Most of the top teams won, but they were not unscathed, and there were some mild upsets. Notably, the top seeded Chinese women were held to a draw.

The top teams in the open section of the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azzerbaijan, made it through Round 3 without a loss, but their winning margins continued to shrink as they faced tougher opposition than they had in the first two rounds. All the winning teams yielded at least one point.  

There were also one or two mild upsets. Poland, the No. 7 seed, lost to Cuba, the No. 15 seed, 2.5-1.5. It was a bad day for Poland all around as the women’s team, which was also the No. 7 seed in their section, lost to the hosts from Azerbaijan, who are seeded No. 16. 

Russia, the top seed, beat Moldova, 3-1, with a workman-like performance. The margin of victory was provided by their bottom two boards — Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alexander Grishchuk, who are rated 2740 and 2754, respectively! Nepomniachtchi beat Dmitry Svetushkin in a game that demonstrated the power of the bishop pair:

Dmitry Svetushkin vs. Ian Nepomniachtchi
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 3.1 | 04 Sep 2016 | 0-1
18. Bg5 A move whose primary purpose is to exchange the bishop for Black's knight. But that is a poor idea. Simply 18. f3, reinforcing e4 would have been better and left White with a tiny advantage based on his slightly better pawn structure.
18... h6 19. Bxf6 Bxf6 20. Bb3 bxc3 21. bxc3 Qa6 22. Qf3 Kg7 23. Ne3 This was probably White's basic idea when he played 18. Bg5 -- to take control of d5 and try to establish his knight or bishop there.
23... Rd3 24. Bc2 Of course not 24. Bc4 because of 24... Re3, winning.
24... Rd2 25. Rd1 Qd6 26. h3 Bg5 27. Nc4 Rxd1+ 28. Bxd1 Qa6 29. Qd3 29. Ne5 would not have won a pawn because of 29... Qe6 30. Nd3 Be7, and the e-pawn cannot be saved.
29... Qa1 30. Kh2 If 30. Ne5, then 30...Bf4 31. Nf3 Be4 32. Qe4 Qd1 33. Qe1, though White should be fine. This might have been the way to go.
30... Qa2 31. Be2 Ba6 The Black bishops are really making White's life unpleasant. He is pretty well tied down.
32. g3 Bd8 33. Kg2 Ba5 34. Bf1 Qa1 35. Qd5 Bxc3 36. Qxc5 White is managing to hold the material balance, but his position remains uncomfortable.
36... Qb1 37. Qe3 Qb4 38. Qd3 Bd4 39. Qc2 Qe1 40. Qe2 Qa1 41. Qc2 Bc8 With a simple threat.
42. Nd2? A blunder. White had to play 2 g4, as ugly as that move was. Note that 42. Bd3 was not possible because of 42.. Bh3! and White cannot take the bishop without being mated.
42... Qe1 43. Nf3 Bxh3+! 44. Kxh3 Qxf1+ 45. Kh2 Bxf2 46. Qb2 Be3 White resigned because 47. Qe5 Kh7 48. Qf6 Bg1! 49. Kh1 Bd4 would be easily winning for Black. And so would 47. Qg2 Qd1.

The United States, the No. 2 seed, also won, 3-1, over Argentina, but the score arguably should have been 2.5-1.5. Hikaru Nakamura, playing Black on Board 2, played indifferently in the opening against Sandro Mareco, a grandmaster rated 2600. Nakamura lost one pawn and then another. The game gradually wound down to an endgame in which Nakamura’s only compensation was that his knight was a bit better than Mareco’s surviving bishop and Nakamura’s rooks were more active. Mareco began to push his pawns and all he had to do was be a little careful and he would nurse his advantage to victory, but he ran out of patience:

