Sam Shankland was a member of the gold-medal winning team from the United States. Here are some of his memories of how things unfolded.

The 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaija, has come to a close, and I could not be more proud to have played for the winning squad. It had been 79 years since the United Statess had been undisputed World Champions, and this felt like way too long. [Editor’s note: The United States also won the gold medal in 1976, but the Soviet Union, Hungary and Yugoslavia all boycotted that Olympiad because it was held in Israel.] The experience in Baku was so surreal that, at the moment, I have a feeling that I could write a book about it. The following are some of the highlights and memories from those 12 grueling days.

We were seeded second, with a squad that included three players who had grown up and played for the United States for many years — Hikaru Nakamura, Ray Robson and myself — plus two top-10 players that recently switched their allegiance to the United States: Wesley So (from the Philippines) and Fabiano Caruana (from Italy, though he was born in the United States and grew up there before leaving for Europe when he was 12).

The tournament started with a bang, or rather some loudly yelled obscenities. While we were going through security in the first round, Wesley stumbled while holding a cup of very hot coffee. I wound up the unfortunate victim of his clumsiness, and instinctively yelled a short string of words that should never be repeated and probably traumatized everyone in immediate earshot. A lively way to start the tournament!

As huge rating favorites against our opponents in the first five rounds, we got through without much difficulty, ceding only a tied match to the Czech Republic when no one on our team managed to make any headway in four very level games. 

Our first really critical match came against Ukraine in Round 6 and Fabiano was the hero of the day. Both Hikaru and I suffered a bit with the Black pieces but held without a ton of trouble, and Fabiano managed to beat Pavel Eljanov on Board 1. A pretty lifeless draw on Board 3 sealed the match for us.

Caruana, F. vs. Eljanov, P.
42nd Olympiad 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 6.2 | 08 Sep 2016 | ECO: B31 | 1-0
22. Qe1 a5?! Not a bad move per se, but a risky one. It allows White to create an outside passed pawn and will require accurate play to defend against.
22... Qa6 A move like this should have been fine for Black. I can't see any real plan for either player, and I'd expect a draw to be agreed after a few more moves.  )
23. b4! axb4 24. cxb4 cxb4 25. Rxb4 White now has an outside passed pawn that will require attention from Black.
25... Ra8?! Another step in the wrong direction.
25... Rxb4! 26. Qxb4 Rxe6 27. Rxe6 Qxe6 Scary as this position looks for Black, it was the only certain way to hold a draw. The a-pawn looks like it's going to run straight down the board, but Black should be to able to avoid a loss by forcing a perpetual check.
28. a5 Qe5! A critical move -- without it Black is lost. It's possible this is what Eljanov missed.
29. Qb6 There's no other way to prepare a6
...  Qe1+ 30. Kh2 Qe5+ 31. g3 f4! And Black opens up the king. He should not have much trouble creating a perpetual check.  )
26. Qa1 The engine still calls this equal, but, to me, it looks very uncomfortable for Black.
26... f4 27. Re4 f3 28. g4 Kg8 29. Qd1 Rxe6?! Another dubious move.
29... Qd8 Sitting and waiting with a move like this that accomplishes nothing was probably better, but I can understand Eljanov's desire to change the course of the game.  )
30. Qxf3 Rxe4 31. Qxe4 Qc7 32. c5! dxc5 33. Qc4+ Kg7 34. Qc3+ Kg8 35. Qc4+ Kg7 36. Qxc5! And Black's king is exposed in addition to White having the better passed pawn. Fabiano went on to win without much trouble.
36... Qd6 37. Qc3+ Qf6 38. Qe3 Rf8 39. Re4 Rf7 40. Re5 Qd6 41. a5 Qd1+ 42. Kg2 Qa1 43. Qe2 e6 44. a6 Qd4 45. Rxe6 c5 46. Re7 Qd5+ 47. f3 c4 48. Rxf7+ Qxf7 49. Qe5+ Kh6 50. Qe3+ Kg7 51. Qd4+ Kh6 52. a7 Qb7 53. h4

Next up was India. At this point, they were the only team with a perfect score so we needed to win if we were to overtake them. Ever since Round 3, Ray and I had been alternating on Board 4 while the top three guys kept rolling along. But for this round, John Donaldson, our captain, decided to play me for a second time in a row because I had beaten S.P. Sethuraman, India’s fourth board, in the Edmonton International just a couple months earlier.

