After wins in Round 9, the United States and Ukraine lead Russia by a point. In the women’s section, China beat the United States to become the sole leader.

The fight for the gold medal at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, has become a two- and perhaps a three-way race. The United States and Ukraine both won in Round 9 and are now tied atop the leaderboard of the open section.

Russia sits alone in third, just one point behind. But since Russia has already played both the leaders, it must rely on other teams to knock them off if it is to overtake them. 

In the women’s section, China is now the sole leader after it beat the United States in Round 9. The surprise of the tournament is that Poland, the No. 7 seed, is alone in second, one point behind. 

The United States, Ukraine and India were tied for the lead in the open section after Round 8. In Round 9, Ukraine faced India and pulled out a narrow victory, 2.5-1.5. The top three boards were drawn, so it came down to the game between Anton Korobov of Ukraine and S.P. Sethuraman of India. Coming out of the opening, Sethuraman, who was White, had a decent position but then he acquiesced to a trade of queens, leaving Korobov with the long-term strategic advantage of having the bishop pair on an open board. Though there were mistakes on both sides, Korobov finally got the upper hand. 

S.P. Sethuraman vs. Anton Korobov
Olympiad | Baku, Azerbaijan | Round 9 | 11 Sep 2016 | 0-1
17. Qd4?! A suspect strategic decision. White's plan in this position must be to attack the king, so 17. Qh6 made more sense. In addition, while the middlegame is okay for White, the endgame is bad as the Black bishops will be very powerful.
17... Qxd4 18. Rxd4 Ne5 Black has arrived at just about the perfect arrangement of pieces. His advantage is small, but it will be persistent.
19. Bg2 a5 20. Re1 Rc8 21. Rdd1 Kf7 22. Nf4 Ng6?! An odd decision. Black should not have removed the knight from e5.
23. Nxg6 hxg6 24. e5!? Good and thematic. The pawn is poisoned as 24... fe5 25. Ne5 de5 26. Rd7 Rh2 27. Be4, would give White at least equality.
24... d5 25. exf6 Bxf6 Chances are roughly equal.
26. h4 Rh5 27. Bh3 Rc4 28. Re3 d4 29. Re2 Rhc5? An error, but ...
30. Ne1?! White misses the correct move. After 30. Rf2! Ke7 31. Bf1! d3 32. Bd3 Rg4, White has won a pawn and has a clear edge.
30... Re5 31. Rf2 Rf5?! A risky sacrifice at best.
32. Re2? Why not 32. Bf5 gf5? Yes, the pawns look dangerous, but Black would have to prove that they are and that is not so easy.
32... Bc6?! The errors continue; Black should have played 32... Re5.
33. g4? Re5? Now 33... Rf3! was better. Then 34. Nf3 Bf3 35. Bf1 Rc8, and Black would have an edge.
34. Rf2 Finally the right move.
34... Ke7 35. g5 Bh8 36. Nd3 Re3 37. Bf1?! 37. Nf4 first was stronger.
37... Be4 38. Nf4 A little too late.
38... Rc8 39. Bd3 Rg8 40. Ng2?! Another less than optimal move. Now Black finally begins to take control.
40... Rf3 41. Re2 Bd5 42. Be4 White starts to realize that he needs to trade pieces to try to survive.
42... Bxe4 43. Rxe4 Kd6 44. Ne1?! Another error. White voluntarily walks into a pin.
44... Rf1 45. c3? An error. White misses Black's follow-up.
45... bxc3 46. bxc3 Rb8+ 47. Kc2 Rf2+ 48. Kd3?! Another small error; 48. Re2 as a bit better.
48... Rxa2 49. Nc2 dxc3 White is down two pawns and they are passed and powerful. White is losing.
50. Rde1 Rd8 51. R1e2 Kc5+ 52. Ke3 Rd6 53. Rh2 Bg7 54. h5 gxh5 55. Reh4 Rd5 56. Rxh5 Kc4 57. Rh7 Rxg5 58. Ke4 Kb3 59. Rxg7 Rxg7 60. Nd4+ Ka3 61. Nb5+ Kb4 And White had enough.

