Anand to liquidate the position. And Anand preferred liquidating the position to testing his opponent's preparation. Queens and a pair of minor pieces were off the board immediately. By the 20th move, all that remained on the board was a rook, knight and a bunch of pawns for each side. Anand played the endgame for 10 more moves before signing the truce and calling it a day.
The second board clash between Gabriel Sargissian and Harikrishna, which lasted a few minutes longer, featured only 26 moves. Harikrishna looked excellently prepared in the game. In an Open Catalan, he was the one to go off the well-trodden paths of the opening by unveiling a novelty on his 10th turn.
Harikrishna's novelty entailed giving up a pawn but it also gave black a pleasant initiative as compensation. Over the next few moves, Harikrishna took several free hits on the black pieces, forcing them back and gaining some tempi. Harikrishna began attacking the white queen with his bishop. When Sargissian defended, Harikrishna forced an immediate repetition of moves to finish the game in a draw on the spot.
Adhiban's game against Hrant Melkumyan was, perhaps, the most important game of the match. Adhiban had the white pieces in this game and his opponent was slightly lower rated. If Adhiban could have pulled a win on this board, India's chances would have been bright.
In the Queen's Gambit Declined, Adhiban hardly managed to get an edge and even made a subtle draw offer around the 20th move by repeating the position twice. Surprisingly, it was Melkumyan who declined the offer by breaking the repetition despite having the black pieces in the game. But in breaking the repetition, he had also exchanged both rooks. Furthermore, queens and knights were also exchanged off within the next few moves. What remained was an equal endgame with bishops of opposite colours. The game went on until the first time control was reached before players agreed to a draw.
With three games drawn, all eyes were once again on Sasikiran's game. In the last two rounds, it was Sasikiran who had earned the winning points for India. But this time, the Chennai-based grandmaster was in trouble.
Here again, a Queen's Gambit Declined was played but unlike the game of Adhiban, this game followed the lines of the Ragozin variation. Sasikiran had almost managed to equalize out of the opening. By the 20th move, he had achieved a solid position, although his pieces seemed to be in the way of each other on the queenside. Sasikiran tried untangling his pieces immediately and this had led him into a slightly inferior position.
On his 24th move, he blundered a pawn overlooking a queen sacrifice that exploited his weak back rank. After this, Sasikiran's position began to look precarious. Seeking refuge in tactics, Sasikiran tried to confuse his opponent by complicating the position. To a large extent, he was even successful but Martirosyan had won a couple of pawns in the meantime. After black’s fireworks had fizzled out, white's material advantage began to make itself count. To add to his troubles, Sasikiran blundered on his 35th turn. Following this, Martirosyan won the exchange and eventually the game.
This loss has come for India at the worst imaginable time. With just two rounds to go India have slipped down to the 11th spot on the leaderboard. This means that India might not have any chance at all to win gold and even a podium finish might only be possible if the team is able to win both of the remaining games.
The women's team also shared the tragedy as India were held to a draw by Italy in round 9. The draw, per se, is not such a bad result but due to India's loss to Hungary in the previous round, it has put the team's chances of a podium finish in serious doubt. And had it not been for Harika Dronavalli's win on board 2, India could even have lost the ninth round.
After draws on the first and the fourth board, Tania Sachdev had found herself in a significantly inferior position on board three against Marina Brunello. The game had begun with a rather innocuous Italian opening. Tania wasn't particularly worse out of the opening but soon her cramped queenside began to become more pronounced. Her 17th move, Kh7, simply allowed Brunello to exploit all of black's weaknesses by opening up the queenside.
Soon, Brunello also began generating an initiative on the queenside. Trying to safeguard her king, Tania liquidated into an endgame but even here, she was two pawns down and had no compensation. The endgame went on for about 10 moves before Tania decided to resign.
After this loss, India was trailing by a 2-1 score. Harika now had to win to level scores. In the game, she had been pressing from the very start against Elena Sedina. It was clear that she had the better position but nothing concrete was in sight for a large part of the middle game. Around the 30th move, Harika's central passed pawns began to look dangerous. By this point, Sedina was also under time pressure. Just one move before the time control, she made a decisive error that allowed Harika a checkmate in two moves. Once Harika had played the first move of the combination correctly, Sedina resigned.
While this win by Harika saved the match for India, the team's chances for a podium finish have begun to look seriously bleak. With just two rounds to go, India are in the 14th place on the leaderboard. Even if the team wins both of their remaining games, tiebreaks might come in the way.
In the penultimate round, the men will play the Netherlands in the open segment while the women will be pitted against the 37th seeded Peruvian team.
Aditya Pai is an editor at ChessBase India
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Updated Date: Oct 04, 2018 17:08:09 IST