It was nothing like that in Baku though! Though I had White, I was completely outplayed, basically crushed, and I should have been mated in just 25 moves. That’s when strange things started happening.

Shankland, S. vs. Sethuraman, S.
42nd Olympiad 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 7.1 | 09 Sep 2016 | ECO: D11 | 1-0
Rxa2 I had played rather psychotically up to this point, as if I had no regard for the consequences of my moves. I am completely dead here with my king in the crossfire of the two Black rooks. Already, Qc4 is a mate threat. I just kept playing one more move instead of resigning.
27. Rh8+!
27. Be1? Qc4+ 28. Bxc4 dxc4+ 29. Ke4 f5# I had no interest in getting mated like this  )
27... Ke7 28. Re8+! Kf6 29. Be1 And now there is no more f5
29... Kg7 Renewing the threat of Qc4+
29... Qc4+? 30. Bxc4 dxc4+ 31. Ke4 The king blocks Black from playing f7-f5 with checkmate  )
30. f4!
30. Qb3 Ra3 Wins on the spot because my queen cannot maintain control of the c4 square  )
30... f5 Again renewing the threat
30... Qc4+ again this fails.
31. Bxc4 dxc4+ 32. Ke4 f5+ 33. Kf3  )
31. Qb3! A strong defensive resource, and setting a devilish trap that would not have worked on the previous move. I am still dead lost, but I could see my opponent starting to become frustrated that the immediate attempts to end the game were not working.
31... Qf7 Trying to come around the other side
31... Ra3 This looks like it immediately ends the game because my queen cannot maintain control of c4. But...
32. Rb2! Rxb3 33. Rxg2+ And now the importance of including f4 and f5 becomes clearer. The Black king has nowhere to hide!
33... Kf6 34. Rh8 Rxb5 35. Bh4+ Kf7 36. Rh7+ And I have a perpetual check.  )
31... Nc4? This also looks tempting but fails
32. Bxc4 dxc4+ 33. Qxc4 Rad2+ 34. Bxd2 Rxd2+ 35. Kxd2 Qxc4 36. Rb7+ Kf6 37. Rh8 And once again, the Black king lacks cover.  )
31... Kh7! Many moves win, but this (or Rh2) are the most brutal. Black can play Ra3 next when Rc2 and Rxg2 will not come with check.  )
32. Qd1! Stopping Qh5
32... Nc4 33. Rd8 Be7? Black's first real mistake. He's still winning but it's starting to get tougher, and his time was running low.
33... Nxe3 My engine reads -14
34. Kxe3 Bxf4+ 35. Kxf4 Rg4+ 36. Kf3 Qh5 And I am checkmated.  )
34. Rd7 Rab2?
34... Qf8! This still won  )
35. Bxc4! dxc4+ 36. Kxc4 I could not believe my eyes at this point. I had survived! In fact, Black needs to play precisely not to be worse -- he is down two pawns after all.
36... Qe8?
36... e5+ 37. d5 Qe8 Was a better move
38. Rxb2 Rxb2 39. Rxe7+  )
37. Rxb2! Rxb2 38. Qa1!
38. Qa4 I saw this holds easily but realized that I should actually be playing for a win.
38... Rb7 39. Rxe7+ Qxe7 40. Kd3 With a draw  )
38... Rb8 39. Qa7 Kf8 40. Kd3 And White is up two pawns. I have never had a more miraculous escape in my life.
40... Ra8 41. Qb7 Rb8 42. Qh1 Qxd7 43. Qh8+ Kf7 44. Qxb8 Qc6 45. Qb2 Qe4+ 46. Kd2 Qg2+ 47. Kc1 Qf1 48. Kd1 Qd3+ 49. Qd2 Qc4 50. Qe2 Qa4+ 51. Qc2 Qc4 52. Kd2 Qf1 53. Qd3 Qh1 54. Qe2 Qe4 55. Qh2 Qb7 56. Ke2 Qb2+ 57. Bd2 Qb5+ 58. Kf2 Kg6 59. Qg2+ Kf7 60. Qf3 Bh4+ 61. Kg2 Qd3 62. Qh5+ Kf8 63. Qd1 Kg7 64. Qg1 Qxd2+ 65. Kh3+ Kf8 66. Kxh4 Qxc3 67. Kh5 Qc6 68. Kh6 Qf3 69. Qg7+ Ke8 70. Qe5 Kd7 71. Kg7 Qg4+ 72. Kf8 Qh4 73. Qg7+ Kd6 74. Ke8 Qh5+ 75. Qf7

