Miracle on the chessboard: USA topples Russia

Hikaru Nakamura

A general rule of thumb at the Chess Olympiad: The winner uses an alphabet we Westerners struggle to read.

So when the USA, having drawn three and won five of its first eight matches, turned up against first-place Russia today in Istanbul, the odds weren’t on the USA’s side.

And then just look at the Russian lineup. Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, ranked No. 3 in the world today, on Board 1. Perennial contender Alexander Grischuk, one of the world’s best blitz (speed chess) players and someone unlikely to crack under time pressure or the strain of a long tournament, on Board 2. Sergey Karjakin, ranked seventh in the world, on Board 3. Then on Board 4, U.S. teen Ray Robson faced Dmitry Jakovenko, whose rating is 124 points higher than Robson’s.

Alex Onishuk got a quick draw with Karjakin. But Robson fell behind Karjakin.

On Board 2, former world championship contender Gata Kamsky got a slight advantage and squeezed the time-pressured Grischuk. Beating a top-12 player with the black pieces isn’t something you see every day, but Kamsky meticulously pulled it off.

That’s 1 1/2 to 1 1/2. So what of Board 1, with Kramnik bringing the pressure against 24-year-old Hikaru Nakamura?

Nakamura eked out a small advantage in a complex situation. Then came a moment of brilliance, highlighted here by women’s grandmaster/author/analyst Jennifer Shahade:

http://es.twitter.com/JenShahade/status/243817804778835968

Want the answer? Move 62.

Moderately old Nakamura photo from the Flickr stream of sakatxa under an awesome Creative Commons license.

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Monday Myriad: Trash-talking backfires in chess; order restored to Giro?

Starting with CHESS today for the worst case of trash-talking blowing up in one’s face since the Kids in the Hall bar-fight sketch …

Defending U.S. chess champ Hikaru Nakamura couldn’t have made it more obvious that he saw a weak link in the 2010 championships’ final four. Via the St. Louis Chess Club Twitter feed: “Pretty much when me, Gata and Alex play each other we play solid, and we all try to beat Yury.”

That would be Yury Shulman, who turned around and beat Nakamura the next day. His match with Gata Kamsky this afternoon, which you can follow live from 3 p.m. ET, will determine the new champion. (Unless they draw and go to a tiebreaker.) Nakamura will face Alex Onischuk in what has become a mere consolation game.

We have a few more stray items today: The French Open is underway, NCAA tennis continues (see below) and darts’ Premier League was postponed until today due to a power failure.

The weekend wrap:

CYCLING

  • Tour of California: Friday’s big mountain stage didn’t make a dent in any of the overall leaders. That left everything riding on Saturday’s time trial, where Aussie Michael Rogers finished second behind non-contender (and HTC-Columbia teammate) Tony Martin to pad his overall lead to nine seconds over third-place David Zabriskie. Three-time champion Levi Leipheimer lost more time and remained in third. The final stage had some intrigue, but the contenders finished together, confirming Rogers’ win. (Velo News)
  • Giro d’Italia: Overshadowed by Floyd Landis’ confession/accusation last week was Stage 11 of the Giro, The Day The Peloton Said “Oops!” A big breakaway gained too much time on everyone else amid confusion, illness and finger-pointing among and between teams that neglected to pull back enough time to prevent a big shakeup in the standings. Over the weekend, the usual suspects moved back up the standings, with Ivan Basso (back from two-year doping suspension) third and Cadel Evans fourth. American Tyler Farrar, who had won two stages and had the lead in the red jersey (points) standings, dropped out.

SOCCER

  • Champions League: Inter Milan 2, Bayern Munich 0. Not a bad final considering the nerves that always make such big games so difficult.
  • Mexico: Toluca wins its seventh championship in 13 years (25 seasons) on penalty kicks over Santos Laguna. Other winners over that span (1998 onward): Pachuca (5), Pumas (3), Club America (2), Santos (2), Monterrey (2), Necaxa, Morelia, Chivas, Atlante. Santos should’ve won it from the spot, but Toluca now has a title that ought to (but won’t) silence the scoffing of Mexico’s alleged “big clubs.” (BigSoccer)
  • Women’s: USA 4, Germany 0. Hope Solo made a couple of good saves, but this was a dominant performance.

