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.
22. Qe1a5?!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... Qa6A 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!axb424. cxb4cxb425. Rxb4White now has an outside passed pawn that will require attention from Black. 25... Ra8?!Another step in the wrong direction.
( 25... Rxb4!26. Qxb4Rxe627. Rxe6Qxe6Scary 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. a5Qe5!A critical move -- without it Black is lost. It's possible this is what Eljanov missed. 29. Qb6There's no other way to prepare a6 ...Qe1+30. Kh2Qe5+31. g3f4!And Black opens up the king. He should not have much trouble creating a perpetual check. )
26. Qa1The engine still calls this equal, but, to me, it looks very uncomfortable for Black. 26... f427. Re4f328. g4Kg829. Qd1Rxe6?!Another dubious move.
( 29... Qd8Sitting 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. Qxf3Rxe431. Qxe4Qc732. c5!dxc533. Qc4+Kg734. Qc3+Kg835. Qc4+Kg736. 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... Qd637. Qc3+Qf638. Qe3Rf839. Re4Rf740. Re5Qd641. a5Qd1+42. Kg2Qa143. Qe2e644. a6Qd445. Rxe6c546. Re7Qd5+47. f3c448. Rxf7+Qxf749. Qe5+Kh650. Qe3+Kg751. Qd4+Kh652. a7Qb753. 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.
Rxa2I 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. Bxc4dxc4+29. Ke4f5#I had no interest in getting mated like this )
27... Ke728. Re8+!Kf629. Be1And now there is no more f5 29... Kg7Renewing the threat of Qc4+
( 29... Qc4+?30. Bxc4dxc4+31. Ke4The king blocks Black from playing f7-f5 with checkmate )
( 30. Qb3Ra3Wins on the spot because my queen cannot maintain control of the c4 square )
30... f5Again renewing the threat
( 30... Qc4+again this fails. 31. Bxc4dxc4+32. Ke4f5+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... Qf7Trying to come around the other side
( 31... Ra3This looks like it immediately ends the game because my queen cannot maintain control of c4. But... 32. Rb2!Rxb333. Rxg2+And now the importance of including f4 and f5 becomes clearer. The Black king has nowhere to hide! 33... Kf634. Rh8Rxb535. Bh4+Kf736. Rh7+And I have a perpetual check. )
( 31... Nc4?This also looks tempting but fails 32. Bxc4dxc4+33. Qxc4Rad2+34. Bxd2Rxd2+35. Kxd2Qxc436. Rb7+Kf637. Rh8And 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... Nc433. Rd8Be7?Black's first real mistake. He's still winning but it's starting to get tougher, and his time was running low.
( 33... Nxe3My engine reads -14 34. Kxe3Bxf4+35. Kxf4Rg4+36. Kf3Qh5And I am checkmated. )
( 34... Qf8!This still won )
35. Bxc4!dxc4+36. Kxc4I 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?
( 38. Qa4I saw this holds easily but realized that I should actually be playing for a win. 38... Rb739. Rxe7+Qxe740. Kd3With a draw )
38... Rb839. Qa7Kf840. Kd3And White is up two pawns. I have never had a more miraculous escape in my life. 40... Ra841. Qb7Rb842. Qh1Qxd743. Qh8+Kf744. Qxb8Qc645. Qb2Qe4+46. Kd2Qg2+47. Kc1Qf148. Kd1Qd3+49. Qd2Qc450. Qe2Qa4+51. Qc2Qc452. Kd2Qf153. Qd3Qh154. Qe2Qe455. Qh2Qb756. Ke2Qb2+57. Bd2Qb5+58. Kf2Kg659. Qg2+Kf760. Qf3Bh4+61. Kg2Qd362. Qh5+Kf863. Qd1Kg764. Qg1Qxd2+65. Kh3+Kf866. Kxh4Qxc367. Kh5Qc668. Kh6Qf369. Qg7+Ke870. Qe5Kd771. Kg7Qg4+72. Kf8Qh473. Qg7+Kd674. Ke8Qh5+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.]
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.
17. Ne5Black 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. Qf4f6!19. Rad1Nd6!20. Ng4
( 20. Qg4This was the lesser evil, though after: 20... Qc8!21. Rxd6!exd622. Qe4dxe523. Qxa8Qd724. Qe4Nc6Black is a bit better )
20... Nc6It 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. Qc1which is the engine's suggestion, is not much better 21... f522. Ne3Nf7And the bishop on h6 is trapped! 23. Nc2Nxh624. Qxh6Bxb2Black is up a pawn and White lacks compensation. )
( 21... e5?Would be premature 22. Nxf6+ )
22. h3f523. Ngh2e524. Qc1e425. Nh4White'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... Rxd126. Rxd1Nd427. Re1Qa628. Be3Qxa229. g4Bf630. Ng2Ne631. gxf5gxf532. 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.
h5If 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. e4h4Would win the pawn on e4 by attacking the knight on g3. )
( 16. Rae1This looks completely logical, with the goal of playing e4. But now Black's main idea becomes clear: 16... h4!17. Nf5Ne7!And there's nowhere for the White knight on f5 to go because 18. Nxh4Fails to ...g5 )
( 16... h4?Black's idea has lost its power 17. Nf5Ne718. Nxh4g519. Qg3!One point behind Qf2. )
( 17... h418. Nh1And the pawn on h4 is attacked and cannot be adequately defended. After 18... h319. Ng3!e4 is once again on the horizen )
18. e4From a strategic standpoint, Black is already dead lost. The rest of the game was not too stressful for me. 18... h419. Nh1Ng620. e5Nh521. Bc1Nhf422. Bxf4Nxf423. Qxh4Nd324. Re3Re625. f4Rh626. Qg3Qa427. Nf2Nxf228. Qxf2Qxa329. f5a530. Rg3Kh831. Qf4Qf832. f6gxf633. exf6Re834. Qf5Rh735. Rh3Qg836. Rff3Re1+37. Kf2Re2+38. Kxe2Qxg2+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.
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