With large disparities between the teams, upsets were unlikely, but higher ranked players had to sweat in a few games.

For the top teams at the Chess Olympiad, so far, so good as there were no upsets in Round 1 as the Olympiad got underway on Friday.

The Olympiad is being held in Baku, Azerbaijan, in the Crystal Hall, a large arena. With 180 teams from 175 countries in the open section, and 142 teams from 138 countries in the women’s section, and a total of 1,599 participants, it is the largest Chess Olympiad in history. 

The tournament is organized as a Swiss in which the top teams play the lowest teams in the Round 1. That produced a lot of mismatches. While the team results are usually never in doubt, there are sometimes some surprises in individual games. The reason is that even for the best players, who may be rated over 2700, it can be difficult to win games against motivated opponents who are 2300 to 2400. Nevertheless, it was quite impressive how almost none of the top teams dropped even a half point in either the open or the women’s sections.

In the open, the powerhouse Russian team, which is the top seed, won all their games in convincing fashion against their Nigerian opponents. So did China, the defending champions, who are the No. 3 seed. They had no trouble against Kosovo.

The American team, which is the No. 2 seed, had a tougher pairing against Andorra. The United States won rather easily on Boards 3 and 4, but Andorra had a couple of grandmasters on the top boards, and they made a fight of it. 

On Board 1, Aloma Vidal, who had Black, was doing fine for most of the game against Hikaru Nakamura, who is ranked No. 6 in the world. But Vidal imploded near the end.

On Board 2, Oscar Del La Riva played extremely solidly against Wesley So, who is ranked No. 7 and just won the prestigious Sinquefield Cup. So was a bit better for a long time, but couldn’t find a way to easily convert his advantage into a win. In the end, he needed some help from his veteran opponent:

De La Riva Aguado, Oscar vs. So, Wesley
Baku Chess Olympiad | Open | chess24.com | Round 1.2 | 02 Sep 2016 | 0-1
Rg6! the best practical try. If White plays Rxg6, then after hxg6, the White f-pawns are blocked, and Black will win with his extra pawn on the queenside.
44. f4 Kc6 45. Kf3
45. Rg3! The key idea here is that after 45 Rxg3 46. fxg3, the White pawns on the kingside would be self-sufficient. And if Black plays d5 (as he did in the game) he can't just exchange the rooks and win the pawn endgame.
45... Kc5 46. f5! White is just in time to create counterplay.
46... Rf6 47. Rg7 I think that this position should eventually be drawn. Black is more active, but White should be able to win both the Black d- and h-pawns. After that, White's passed f-pawn isn't really worse than Black's b-passed pawn.  )
45. Kg3 A suggestion of the computer, this is another remarkable way to achieve a draw. This move is counter-intuitive, but once again White is just in time to get to the queenside while keeping his kingside pawns safe.
45... Rxg5+ 46. fxg5 d5 47. cxd5+ Kxd5 48. f4! b5 49. Kf3 b4 If 49 Ke6, then 50. Ke4! followed by 51. f5+ and the White pawns would be safe.
50. Ke3 and the White King will be able to catch the b-pawn
50... b3 51. Kd3 Ke6 52. Kc3 Kf5 53. Kxb3 Kxf4 54. Kc4 Kxg5 55. Kd3! Kf4 56. Ke2! Kg3 57. Kf1 and White is just in time. Of course, this line was ridiculously hard to find in the game.  )
45... Rxg5 46. fxg5 d5 47. cxd5+ Kxd5 48. Kg4
48. Ke3 Ke5! is probably what Oscar De La Riva missed. The White king is able to catch the Black b-pawn, but his extra kingside pawn is of no use because the Black king will capture them all.  )
48... b5 49. f4 b4 50. f5 b3

The home team, Azerbaijan, the fourth seed, is trying to do what it can to boost its chances to win. The team recently got Arkadij Naiditsch, formerly the top player for Germany, who is ranked No. 45, in the world, to switch federations and play for Azerbaijan. The team also has hired Etienne Bacrot of France, No. 47, to be the coach instead of playing for France. Azerbaijan will definitely be a team to look out for in the competition.