Sandro Mareco vs. Hikaru Nakamura
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 3.8 | 04 Sep 2016 | 1/2-1/2
63. c6?! Tempting and natural, but not the best. White should first have played 63. Rc3 and continued to slowly unwind his pieces.
63... Raa2? Should lose, but Nakamura probably did not have the appetite to try to defend this position by playing the best defensive move -- 63... Ra8. Nakamura's move also sets a trap.
64. c7?? Throwing away the win. If White had realized the danger, he would have played 64. f5! The reason soon becomes apparent.
64... Nc1! White's advantage is gone in a puff of smoke.
65. Rxc1 If 65. Re3, then 65... Rc2 and Black will pick off the far advanced White c-pawn, effectively ending any White chances to win the game.
65... Rxe2+ 66. Kf1 Now the reason that White should have played 64. f5 becomes clear. If the White pawn were no longer on f4, he could run his king to g3 and then f4 to escape the checks. Now, playing Kg3 would walk into a mating net.
66... Rh2 67. Kg1 Rag2+ 68. Kf1 Rf2+ 69. Kg1 69. Ke1 would not help after 69... Rfg2, threatening 70... Rg1, mate.
69... Rhg2+ 70. Kh1 Rh2+ Draw. White's king cannot escape the perpetual check.

China, the No. 3 seed and defending gold medalists, also won, 3-1, over Brazil. China’s two wins were achieved in completely different fashions. On Board 1, Wang Yue ground down Alexandr Fier in 114 moves, while on Board 3, Yu Yangyi got a nice gift from his opponent, Evandro Amorim Barbosa:  

Evandro Amorim Barbosa vs. Yu Yangyi
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 3.9 | 04 Sep 2016 | 0-1
36. Kf3 White decides to activate his king, which is what players are supposed to do in the endgame.
36... Ra3+ 37. Ke4?? Whoops, too active. White had to play 37. Kf2. Now it is all over.
37... Ke6 The only way to avoid 38... f5, mate, is by playing 38. Rg5, so White resigned.

India, the bronze medalists at the last Olympiad, also kept pace with a 3-1 win. They beat Azerbaijan 2, the second team from the host country. One of India’s victories, by Vidit Gujrthi against Ulvi Bajarani, was thanks to a nice petite combination:

Ulvi Bajarani vs. Vidit Santosh Gujrathi
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 3.3 | 04 Sep 2016 | 0-1
10. h3 It might have been better to play 10. Bh4, which would avoid what happens next.
10... fxe4 11. dxe4 Be6 12. Qe2 Nxf2 13. Rxf2 Bxf2+ 14. Kxf2 Qh5 15. Bd2 Rxf3+ Good enough to force a draw, unless White tries for more ...
16. gxf3 Qh4+ 17. Ke3 Qg5+ Now White could play 18. Kf2, and the game could end in a draw by perpetual check. But White wants more.
18. Kd3? A blunder that leads by force to a lost endgame.
18... Qd8+! 19. Kc3 Qd4+ 20. Kb3 b5 21. c3 Bxc4+ 22. Kc2 Bxe2 23. cxd4 exd4 24. Bb4 Re8 25. Bc5 Bxf3 26. Re1 Bxe4+ 27. Kd2 a5 28. Bxd4 Rd8 29. Ke3 Bf5 White is simply down too many pawns and the opposite-colored bishops, which sometmes help to create drawing chances, are not enough. Black went on to win without too much trouble.

Ukraine, the No. 5 seed, also won its match over Germany, but its margin was only 2.5-1.5. The top three boards were all drawn, so it came down to Board 4. On that board, Andrei Volokitin dismantled Daniel Fridman after Fridman made an error in the opening and his king was trapped in the center. 

