Our best match was yesterday when we beat the heavy favourites Egypt. It started all too well in the openings, on board 1 Pancevski with white chose a drawish line against GM Amin (2661) in the Spanish and this proved an excellent choice. Black was tempted to try for more and overlooked something in the process, leaving him in a probably lost endgame a pawn down with a rook and opposite-coloured bishops. The final combination of our player is very nice, even the computer doesn’t understand at first that white’s pawn is unstoppable.
I had already finished by that time, an easy draw on board 2 with black against GM Adly, the World Champion Under 20 from 2007. I was surprised by his choice of a drawish line, his idea was to obtain a risk-free slight initiative, but I outcalculated him and it was me instead who got the advantage. But then I didn’t play too well and eventually it was drawn (even though I should have continued in the final position!).
On board 3 Lazov with white got a good position in the Rossolimo Sicilian but in time trouble messed things up.
On board 4 Nikolovski with black was simply the better player than Hesham (2419) and won a good game in a Benoni.
All in all an excellent match and a good run of two wins in a row.
Due to reasons unknown to me, the organisers and FIDE decided to eliminate the second rest day, which was always before the last round. A very unfortunate decision because the last round started at 11am today while the board pairings were made available last night at midnight. So when do you get to rest and prepare?
In the last round we were paired against Bosnia. A stronger team than us, but one that was beatable, or so we felt.
On board 1 Nedev was suffering as black against GM Predojevic but suffered successfully and drew.
On board 2 disaster struck. Pancevski was lost on move 15 with white against GM Kadric. He must have missed something relatively simple, otherwise it’s difficult to explain such a rapid loss.
On board 3 I was black against GM Dizdarevic and I made another easy draw, just like yesterday.
We should have equalised the match on board 4. The game was equal for a long time and then suddenly Nikolovski got a winning position. And it was a technically winning position, a rook and two pawns versus a knight with two pawns, on the same wing. But technique failed him and he could only draw, and so we lost the match by the minimal margin. It’s a pity, as a drawn match would have equalled our score from Tromso 2014 when we played with a much stronger team.
Generally speaking our team did better than expected. We ended up sharing 58th-75th place (67th on tie-break, while our starting rank was 65th), but the fact that we were in a chance to achieve excellent result with a positive outcome in the last round (and we were so close!) is worth a lot and shows our potential.
Nedev on board 1 had 4/9 with a slight rating minus. Board 1 is always the most difficult board and this time he was better than in Tromso. A surprising fact is that all his 3 losses were with white!
On board 2 Pancevski was doing great until the last round. His final score of 5.5/10 doesn’t reflect his importance for the team. His most valuable win was against Egypt when he beat a much stronger opponent.
I had the best score in the whole team, 7/10, on board 3. I lost only 1 game (against Mamedov (2666)) and won 5. My game was mostly stable and my head was working well. I felt good to play for my national team and the surrounding and conditions were motivating for me to do my best. I enjoy playing Olympiads, playing side by side with the world’s best players is stimulating and it tends to bring the best in me.
Our youngsters, Lazov on board 4 (5/8) and Nikolovski as reserve (3/7) did better than I expected. Their main problem was the inexperience (like in the last round when Nikolovski couldn’t win a won position) and also lack of professional attitude and preparation. I hope they learn from this and improve significantly because they got this chance only because they’re young. Now they need to prove that they also deserve a place on the team because they are strong.
After I finished my last game I spent some time watching the games on the top boards. I positioned myself between the boards where Carlsen and Kramnik were playing, some 3-4 meters from both. And I observed them. I found it very difficult to look at Carlsen for a longer period of time. The amount of energy that emanates from him is incredible. Or perhaps the word aura is more precise. Something very strong and powerful irradiates from him and mind you, I was standing 3-4 meters from him. I tried to imagine how it would be to sit against him for hours on and play when he would make all these precise and strong moves. It would have felt as if he wanted to push me away. In that moment I understood Taimanov and Larsen when they were playing Fischer. “A wall coming at you” was how Taimanov put it.
