So then, Russia against Armenia, Armenia against Russia… Who had any doubts that it would come to this confrontation for the leadership of the Istanbul Olympiad at the midway point of the tournament? Of course, it could have been Ukraine or Azerbaijan, or the Americans or Hungarians, but this particular confrontation has kept everyone enthralled for almost twenty years now. It’s partly because the public sees it as the latest instalment in the encounter between David and Goliath. Even in the rare cases when they’re not fighting for first place the encounter is always the highlight of the day!
Report by Evgeny Atarov from Istanbul
And what could you say about the current situation when both teams had scored five wins at the start? The Russians had already beaten China and Hungary on the way to the key encounter, while the Armenian team had the scalp of Ukraine on their belts. However, you can’t say either team has been displaying their best play in Istanbul. It’s not that you can have the slightest criticism about their devotion or preparation for the games, but they hadn’t yet been living up to what they were capable of.
I’m by no means claiming to have analysed it deeply, but that’s just the way it seems. However, both of the captains – Dokhoian and Petrosian – had a full rest day and time to get their teams into full battle readiness… Absolutely everyone realised there wouldn’t just be draws in this match, but who would come out on top?
Before the start of the 6th round I even conducted a quick survey of the accredited journalists. I asked them to predict a score and give their basis for it. Out of the 13 colleagues I asked 11 went for Russia, two went for a draw and no-one believed in an Armenian victory!
“It’ll all depend on the form of the players,” said an Indian. “Aronian’s in great form for Armenia, while Grischuk and Jakovenko are for Russia. But Levon is playing Kramnik with Black, and it’s unlikely he’ll win, while Alexander and Dmitry will have chances…”
A Dutchman was worried that they had their own “derby” today against Belgium, but the match on the 1st table was, of course, important. “It’s hard to say who’ll win: you need to look the players in the eyes before the start of the games and get a feel for their mood… But objectively, of course, Russia has greater chances of victory, and the good form that the majority of their players are in should work in their favour. But Armenia will fight to the last!”
“You can’t imagine how important victory is for the Armenians”, a Spaniard interjected. “Do they have many sports where they’ve got chances of winning? And every success for the chess players is like a national celebration. So mentally the Armenians will have the edge in this match – they need the win more. But on the other hand, Russia hasn’t taken gold at the Olympiad for 10 years now – they’ll do everything they can to win today!”
That “factor” – that it was too long since Russia had won an Olympiad – accompanied all the reasoned arguments. “Perhaps that’s how it’ll be,” the Azerbaijan captain Tukmakov waved away my doubts about the results of the vote. “But if you asked them to put up even just five dollars, perhaps the results might be different…” Perhaps, though I’m not so sure.
One way or another, there was great excitement before the match. It was unlikely so many people had come along to “bury” the Armenian team. Quite the contrary.
Arshak Petrosian led his team into the deciding match in excellent spirits. They were all smiling, joking and encouraging each other. When the local Minister of Sport made the first move 1.d2-d4 for Kramnik, Movsesian tossed in: “Touch move!” Volodya immediately retorted: “But I didn’t touch it!” Aronian gave his opponent a sly look and declared: “So then, you’re going to take back the move?” They all laughed. Even the serious Grischuk.
The Russians were, you have to say, tense. At least on the surface. Karjakin appeared, as usual, 20 minutes before the start. The next to arrive was Jakovenko: he put down his pen and disappeared into the hall. Then Kramnik and Grischuk arrived. Yuri Dokhoian also had a serious look on his face… For him this was his debut in the “top league”: matches against China and Hungary were a big test, but Armenia was a different matter. Such matches are the ones that are remembered.
It’s curious that two hours after the start of the match serious reinforcements arrived for Russia in the form of… Kasparov! Garry decided to forget about political affairs in Moscow for a while and do some work as a VIP in Istanbul. And at the same time – as the team’s talisman. Has anyone forgotten when and under whose leadership Russia last became champions? It was in Bled 2002, with Garry Kimovich on the first board… Why precisely today? “For luck!” was the cheerful reply of “the Thirteenth”, whose presence noticeably revived the team.