Andrei Volokitin vs. Daniel Fridman
Chess Olympiad | Baku AZE | Round 3.10 | 04 Sep 2016 | 1-0
1. e4 c6 The Caro-Kann Defense. It has a reputation of being solid and it is. But when things go wrong in the opening, the position can go downhill in a hurry.
2. d4 d5 3. e5 The Advance Variation is one of the systems that poses the most problems for Black.
3... Bf5 4. Nf3 This seemingly quiet system became popular in the 1990s when it was used successfully by Nigel Short, the English grandmaster.
4... e6 5. Be2 c5 The most ambitious move, but not the safest. Either 5... Nd7 or 5... Ne7 were more solid.
6. Be3 cxd4 7. Nxd4 Ne7 8. O-O Nbc6 9. Bb5 It seems odd to move a piece twice in the opening, but White wants to slow down Black's development so that he can open the center before Black manages to castle.
9... Bg6 10. c4 a6 Black must try to break the pin.
11. cxd5 Qxd5 It is understandable that Black did not want to play 11... ab5 12. dc6 bc6, because the resulting position would be ugly, but it would be safe.
12. Nc3 Qxe5 There is nothing better than to take the pawn.
13. Ba4 Rc8?! This seemingly natural looking move is an error. Black had to break the pin by playing 13... b5.
14. Rc1 Nf5 15. Nxc6 bxc6 16. Ne2 Nxe3? A blunder. Black should have played 16... Qe4.
17. Rxc6! Ke7 After 17... Nd1 18. Re6 Kd8 19. Re5 Bc2 (19... Nb2 20. Re8 Kc7 21. Rc1, etc.) 20. Bc2 Nb2 21. Bf5, White would have a clear edge.
18. fxe3 Qxe3+? Another error. Black should have kept his queen near his king for defense.
19. Kh1 Rxc6 20. Bxc6 Qd3 21. Qa4 Of course White does not want to trade queens.
21... e5 The White knight was poisoned, but Black's move does not do much either. He needed to try a move like 21... Bf5.
22. Rd1 Qxe2 23. Qb4+ It will soon be mate. For example, 23... Kf6 24. Qh4 Ke6 25. Bd7, mate

Further down the crosstable, Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, and Norway were not able to avoid a loss to Romania, 2.5-1.5. Part of the problem was that Carlsen was held to a draw by Constantin Lupulescu, who played very, very well. The match was decided on Board 3 where Aryan Tari, the hero for Norway in the first two rounds, lost to Bogdan-Daniel Deac.

In the women’s section, there was another huge upset. One day after Georgia was upended by the Philippines, China, the top seed, was held to a draw by Vietnam, the No. 19 seed. China drew despite having Hou Yifan, the Women’s World Champion, play her first game of the competition and beat Le Thao Nguyen Pham.

The problem for China was that Thi Mai Hung Nguyen beat Zhao Xue, who outrated Nguyen by 200 points. And Nguyen won while playing Black! Zhao had played rather speculatively early on and her king wound up trapped in the center. She was trying to fight back, but she underestimated the danger to her king, allowing Nguyen to launch a mating attack:

Zhao Xue vs. Thi Mai Hung Nguyen
Chess Olympiad (Women) | Tromso NOR | Round 3.1 | 04 Sep 2016 | 0-1
37. Qh1? An error. White overlooks the threat, though, to be fair, White's position was pretty bad.
37... Bxd3! 38. Bxd3 Rf2+ 39. Be2 Ne4+ 40. Kd3 Nc5+ A moment of indecision...
41. Kd2 Ne4+ 42. Kd3 Ng3! She finds the right path.
43. Rh8+ Kc7 44. Qh7 Nxe2 45. Ba5+ b6 46. Bd2 g3 47. Nd4 Rf7! 48. Qh3 Allowing a pretty finish.
48... Qe4+ 49. Kxe2 Rf2+ 50. Kd1 Qb1+ 51. Bc1 Qd3+ 52. Bd2 Qxd2#

Russia, the No. 3 seed, had few problems, beating Uzbekistan, 3-1. And Ukraine, the No. 2 seed, also stayed undefeated and untied, though it was not easy as it narrowly beat the United States, the No. 6 seed, 2.5-1.5.

As for the Philippines, their cinderella story did not last long as they faced India, the No. 5 seed, and lost badly, 3.5-0.5.

The preliminaries are really over now and the fight for the podium will start in earnest in Round 4. The most intriguing contest will be in the open section where Russia and Ukraine will face each other on Board 1.  


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