The American squad starts play Thursday in the 42nd Chess Olympiad in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku laboring under an unusual burden — sky-high expectations.
The U.S. has not reached the podium in the biennial event since 2008, and the country’s last gold medal came in 1976 in Israel, when the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations boycotted the event.
But anchored by three young stars in the world’s top 10 — GMs Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So — the Yanks sport an average rating of 2740, second only to Russia. Defending champion China, Ukraine and the host Azerbaijani team are also expected to be in the mix, but the powerful Armenian team, which won gold in 2006, 2008 and 2012, is a no-show owing to continuing political tensions between Yerevan and Baku.
Both world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Russian Sergey Karjakin, his challenger in the title match in November n New York City will be playing for their countries, though it’s unlikely they’ll square off in Baku.
GM Irina Krush and new U.S. women’s champ IM Nazi Paikidze will anchor the women’s team, but they can expect a tough time getting past three-time defending champion Russia and a high-powered Chinese team.
Not surprisingly, four of the five all-time best individual performers in Olympiad history are world champions, led by Latvia-born Soviet star Mikhail Tal, who lost just twice in 101 games. The only outlier among the top five may be a surprise to some — American GM Isaac Kashdan, a key member of the storied U.S. teams that took home four straight Olympiad golds starting in 1931. Today’s game comes from the 7th Olympiad in 1937, where Kashdan went 13-1-2 playing third board for yet another victorious U.S. team.
A precise positional player often compared to the great Cuban champion Capablanca, Kashdan here allows the queens to come off early in the game against strong Finnish master Eero Book and still manages to pull off a neat mating combination in just over 30 moves. In a drawish position, White’s gamble on a queenside push backfires with 21. a4?! bxa4! 22. Bxa6 Rb8 when his own king comes under fire on the half-open b-file. White appears to be gaining space, but Kashdan finds a deadly counterpunch.
Thus: 26. b5 a3! (threatening 27…a2! 28. Nxa2 Ra8, winning a piece) 27. Na2 Ne4 28. Bxd6! Bb2+ (Nxd6? 29. Rxd6! cxd6 30. c7 is White’s idea) 29. Kb1 Nxc6! 30. Bxc7 Nb4!! (a wonderful idea, leaving the rook en pris) 31. Bxb8 (Nxb4 Nc3 mate) Nc3+! 32. Nxc3 Bxc3, and White resigns as there’s no defense against the threat of 33…a2+ 34. Kc1 a1=Q mate.
As recounted last week, today’s diagram comes from the recent world chess problem-solving championships in Belgrade. Competitors were given seven minutes to find the key. The solution: 1. Bc7!, threatening 2. Rg1 mate and the only bishop move that neutralizes the Black bishop on a7 while not interfering with other White mating motifs (1. Be5? Ne6 and 1. Bd6? Nd3). All Black defenses allow the twice-attacked White queen to mate: 1…Na4 2. Qe4 mate; 1…Nd3 2. Qxd7 mate; 1…Ne6 2. Qf5 mate; 1…Qxc7 2. Qf5 mate; and 2…f2 Qg2 mate.
How’d you do?
Book — Kashdan, 7th Olympiad, Stockholm, July 1937
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. Qe2 Qe7 6. d3 Nf6 7. Bg5 Qxe2+ 8. Bxe2 Be7 9. Nc3 Bd7 10. d4 h6 11. Bh4 O-O 12. h3 Nc6 13. O-O-O a6 14. Rhe1 Rfe8 15. Bf1 b5 16. d5 Na5 17. b4 Nb7 18. g4 g5 19. Bg3 Bf8 20. Rxe8 Rxe8 21. a4 bxa4 22. Bxa6 Rb8 23. Nd4 Bg7 24. Nc6 Bxc6 25. dxc6 Nd8 26. b5 a3 27. Na2 Ne4 28. Bxd6 Bb2+ 29. Kb1 Nxc6 30. Bxc7 Nb4 31. Bxb8 Nc3+ 32. Nxc3 Bxc3 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.