But in Round 1, the team’s top player, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, No. 11, had a bit of a scare. He was never in any real danger, but at some point it felt like his position was slowly going downhill and he could be in trouble against Rodwell Makoto, an international master from Zimbabwe:

Mamedyarov, Shakhriyar vs. Makoto, Rodwell
Baku Chess Olympiad | Open | chess24.com | Round 1.1 | 02 Sep 2016 | 1-0
10. a3 d4!? Black was certainly not intimidated by his high-rated opponent!
11. Bxf6
11. axb4 Qxg5! is the idea  )
11... dxc3 12. Kf2 Having pieces that are attacked and not defended evidently didn't bother either player!
12. axb4 Qxe3+ 13. Qe2 Qxe2+ 14. Nxe2 gxf6 is probably close to equal  )
12... gxf6 13. axb4 Qxb4 14. bxc3 Qc5 A very interesting transformation has occurred. Mamedyarov probably expected the weakened Black kingside to give him an advantage, but as soon becomes clear, it is very hard to exploit.
15. Ne2 O-O 16. Nd4 Re8 17. Bd3 Bd7 18. f4 Rac8 19. Qf3 f5 20. Rhd1 Nxd4!? A very interesting decision. It seems to improve White's pawn structure, but Black passed pawns on the queenside.
21. cxd4 Qe7 22. Ra1?! Giving up the c-file doesn't seem right. I don't think Mamedyarov expected Black to put up much resistance and perhaps grew over confident.
22... a6 23. Ra5 Qh4+ 24. Kg1 Rc3! the pressure on the e3 pawn keeps White's pieces tied up
25. g3 Qh3 26. Qf2 Rec8 27. Bf1 Qg4 28. Be2 Qh3 The situation has changed quite a bit. Black's weak kingside is still very hard to exploit and he has also taken control of the c-file. What is White going to do?
29. Rc5!? A way to create some complications. At least, White forces Black to make some difficult decisions.
29... Rc2!? Black continues to play ambitiously and actively.
29... R3xc5 30. dxc5 Bc6 would also have been perfectly fine for Black. White really isn't in position to exploit the weak Black king.  )
30. Rxc8+ Bxc8 31. Qe1 Bd7 32. Rd2 Rc3!? Black continues to keep the position complicated. He was clearly more worried about playing a technically dry position against Mamedyarov. In the next few moves, there were some inaccuracies, but considering how tense the situation is, the play on both sides is quite good.
32... Rxd2 33. Qxd2 Qh6 should be quite drawish as the Black queen will be perfectly placed on d6.  )
33. Bf3 b5 34. Rb2 Rc4 35. Bd5 Rc7 36. Ra2 b4!? 37. Qb1 Black was probably under time pressure to get to Move 40. Unfortunately for him, he misses White's threats:
37... Rc3?
37... Bb5! was much stronger. Now the b-pawn can't be captured and Black is able to keep both his extra pawns. White's position feels like it is on the verge of collapsing although perhaps he could still survive with some precise moves.
38. Bg2 Qh5 The threat of Qd1 prevents White from playing Qxb4.  )
38. Rxa6! Rxe3 I think that Black completely forgot about the threat of Qb4 to Qf8+ threat.
38... Qh5! keeping the b-pawn defended because of the threat of Qd1+ was still fine for Black.  )
39. Ra8+ Kg7 40. Qxb4! The Black pawns are gone and White even has the initiative!
40... Be8 41. Qd2 Re7 42. Bf3 It is all over.
42... Bb5 43. Ra1 Ra7 44. Rb1 Bc4 45. Bg2 Qh6 46. Qc3 Be2 47. d5+ Qf6 48. Qxf6+ Kxf6 49. Rb6+ Ke7 50. Kf2 Ra2 51. Ke3 Ba6 52. d6+

Many other top teams, including India, the bronze medalists in 2014, Ukraine, and France also swept their opponents.

