The United States won the open division of the Chess Olympiad, while China took home the gold in the women’s section.

It was a long-time coming, but Tuesday the United States won the team gold medal in the open section at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan. The last time the United States won the Olympiad was in 1976, but the Soviet Union, Hungary and Yugoslavia had boycotted that competition because it was held in Israel. Before that, the last United States victory was in 1937, before the Soviet Union even played in the Olympiad.

In the women’s division, China also took the gold, holding off Russia by beating their rivals in the last round. Russia’s loss knocked the team from medal contention, allowing Poland and Ukraine, who both won their final matches, to take silver and bronze, respectively. 

In the last round, the United States needed to beat Canada, which was much lower-ranked, to keep pace with Ukraine (which actually tied for first, but had to settle for silver because it had inferior tie-breakers; Russia took the bronze). It turned out to be a surprisingly hard-fought victory for the United States.

The match started out encouragingly enough with Fabiano Caruana, the United States’ top player, coming up with an unusual opening set-up against Evgeny Bareev, a very experienced grandmaster who used to play for Russia. Bareev was unable to cope with Caruana’s idea, and the United States had its first point of the match. 

Caruana, Fabiano vs. Bareev, Evgeny
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.1 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: B12 | 1-0
a6 This seems like a standard position in the Caro-Kann Defense, but Caruana now played something unexpected.
9. b4! It is an unusual idea for White to play on the queenside. Caruana's move prevents Black from playing c5 and forces him to find another plan. That turns out to be surprisingly difficult and Black's position deteriorates rapidly.
9... Nf5 10. c3 f6 11. Bf4 fxe5 12. dxe5 Be7 13. g4 Nh4 14. Nd4! Bf7 15. Bg3 h5 16. gxh5 Qc7 17. Bg4 Whites advantage is already overwhelming.

The rest of the match was not so easy for the United States. On Board 2, Anton Kovalyov played very solidly against Hikaru Nakamura. And on Board 4, Eric Hansen found a really cool knight maneuver to win a pawn against Sam Shankland:

Hansen, Eric vs. Shankland, Samuel L
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.4 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: C65 | 1-0
Qxf5 18. Ng3 Qf6 19. Nh5! Qf5 20. Ng3 a harmless repetition.
20... Qf6 21. Nh5 Qf5 22. g4! And Black can no longer adequately defend his e-pawn. White's weakened kingside appears to give Black some compensation, but Hansen skillfully avoided any problems in the next few moves.
22... Qc8 23. Nxe5 Nxe5 24. dxe5 Qc7 25. Qe2 Rad8 26. Nf4 Rd7 27. Kg2 Kh8 28. Rac1! An excellent way to regroup his pieces.
28... a6 29. Rc2 Qd8 30. Qf3! And then the rook will go to e2.
30... Bc7 31. Rce2 White has a big advantage.

The fate of the match rested on the game on Board 3 between Wesley So of the United States, ranked No. 6 in the world, and Alexandre Leisage, who was vastly outrated. Lesiege defended excellently, and it wasn’t clear that So could win until the very end:

So, Wesley vs. Lesiege, Alexandre
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.3 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: A30 | 1-0
32. Nc7 Both the players were in severe time pressure, and it looks as if Black was very afraid of Whites two connected passed pawns.
32... R8e3!?
32... R8e7 would be easier.
33. d5+ Qe5 34. Qxe5+ R2xe5 35. f4 Rf5 36. g4 Rxc7  )
33. Qc1 h6 34. d5 Qe5?? Black just had to realize that he could hold a draw after the queen exchange:
34... Rd3! 35. Qxg5 hxg5 36. d6 Rc2  )
35. fxe3! Qg3 36. Qa1+ An unfortunate move to miss!
36. Qa1+ Kg8 37. Qa8+ Kg7 38. d6  )

After the United States knew that it had the gold, Shankland, wrote in an email, “It was a long event, full of tense moments, huge swings, successes and disappointments. Everyone was the hero of at least one match, and everyone needed his teammates to carry him at least once.” He closed with, “It’s been 79 years since team USA became undisputed World Champions, and I could not be more proud to have played for the squad that rewrote history.”