Hikaru and Wesley both scored fine wins on Boards 2 and 3, respectively, in contrast to my game with Sethuraman, which, in my opinion, vaguely resembled monkeys flinging feces at each other. The match was much closer than the lopsided 3.5-0.5 score might indicate, but we were just happy to have won.

After such a sloppy game, it was no surprise that John wanted to give me a rest and put Ray in for the match against Russia. Unfortunately, Ray also had not been on his best form, and lost a very even-looking endgame to Alexander Grischuk. Luckily for us, Wesley kept cruising, and he routinely defeated the red-hot Ian Nepomniatchi on Board 3 with the Black pieces.  [Editor’s note: Nepomniachtchi had started the tournament with seven straight wins.]

Nepomniachtchi, I. vs. So, W.
42nd Olympiad 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 8.1 | 10 Sep 2016 | ECO: C50 | 0-1
fxe5 19. dxe5? This is too ambitious. Now both sides have pawn majorities, but Black's is much better and more mobile. Note that the pawn on f2 did not move for the rest of the game.
19. Nxe5 After which White should be fine.  )
19... a5 And Wesley won easily. The game almost played itself.
20. Qc1 Qe7 21. Rb3 Bf5 22. Nd4 Ne6 23. Nxf5 Rxf5 24. Bd3 Rf4 25. Bxg6 hxg6 26. Qd1 Raf8 27. Rf3 Qb4 28. Rxf4 Rxf4 29. Nf3 Qxa4 30. Qd3 Rf5 31. Qb1 Qf4 32. Qc2 Kh7 33. Re3 Qc4 34. Qd1 Rf4 35. Rc3 Qb4 36. Qc1 a4 37. h4 Kg8 38. Qb1 Qe4 39. Qd1 Nd4 40. Re3 Nxf3+ 41. gxf3 Qf5 42. e6 Rxh4 43. Re4 Rxe4 44. fxe4 Qxe4 45. Qd2 Qxe6 46. Qa5 Qg4+ 47. Kf1 b5 48. Qc7 g5 49. Qb8+ Kh7 50. Qd6 b4

Next up was Norway. With Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, on Board 1, they were obviously dangerous. But we came through, thanks in no small part to Hikaru’s best game of the Olympiad — defeating my friend Jon Ludvig Hammer almost effortlessly on Board 2.

Hammer, J. vs. Nakamura, Hi
42nd Olympiad 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 9.2 | 11 Sep 2016 | ECO: E60 | 0-1
17. Ne5 Black has a pleasant position and several promising continuations. I really like the one Hikaru selected:
17... Ne4! Threatening Bxe5. Black has an ingenious regrouping maneuver in mind.
18. Qf4 f6! 19. Rad1 Nd6! 20. Ng4
20. Qg4 This was the lesser evil, though after:
20... Qc8! 21. Rxd6! exd6 22. Qe4 dxe5 23. Qxa8 Qd7 24. Qe4 Nc6 Black is a bit better  )
20... Nc6 It might seem as if Black made a mistake based on what has happened in the previous few moves. White's pieces look active on the kingiside, but, in fact, White is completely lost! Black will play Nf7 and then, after e5 and f5, White's pieces will be pushed back.
21. Kg1
21. Qc1 which is the engine's suggestion, is not much better
21... f5 22. Ne3 Nf7 And the bishop on h6 is trapped!
23. Nc2 Nxh6 24. Qxh6 Bxb2 Black is up a pawn and White lacks compensation.  )
21... Nf7!
21... e5? Would be premature
22. Nxf6+  )
22. h3 f5 23. Ngh2 e5 24. Qc1 e4 25. Nh4 White's pieces, which seemed so well placed a few moves ago, are now scattered and ridiculous. His pawns soon dropping like flies and Naka soon reeled in the full point.
25... Rxd1 26. Rxd1 Nd4 27. Re1 Qa6 28. Be3 Qxa2 29. g4 Bf6 30. Ng2 Ne6 31. gxf5 gxf5 32. Nf1

While this was the best game of the match, I scored another big victory for us on Board 4. Despite the final result of my game with Sethuraman, Ray and I had both been looking really shaky throughout the event. It felt like this was where we were weak as a team. But, I managed to reverse the trend with a nice win over Frode Urkedal, and with the Black pieces.