Norway is not a top team, but it does have the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, and it survived a nasty scare. In addition to Carlsen, the team has Jon Ludwig Hammer, a strong grandmaster who used to be over 2700, and some very talented young players.

Carlsen did not play in Round 1 and Hammer failed to put much pressure on the top player for Wales, Richard Jones, an international master, and could only draw. That put added pressure on Aryan Tari, a 17-year-old grandmaster, who playing Board 2 for Norway. Tari seemed to be in a bit of a spot, but he turned things around admirably to get his team a comfortable victory of 3-1:

Strugnell, Carl vs. Tari, Aryan
Baku Chess Olympiad | Open | chess24.com | Round 1.2 | 02 Sep 2016 | 0-1
15. f4 It looks like a dangerous position for Black. In particular, the pawn on f5 is a sitting target and Black's kingside might soon be pried open.
15... Rae8! A very interesting idea by Aryan
16. fxg5 hxg5 17. Nf3
17. Rxf5 f6 18. exf6 N7xf6 19. Bxg5 Ne4 It is not clear who has the advantage. Black's active pieces provide excellent compensation for his missing kingside pawns.  )
17... f6! 18. exf6 N7xf6 19. Bxg5 Ne4! There has been an amazing transformation in the position over the last few moves.
20. Bd2 b6 21. Rc1 Re6! Lifting his rook so that he can attack from g6. He also has another idea that will become clear:
22. Nh4 White falls for the trap
22... Nxd2 23. Qxd2 Bh6! 24. Qd3 Bxc1 25. Rxc1 Qf4 Now it is all over.
26. g3 Qe4 27. Qf3 Rfe8 28. Rf1 Qe3+ 29. Qxe3 Rxe3 30. Nd2 Re2 31. Nhf3 f4 32. Rc1 fxg3 33. hxg3 R8e6 34. Kf1 R2e3 35. Kg2 Nb4 36. Kh3 Rd3 37. Rf1 Rf6 38. g4 Nc2 39. g5 Rf8

A few top teams, including Hungary, who won the silver medal in the last Olympiad, Spain, and Germany, all gave up a draw on one board. Generally, these draws were all similar: the lower rated player was White and held on as the higher rated player tried various ways to break through.

I was particularly impressed by the defensive effort of Satea Husari, a 47-year-old international master, against Ivan Salgado, a young Spanish grandmaster:

Husari, Satea vs. Salgado Lopez, Ivan
Baku Chess Olympiad | Open | chess24.com | Round 1.2 | 02 Sep 2016 | 1/2-1/2
a5 It seems that the position is a bit worse for White, but White defends admirably.
37. g3! Creating threats of his own. After 37 Kd5 38. h4, the White h-pawn could become dangerous.
37... Rf5 38. Re3 b5 39. a3 Kd5 40. Rd3! A surprisingly good defensive setup. Black is not able to do anything to break through. In the next 18 moves, Black tried different ways, but without much success.
40... Kc6 41. Re3 Kd6 42. Kb3 Rd5 43. Kc3 Ke7 44. Re2 Kd7 45. Re1 Rf5 46. Re3 Kd6 47. Kb3 b4 48. Kc4 bxa3 49. Rxa3 Rd5 50. Rb3 Kc6 51. Re3 Kd6 52. Rb3 Rf5 53. Ra3 a4 54. Rxa4 Rxf3 55. Ra6+ Kd7 56. Ra7+ Kd6 57. Ra6+ Kd7 58. Ra7+ Kd6

Round 2 should be much more competitive as there are likely to be many more grandmasters playing against the favorites. Even if there are no upsets, there are likely to be more closely fought contests. 


Parimarjan Negi is an Indian grandmaster who is the second-youngest ever to earn the title (at 13 years 4 months and 22 days). Ranked No. 80 in the world, he just finished his sophomore year at Stanford University. He can be found on Twitter at @parimarjan.