As is typical in many events, the last round was held at a much earlier time than usual. Not everyone adjusts so well to playing earlier, so there were many crucial games decided by sudden blunders. One of those happened in the match between Ukraine and Slovenia in the game on Board 3 between Anton Korobov (Ukraine) and Jure Borisek (Slovenia):

Korobov, Anton vs. Borisek, Jure
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.3 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: D85 | 1-0
22. Kf2 White was a bit better, but certainly it wasn't very clear:
22... Nb6 23. d5! White wins a piece.

That gave Ukraine its quickest point, but it was perhaps not the most crucial error as Korobov was already a bit better in the position. Ukraine also won convincingly on Boards 1 and 4 to seal its win over Slovenia, 3.5-0.5.

India’s S.P. Sethuraman had a more unfortunate blunder in his game against Frode Urkedal of Norway:

Urkedal, Frode vs. Sethuraman, S.P.
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.4 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: D45 | 1-0
16. Na4 Bxe3+?? Reversing the order of moves by Bf5 and then Rxe3 would have given Black a big advantage.
16... Bf5! 17. Qxf5 Rxe3!  )
17. Qxe3 Bg4 18. Be5! And the attack by the rook is blocked! White is just up a piece.
18... d4 19. Qd3 Bxe2 20. Qxe2 Nd5 21. Qg4 f6 22. Bxd4 b5 23. Nc3 Ne3 24. Bxe3 Rxe3 25. Rad1

The loss could have proved very costly for India, but Vidit Gujrathi had a very smooth win against Aryan Tari to level the match score.

Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion, didn’t face much trouble on Board 1 against Pentala Harikrishna, but he also never came close to getting an advantage. On Board 2, Jon Ludvig Hammer of Norway played Baskaran Adhiban of India. The game ended in a draw, but Adhiban may have missed a nice little tactical idea:

Hammer, Jon Ludvig vs. Adhiban, Baskaran
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.2 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: D45 | 1/2-1/2
Qf7 25. Qb5 Ne7?!
25... Bxf4! and Black has the perfect position if White moves the rook. The important point is that it is not safe for White to take the knight on c6 with
26. Rxc6 Qe8!  )
26. Rxc8 Rxc8 27. Qd7 and White didn't have many problems after that.

In the end, the 2-2 score wasn’t so bad for India, as the team, which finished fourth on tie-breakers, would also have been fourth even if it had won the match. For Norway, it was a great result. Ranked No. 12 at the start, it finished fifth on tie-breakers, by far its best showing in an Olympiad.

There were other mistakes in other matches, including the one between England and Peru. England seemed to be doing well, but it lost its advantage after David Howell’s position fell apart because of an unfortunate move against Jorge Cori:

Howell, David W L vs. Cori, Jorge
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.2 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: B22 | 0-1
Ne7 Black has a bit of compensation, but White's position was probably a bit better. However, after
28. Qf4 Black played
28... f5! And the situation has changed completely. The threats of Qc6 and Ng6 are both very strong and White was unable to resist much longer:
29. Nf1 Ng6 30. Qh2 Qc6 31. g3 Rh8 the attack is clearly too strong.

In the end, England drew the match because of a nice win by Michael Adams over Emilio Cordova on the top board. England finished ninth on tie-breaks, while Peru, which was the 34th seed, had an incredible result, finishing tenth. 