John decided to play me again after winning two games in a row in our match with Georgia in the penultimate round. And the game against Tornike Sanikidze was basically over before it started.

Shankland, S. vs. Sanikidze, T.
42nd Olympiad 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 10.1 | 12 Sep 2016 | ECO: D31 | 1-0
h5 If White can play e3-e4 without compromising the integrity of his pawn structure, he will be winning from a strategic point of view. It probably seemed to anyone watching this game that Black was holding his own because of the annoying advance h5-h4, but I had other ideas.
16. Qf2! A nasty novelty I had prepared some months ago. When I noticed my opponent regularly plays this opening, it was an easy decision what to play against him. White simply prevents h4, and Black can do nothing to prevent Rae1 and then e4.
16. e4 h4 Would win the pawn on e4 by attacking the knight on g3.  )
16. Rae1 This looks completely logical, with the goal of playing e4. But now Black's main idea becomes clear:
16... h4! 17. Nf5 Ne7! And there's nowhere for the White knight on f5 to go because
18. Nxh4 Fails to
...  g5  )
16... Qd7
16... h4? Black's idea has lost its power
17. Nf5 Ne7 18. Nxh4 g5 19. Qg3! One point behind Qf2.  )
17. Rae1 Ne7
17... h4 18. Nh1 And the pawn on h4 is attacked and cannot be adequately defended. After
18... h3 19. Ng3! e4 is once again on the horizen  )
18. e4 From a strategic standpoint, Black is already dead lost. The rest of the game was not too stressful for me.
18... h4 19. Nh1 Ng6 20. e5 Nh5 21. Bc1 Nhf4 22. Bxf4 Nxf4 23. Qxh4 Nd3 24. Re3 Re6 25. f4 Rh6 26. Qg3 Qa4 27. Nf2 Nxf2 28. Qxf2 Qxa3 29. f5 a5 30. Rg3 Kh8 31. Qf4 Qf8 32. f6 gxf6 33. exf6 Re8 34. Qf5 Rh7 35. Rh3 Qg8 36. Rff3 Re1+ 37. Kf2 Re2+ 38. Kxe2 Qxg2+ 39. Ke1

Wesley won on Board 3 as well, so despite a surprising loss from Hikaru on Board 2, we managed to win, 2.5-1.5.

Going into the final round, we would be facing Canada. Neither Hikaru nor Wesley were in the best health (it’s pretty normal for people to get sick in such a grueling event with so many germs from every country on earth floating around), but John decided to stick with our winning lineup of Caruana-Nakamura-So-Shankland, which we used in five of the final six matches.

It was a pretty forgettable day for me. I chose to play the Berlin Defense against Eric Hansen, but the game was at 11 A.M. and I did not have as much time as normal to prepare. I missed one possibility for White, which was still just equal with correct play, but I had to find two pretty difficult moves. I didn’t manage to do that, and before I knew it I was just down a pawn and in a tough position. 

It turned out to be unimportant. I had the best record on our team in the 2014 Olympiad, where I scored 9.0/10 on Board 4, and my wins in Rounds 9 and 10 in Baku had helped to put us in prime position to fight for the gold in the final round. But when I faltered for the first time [Editor’s note: It was Shankland’s first loss in the 2014 and 2016 Olympiads], my teammates picked up the slack and carried the day. Fabiano and Wesley both won reasonably quickly, and Hikaru held a solid draw.

When Hikaru finished his game to seal the match victory, with 2.5 points for us, I was clearly lost and only a few moves away from resigning. Taking a break from my misery to congratulate him on clinching the gold medal for us, he pumped my hand energetically, looked over at my position and said, “Don’t worry about it, you’ve more than done your part.” It was a touching moment for me, and a reminder that friendship and cameraderie really go a long way even in a mostly individual sport. I resigned a few moves later, and for the first time in my life, I resigned with the feeling of passion and burning success inside me. We were World Champions!


Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 5 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.