Looking at Kramnik was different. There was also a lot of energy coming from him, but of a different kind. Less aggressive, yet imposing in its own way. I played diagonally from Kramnik in Tromso 2014 (when I was on board 2 playing Svidler and he was on board 1 playing Nedev) and it didn’t feel threatening. Strong, confident, imposing, but not threatening like Carlsen.
The Olympiad was won by USA. A very deserved victory won in the tightest of races with Ukraine, who came second, both teams with 20 match points our of possible 22. USA had two drawn matches while Ukraine lost one (to USA) and won 10 (!). USA had the better tie-break and won the gold. Bronze went to the Russians, who again failed to win an Olympiad, but frankly speaking, they didn’t stand a chance against the amazing teams that finished ahead of them.
USA had the superstar trio of Caruana, Nakamura and So and they did the job marvellously. When Fischer was playing for the USA at the Olympiads they won silver twice, in Leipzig 1960 and Havana 1966, but they couldn’t dream of challenging the Soviet Union. Fischer was more or less the only elite player on the team back then; now they have 3 elite players and it also happened that all of them played an excellent tournament. On board 4 they had Shankland who apart from the last round loss (which didn’t affect the score) also had a great tournament.
The Ukranians were also impressive. To win 10 matches and not win an Olympiad is probably a first-ever, but they can take pride in their run. Their engine was the reserve, GM Volokitin, who scored 8.5/9, an incredible result (he beat Grischuk with black in Round 4). The other players performed well too, Eljanov for example, won in rounds 10 and 11!
Russia won bronze, probably slightly disappointed (and even more frustrated to prolong their run of 14 years without an Olympiad gold – now their next chance is in 2018, when it will be 16 years! Their last gold was in Bled 2002, Kasparov’s last Olympiad.) Kramnik was incredible on board 2 with 6.5/8 and Nepomniachtchi was their powerhorse with his initial 7/7; alas, after losing to So he only managed 2 draws. Questions can be raised why Svidler didn’t play, but there’s no guarantee that things would have been better.
Of the others, Carlsen managed to lift his Norwegians and they shared 4th (5th on tie-break, a great result for them). With 7.5/10 he lost some rating points but he was a true leader and surely motivated his compatriots. Just imagine if Hammer on board 2 had a better tournament, instead of a dismal 4.5/11 with no wins.
To conclude, a few personal observations. This was the best Olympiad I’ve been to (compared to Dresden 2008 and Tromso 2014) – the organisation, the playing venue, the accomodation. Yet the tendency I notice with FIDE to give more power to the officials is worrying. Take for example the idiotic rule that every player must inform the arbiter when he/she wants to go to use the toilet. First, it’s impossible to implement (what if I’m walking around and then I want to go to the toilet, shall I run to my match arbiter on the other side of the hall and only then go to the toilet?) and second, and more important, it’s humiliating. I never reported anything (I often go to the toilet during games as I drink a lot of water) and nobody noticed. Another annoying moment I had was with the accreditation passes. I personally hate to have anything dangling around my neck, so I kept my pass in the pocket of my jacket. Yet every time a security official would see me without it they would pester me (one even got physical and pulled me by the arm!) to put it around my neck. It wasn’t enough for them that I showed it, I had to have it around my neck, just like everybody else! Well, I didn’t comply, and by the end of the tournament they knew me and didn’t bother me anymore. Individuality is never welcome with narrow-minded officials! I already described our scandal with the arbiters and the impression of most players was that the vast majority of the arbiters were incompetent. They hide when they should enforce the rules, yet are first to molest you with hand-held scanning devices during the game (never happened to me, thank goodness, but I saw people scanned in the corridors of the hall) or demand toilet-visits reporting. FIDE should really educate its arbiters, but for some reason I think that’s not going to happen.
Our flight home is at 2.30am, the bus for the aiport leaves the hotel at midnight and this probably means that I’ll have to skip the closing ceremony tonight. This is unfortunate, as I also missed the opening ceremony, but what to do. It was great to be in Baku for two weeks and to play my best Olympiad so far. Congratulations to all the winners and see you all in Batumi 2018!