The United States had an easier pairing than Ukraine and India in Round 9: it faced Norway. While Norway was led by Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, the drop-off in the quality of the rest of Norway’s team gave the United States a substantial edge. Indeed, the United States had little trouble, winning 3-1, powered by wins on Board 2 by Hikaru Nakamura, and Board 4, by Sam Shankland. Shankland’s win over Frode Urkedal was particularly brutal:

Frode Olav Olsen Urkedal vs. Samuel Shankland
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 9.2 | 11 Sep 2016 | 0-1
1. e4 c5 Shankland is one of the most difficult players to prepare for because he seems willing and able to play just about anything. In this case, he chooses the Sicilian Defense.
2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 The Najdorf which is one of the sharpest variations in the Sicilian.
6. Bg5 Nbd7 Not as common as 6... e6 or 6... e5, but not bad. This variation is called "De Verbeterde List" in Dutch. The idea is to postpone moving the e-pawn until Black has a better idea of White's plan.
7. Qe2 A slightly odd move, but also not bad. White plans to castle queenside and now, when he does, his rook will be on the same file as the Black queen, unimpeded by his own queen. In addition, the White queen supports the e-pawn and may even support an eventual advance by that pawn.
7... h6 8. Bh4 g6 A somewhat dangerous move as it creates another target for White on the kingside.
9. O-O-O e5 In conjunction with his previous move, this is really a strange decision. Black played g6, apparently to fianchetto his bishop, but with his last move, that would seem to be impossible as his d-pawn is now backward and weak and will need to be protected by the dark-squared bishop.
10. Nb3 Be7 11. Kb1 Often a useful move, perhaps White should have thought about attacking before Black has time to consolidate his position. One possibility was 11. f3 to support g4. Another was to try to slow Black's counterattack on the queenside by playing 11. a4.
11... b5 Black does not wait to start his counterattack. If he does, he will be steamrolled.
12. a3 Qc7 13. f3 Kf8 Shankland seems to be developing a predilection to move his king in the opening rather than castle, as per his last game against S.P. Sethuraman in Round 7.
14. Bf2 White clears the route for a pawn storm on the kingside while also eyeing the queenside to slow down Black's potential attack.
14... Kg7 15. h4 Nb6 16. g3?! A difficult move to explain. Why not 16. g4? to continue the attack.
16... Rb8 17. Bxb6?! Another strange decision. There was no need to rush to do this, if it even was necessary. White is losing the thread of the game.
17... Qxb6 18. Bh3?! Again, why? This only seems to help Black by helping him bring his king rook to c8.
18... a5 19. Bxc8 Rhxc8 The initiative has definitely passed to Black and his attack is far in advance of White's.
20. Nd5 White may have been counting on this move to diffuse Black's attack, but it is not enough. Indeed, it only makes Black's task easier as he no longer has to worry about his d-pawn.
20... Nxd5 21. Rxd5 a4 22. Nc1 b4 Black's attack is coming quickly and White really has no answer.
23. axb4 Qxb4 24. Nd3 Qc3 25. Kc1 Qc4 26. Rh2? A last critical error. White needed to run his king to the kingside as quickly as possible with 26. Kd1. Now Black's attack breaks through.
26... a3 27. bxa3 Qa2 28. Kd1 Rb1+ 29. Nc1 Qxa3 Black's attack flows and White is helpless.
30. Qd2 Qxf3+ 31. Re2 Qxg3 Black is up two pawns, White has no compensation and, indeed, he has no way for his king to escape the cross-fire of Black's pieces.

Russia moved into third place by beating Azerbaijan, the host country, 3-1. On Board 2, Vladimir Kramnik, the former World Champion, had little trouble with Teimour Radjabov,  who barely put up a fight. Radjabov made some questionable decisions in the opening and was essentially dead lost after 25 moves. 

On Board 4, Alexander Grischuk had to work considerably harder to beat Arkadij Naiditsch, a German-born grandmaster who switched federations to play for Azerbaijan. It was an interesting game arising out of a French Defense:

Alexander Grischuk vs. Arkadij Naiditsch
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 9.4 | 11 Sep 2016 | 1-0
1. e4 e6 The French Defense can either sharp or fairly uneventful.
2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Bb4 The Winawer Variation, which is often very tactical.
4. e5 c5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 Ne7 7. a4 An old idea in the Winawer. White wants to play his dark-squared bishop to a3 and also have Black advance his c-pawn to c4. White will then control the dark squares from a3 to f8. White then tries to attack on the kingside, where the defense is harder because of the weakness on the dark squares. The drawback to this strategy is that the pawn on a4 is almost always lost, after which Black has a queenside pawn majority. If he can organize an advance of his a- and b-pawns, he can usually overwhelm White's defenses on the queenside.
7... Qc7 8. Nf3 b6 9. Bb5+ An important move. Part of White's strategy is also to preserve his light-squared bishop. This check allows White to do that by preventing Black from playing Ba6.
9... Bd7 10. Be2 10. Bd3 is also possible, but the bishop will have to move again at some point after Black plays c4. The bishop is just not as actively placed on e2.
10... Nbc6 11. O-O Na5 12. Re1 h6 The square g5 can be useful for an invasion by the White knight, so Black stops it.
13. h4 Rc8 Black is trying to wait as long as possible before committing to castling. The text threatens 14... cd4.
14. Ba6 Obviously, White does not want to lose a pawn, which is what would happen after 14...cd4.
14... Rb8 15. Bd3 Trying to provoke Black into playing c4.
15... Bc6 16. h5 c4 Finally. Now the battle lines are more clearly drawn.
17. Bf1 Qd7 The a-pawn will fall, but White's initiative on the kingside is about to become very dangerous.
18. Nh4 Bxa4 19. Ra2 b5 20. Qg4 Rg8 21. Ba3 The White bishop takes up its ideal location. For the moment, Black is okay, but that bishop creates many problems for Black.
21... Rb6 22. g3 Nb7 Black wants to play a5 and b4. White must hurry with his attack.
23. Bh3 Kd8 It is understandable that Black wants to get his king to safety, but perhaps he should have continued with his plan and played 23... a5, which would have given White something to think about. Now White's attack continues unchecked.
24. f4 a5 25. Rb1 Of course White does not want to allow Black to close the a3-f8 diagonal.
25... b4? A pawn sacrifice to improve the security of his king, but it gives back the one advantage that Black had -- his extra pawn.
26. cxb4 Nc6 27. f5! White's attack arrives just in time and now Black is in deep trouble.
27... Nxb4 28. fxe6 fxe6 29. c3 Bb3 29... Na2 30. Rb6 is hopeless as White's pieces break through and swarm the king.
30. Rf2 Nd3 31. Rf6! A nice move that overwhelms Black's defense of e6.
31... Kc7 32. Rxe6 Rxe6 33. Qxe6 Qxe6 34. Bxe6 Material is equal, but White's bishops are cutting Black to ribbons. Black is helpless.
34... Rd8 35. Nf5 Bc2 36. Rb5 The computer prefers 36. Ra1, but at this point, it almost does not matter.
36... Kc6 37. Rxd5 A petite combination.
37... Rxd5 38. Ne7+ Kb5 39. Nxd5 Ka4 40. Be7 Kb3 41. Bc8 After 41... a4 42. Bb7 a3 43. Ba3 Ka3 44. e6 Bd1 45. e7 Bh5 45. Bc6, white will win easily.

Though they almost certainly cannot win gold, two other teams, in addition to India, remain in contention for medals: Georgia and the Czech Republic. Both have been surprises at the Olympiad as they began the competition as the Nos. 20 and 17 seeds, respectively.

Georgia kepts its medal hopes alive in Round 9 by beating Hungary, 2.5-1.5. As might be expected with these two teams, it was an entertaining match, with three decisive results, among them the following game between Mikhael Mchedlishvili of Georgia and Ferenc Berkes of Hungary:

Mikhael Mchedlishvili vs. Ferenc Berkes
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 9.7 | 11 Sep 2016 | 1-0
1. c4 Nf6 2. Nc3 e6 3. d4 Bb4 The Nimzo-Indian Defense.
4. e3 O-O 5. Ne2 Not a popular move because Black usually has few problems equalizing. The biggest problem is that White's king knight often ends up on g3, where it is not well placed. Instead, 5. Bd3 is normal and better.
5... c6 6. a3 Ba5 7. Qc2 d5 8. Ng3 White's knight is rather useless on g3. Black is already equal.
8... Nbd7 9. Be2 dxc4 10. Bxc4 e5 If the White knight were on f3, as it usually is, this counterattack against White's center would not be possible.
11. O-O Bc7 The bishop has done its job and is repositioned on a more useful diagonal.
12. Ba2 Re8 13. Rd1 exd4 14. Rxd4 Qe7 15. Nf5 Qe5 16. f4 Qc5 17. b4 Qf8 Black's queen might look silly on f8, but it is a temporary problem. Meanwhile, White's pawn advances, while grabbing space have also created weaknesses that he must defend. Chances are still about equal.
18. Bb2 Nb6 19. Re1 Bxf5 Black's first somewhat questionable decision. It might have been better to defer a decision on such a trade and play 19... a5 instead, attacking White's queenside.
20. Qxf5 Rad8 21. Rxd8 Bxd8?! An artificial looking move; 21... Rd8 seemed natural and good, with the threat of 22... Rd2. After 22. Ne4 Ne4 23. Qe4 Qd6, Black should be fine.
22. Qd3 c5?! On one level, an understandable move -- Black wants to bring his queen to an active square. But it also gives up control of d5, which can be useful for shutting down the a2-g8 diagonal. Black's position is beginning to a look a little suspect.
23. bxc5 Qxc5 24. Nb5 Be7?! Blocking the rook. Black should have tried 24... Nbd5 to put more pressure on e3 and if 25. Bd4, then 25... Qe7, threatening Nf4.
25. Rc1 Qh5 26. Bxf6! Counter-intuitive, but well-timed.
26... gxf6? An error. Black was worried about 26... Bf6 27. Nd6, but after 27... Rd8 28. Rc7 Qa5 29. Kf2 Nd5 30. Nf7 Qc7 31. Nd8 Qd8 32. Bd5, Black would still have a fighting chance because of the opposite-colored bishops. Now, he has too many weaknesses around his king.
27. Nd4! Rc8? Usually, trades help the defending side when he is being attacked. In this case, it allows White to infiltrate Black's position more easily.
28. Rxc8+ Nxc8 29. Nf5 Bf8 30. h3 Qg6 31. Qd7 Black is helpless. The rest is easy.
31... Nb6 32. Qe8! In addition to threatening 33. Ne7, White also has 33. Bf7 Qf7 34. Nh6 and Black cannot stop it.

The Czech Republic also had a narrow victory — over the Netherlands. Three of the four games were drawn so the match came down to the game between Viktor Laznicka of the Czech Republic and Erwin L’Ami of the Netherlands. L’Ami got into a little trouble early in the game, but he defended well until he got a little too complacent:

Viktor Laznicka vs. Erwin L'Ami
Olympiad | Baku, Azerbaijan | Round 9 | 11 Sep 2016 | 1-0
31. Qc2 Qb7 32. Bf1 L'Ami had been defending a difficult position for a long time. He now became complacent, not sensing the danger.
32... Kg7 32... Ne8 is better.
33. Qc3 Kf7 L'Ami thinks he can shuttle his king back and forth. He is wrong.
34. Be2 Kg7 35. Nf4 Kf7?? One too many times. Black had to play 35... Nb4.
36. Ba6! If 36... Qa6, then 37. Qc6 Qa7 38. Qd6 Qb7 39. Ne6 Qd7 40. Ng5 Kg7 41. Qb6, etc. Or, 36... Qa8 37. Bb5 Ne7 38. Qc7 Qc8 39. Qb6, etc.

In the women’s section, the United States and China were tied for the lead after Round 8 and faced each other in Round 9. The United States, the No. 6 seed, was fresh off an upset of Russia, the No. 3 seed, but in China, the No. 1 seed, the American squad faced an even bigger hurdle. They almost made it over it. 

The United States drew three of the four games, including Irina Krush holding off Hou Yifan, the Women’s World Champion. But Nazi Paikidze, the reigning United States Champion, made an error early in her game against Ju Wenjun that she was never able to overcome: 

Ju Wenjun vs. Nazi Paikidze
Olympiad | Baku, Azerbaijan | Round 9 | 10 Sep 2016 | 1-0
9. Nd3 Bxd2 A questionable decision. This bishop is useful and taking the knight only helps White's development; 9... Bd6 was better.
10. Bxd2 Ne4 11. cxd5 Nxd2 12. Qxd2 exd5 After the trades, Black has a passive position. Her d pawn is a target and White also attack rather easily along the c-file.
13. Rac1 c6 14. Rc2 Qe7 15. Rfc1 Rac8 16. a4 Nf6 17. Qb4 Qc7 18. Qb3 Ba6? A blunder that loses a pawn; 18... a5 was preferable.
19. Bh3 Bc4 20. Qa3 Rce8 21. Ne5 c5 22. Nxc4 dxc4 23. e3 Ne4 24. Rxc4 And that was it. Black managed to fight on for 60 moves, but she could never overcome that pawn deficit and it eventually decided the game.

Poland continued its surprising run by overcoming an overmatched squad from Israel. Next up for Poland? China. It might be the last obstacle standing in the way of China claiming the gold medal in the women’s division.

In the open section, the United States will play Georgia, Ukraine will face the Czech Republic and Russia plays India. No matter what happens, it looks like the gold medal will not be decided until the final round on Tuesday. 


Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of