It had a particular effect on Kramnik, who in the presence of his great predecessor finally decided to open the “hunting season”. Before that it had been draws and draws…
And what did it matter that it was Aronian sitting opposite? No problem! Vladimir found a way to press his opponent even in the Exchange Slav, which until recently had been an unspoken draw offer. Levon perhaps led the game too orthodoxly towards exchanges and a draw, and was hit by a knight sacrifice on the 23rd move! And it came in a version where the awkward position of the black pieces was so uncomfortable that it was time to resign. The leader of the Armenian team was so shocked that he almost immediately committed the decisive mistake, and then played another dozen or so more moves that changed nothing at all. It was clear how unwilling he was to resign, particularly in front of Garry. But there was nothing for it, and he did what he had to – 1:0 in Russia’s favour.
Kasparov immediately started discussing the turning points in the game with Kramnik. At the same time a smile never left the ex-Champion’s face. What happened next? It seemed that after such a start Russia had excellent chances of victory… Karjakin appeared to have a stable edge against Akopian, while Jakovenko had difficulties against Sargissian. Grischuk was on the point of seizing the initiative against Movsesian. Kasparov, glancing at the position, couldn’t resist: “And isn’t it just won for Black?” In his day he’d crack such positions like nuts, scoring 100% against everyone. It didn’t work out for Sasha.
First he retreated his queen to the wrong place, then he went for an exchange sacrifice which did, by and large, flow naturally from the position, but it didn’t turn out to be especially good. In any case, Movsesian (and the Armenian team) had a chance, and skilfully took it. Karjakin admitted his efforts to play for a win were in vain before the first time control, and Sargissian did that soon after the second had passed…
A draw! One which was in some ways logical, but in some ways completely at odds with the logic of the struggle. As one well-known TV commentator says when a strong team concedes a goal: it’ll be more interesting to watch what happens next! Well, if Russia had won this match what would have changed? Yes, they’d be closer to gold medals, but… they’re also close to them now, and it wouldn’t have saved them from encounters with the other rivals. It’s the same, by the way, for Armenia. Ukraine, Azerbaijan, England, Spain and the USA await!
The “boys from Baku” overcame the Croatian obstacle with relative ease – 3:1. Radjabov and Mamedyarov scored 2 out of 2 with White, and there wasn’t much play with Black.
The Ukrainians took their anger at their loss to Armenia out on Montenegro, while the Hungarians did the same to Poland. China beat the Bosnians with particular cynicism: on the 1st board Wang Hao didn't manage to overcome the “senior” Kurajica, but on the other boards there simply wasn’t a struggle – 3.5:0.5. It was noteworthy that the English couldn’t subdue Italy, just as Israel couldn’t India, despite the edge they had during the match. There was a real “grandmasterly draw” between the European Champions Germany and the Americans: draw, draw, draw, draw…
But the latest Istanbul victories for Spain and the Philippines – against the Czechs and the Bulgarians respectively – surprised no-one. Both those teams have been real revelations at the Olympiad. Neither has an amazing line-up, but they’re making stubborn progress, and who knows what the favourites will ultimately have to do to put a stop to their climb.
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By the way, Russia faced a double test in the 6th round. While the guys were close to becoming the sole leaders the girls had a chance of removing all, or almost all, doubt about the gold medals in their match against China.
Alas, the opportunity was missed. Pogonina didn’t take all her chances against Huang Qian, as Kosteniuk didn’t against Ju Wenjun. Meanwhile, Tatiana Kosintseva on the 1st board mixed up her opening against Hou Yifan and actually gave the World Champion a two pawn advantage… It was up to Tatiana’s older sister Nadezhda to save the match, and she managed.
Russia’s misfiring – who wouldn’t want to “misfire” with a draw against the world’s best team? – was exploited by the Polish team, which crushed Serbia; both teams now have 11 points. A point behind are China, Georgia, Ukraine, France and Vietnam.
As in the men’s tournament all the most interesting events are still to come…
Earlier WhyChess coverage of the 2012 Olympiad:
Olympiad, Round 6. It’ll be more interesting to watch!