Georgia, which had a great run through much of the tournament, was less fortunate at the end against Turkey. On Board 2, Mikheil Mchedlishvilli couldn’t follow up on his brilliant win against Nakamura in Round 10. He was doing quite well in Round 11 against Alexander Ipatov, until he made a simple oversight:

Mchedlishvili, Mikheil vs. Ipatov, Alexander
42nd Olympiad Open 2016 | Baku AZE | Round 11.2 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: A41 | 0-1
b5 White had a good position a few moves earlier and had spoiled it. He still had decent chances to defend, but now he blunders and it is all over:
51. Ne3
51. Ng4! would have kept White safe for a while longer.  )
51... Rg3+! White overlooked the strength of this move.
52. Ke4 bxc4 53. Qd1
53. Nxc4 Rc3 just loses.  )
53... Qxa2 now it is all over.
54. Qf1 Qd2 55. Nfg4 Qd4+ 56. Kf5 Rxe3

Georgia lost its second consecutive match by 2.5 - 1.5, which knocked the team from the top of the rankings. Turkey, on the other hand, wound up sixth, despite starting as the No. 19 seed.

Mistakes affected the results in the women’s section as well. Guo Qi, China’s Board Board 4, certainly could have reacted better in the following position of her game against Natalia Pogonina of Russia:

Pogonina, Natalija vs. Guo, Qi
42nd Olympiad Women 2016 | Tromso NOR | Round 11.4 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: E00 | *
29. Qc6 Qd7? Black's move allowed White to take control after
29... axb4 or Bxd6 would have been just fine for Black.  )
30. b5! Now none of Black's pieces can really move.
30... h6 31. Be3 f6 32. Nf5! And it is all over.
32... Qa7 33. Nxe7+ Qxe7 34. exf6 Qxf6 35. Bxb6

Fortunately for Guo, the other Chinese players were able to overcome her loss with some superb play. In particular, Ju Wenjun played a great positional game to beat Valentina Guinina, who still ended up being Russia’s top scorer for the Olympiad.

China had another nice win on Board 3 to seal the match and Olympic victory:

Tan, Zhongyi vs. Goryachkina, Aleksandra
42nd Olympiad Women 2016 | Tromso NOR | Round 11.3 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: D43 | 1-0
Bd6 45. Qe3! A brilliant idea. Black will not be able to stop Nb5 on the next move.
45... b4 46. Nb5! Qxb5
46... Qxe3 47. fxe3 Bb8 48. c7 is winning for White as White's knight can get back in time to stop the b-pawn.
48... Bxc7 49. Nxc7 b3 50. Nb5 Kg7 51. g4 Kf6 52. Nc3 Ke5 53. Kg3  )
47. Qxe6+ Kg7 48. Qxd6 and Black has no checks against the White king, so the endgame is an easy win for White.
48... Qb6 49. Kg2 b3 50. Qe7+ Kg8 51. Qb7

Poland and Ukraine won their respective matches by wide margins, though many of the games were not easy. 

The medal prospects for both teams were aided by India and the United States drawing their match, 2-2. India, the No. 5 seed, was certainly disappointed with the result. On Board 2, Nazi Paikidze, the reigning United States Women’s Champion, had a lot of help from her opponent, Padmini Rout:

Padmini, Rout vs. Paikidze, Nazi
42nd Olympiad Women 2016 | Tromso NOR | Round 11.2 | 13 Sep 2016 | ECO: B12 | 0-1
Kd7 30. Bd2? This allows Black to completely change the course of the game.
30. Ra5! attacking the b-pawn was the best move, with the threat of Qxb5, when White would win a pawn as well as exchange the queens.  )
30... Nd3! 31. Qa5 Qc5+ 32. Kh1 f3! And now, though White is objectively fine, the initiative has passed to Black. White did not adjust well to this change in circumstances and went down quickly:
33. g3 h5! 34. Rae1 Nxe1 35. Rxe1 f2

On Board 3, Tania Sachdev was able to pull India even with a long, positional win over Anna Zatonskih. But on Board 4, Soumya Swaminathan missed some great winning chances to let Katerina Nemcova escape with a draw. 

All-in-all, it was a remarkable and thrilling Olympiad — great for the players and the fans, too. 


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 is about to start his junior year at Stanford University. He can be found on Twitter at @parimarjan.