OLYMPIC SPORTS

  • Ice hockey: Czech Republic 2, Russia 1 in men’s World Championship, ending Russia’s win streak at 27 games. Jaromir Jagr had a key play to defeat Alex Ovechkin and Semyon Varlamov, further extending the misery of us Capitals fans. (AP)
  • Track and field: Big Diamond League winners were David Oliver (110 hurdles), Lashinda Demus (400 hurdles), Carmelita Jeter (100) and some guy named Usain Bolt (200). (Universal Sports)
  • Beach volleyball: The FIVB tournament in Rome provided the best opportunity of the weekend, other than the USA-Germany soccer game, to break out the “USA!” chant. Jen Kessy and April Ross are on the kind of roll not seen since Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh’s pre-maternity days, and Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser won their 10th international event. May-Treanor and Nicole Branagh finished fourth. (Universal Sports)

COLLEGE SPORTS

  • Men’s lacrosse (quarterfinals): Top-seeded Virginia, somehow managing to focus while a player is in jail awaiting charges in the slaying of women’s player, beat Stony Brook 10-9 and will face Duke, which beat North Carolina with surprising ease. The other side of the draw is an upset special, seventh-seeded Cornell vs. unseeded Notre Dame, but the Virginia-Duke winner is guaranteed to make the final a media circus.
  • Women’s lacrosse (quarterfinals): Virginia, mourning the loss of teammate Yeardley Love, lost to North Carolina in a quarterfinal that may be better remembered for the sportsmanship than the result. Third-seeded North Carolina next faces second-seeded Northwestern, while top seed Maryland faces unseeded Syracuse.
  • Women’s softball (regional stage): No. 7 Texas, No. 8 Georgia Tech and No. 12 LSU were the upset victims in the regionals; BYU, Oregon and Louisiana-Lafayette advanced at their expense.
  • Men’s tennis (round of 16/quarterfinals): Yet another sport in which Virginia is a top contender: The top-seeded Cavaliers are in the semifinals against #5 Southern Cal. No. 2 Tennessee faces No. 11 Georgia, which is getting a boost from playing at home in beautiful Athens, Ga.
  • Women’s tennis (quarterfinals): More semifinal appearances for Notre Dame (fifth seed, vs. No. 8 Stanford) and North Carolina (second seed, vs. No. 3 Florida). Carolina edged Duke 4-3.

Monday Myriad: Sparkling play in WPS, short-sighted decision in Italy

We’re starting with WPS for a highlight that probably didn’t make SportsCenter (correct me if it did) but should have. It’s Abby Wambach’s back-heel, throwing off three defenders and setting up the Washington Freedom’s first goal against the run of play as the Atlanta Beat once again looked wonderful but couldn’t finish. If you want to skip ahead to it, go to the 1:17 mark:

Wambach’s header wasn’t bad, either, which is why she gets my Player of the Week vote ahead of Marta. Granted, if I could see Marta’s video highlights, that would help.

The full week (home teams first):

  • Atlanta 0, Washington 2: The Beat might have played the best two games ever without scoring, outshooting the Freedom 21-10.
  • Boston 1, Bay Area 2: Marta has both goals for the league leaders.
  • St. Louis 2, New Jersey 2: Apologies to Laura Kalmari, who scored twice for Sky Blue and won’t win Player of the Week ahead of the bigger names.
  • Chicago 0, Philadelphia 1: Not a very good week for home teams, was it?

GLOBAL SOCCER

Several trophies were on the line, but the decisive games made news for reasons beyond the results.

  • Spain: Barcelona looked as good as ever in beating Valladolid 4-0 to finish the La Liga season with a record 99 points — 31 wins, 6 draws, 1 loss — a season that ranks with Arsenal’s unbeaten Premier League run (2003-04) as one of the best ever in a top European league. The only team to beat Barca was erratic Europa League champion Atletico Madrid. Runner-up Real Madrid lost twice to Barca and still somehow kept pace until the very end, drawing 1-1 with Malaga in a result that kept the home team in La Liga next year at Valladolid’s expense.
  • Italy: Inter Milan made their fans sweat a little more, waiting until the second half to score at Siena and hold on for a 1-0 win that clinched the Serie A title by two points over Roma, which won 2-0 at Chievo.
  • Italy/USA: American defender Oguchi Onyewu, who missed much of the season after an injury in World Cup qualifying, worked out a one-year contract extension with third-place AC Milan by offering to play for free in 2012-13. The club have agreed, which is appalling. What happens to the next guy who gets hurt playing in a World Cup qualifier? How much pressure will be on that player to do what Onyewu did? (BBC)
  • FA Cup: Premier League champion Chelsea beat last-place Portsmouth, which played the season under the cloud of financial problems, but the underdogs managed to throw away much of their charm when Kevin-Prince Boateng’s brutal foul on Michael Ballack knocked the German cornerstone out of the World Cup. Boateng, coincidentally, has shifted nationality from Germany to Ghana and may play against Germany — and his half-brother, Jerome Boateng — in the World Cup. Perhaps it was instant karma that Boateng had a penalty kick saved, spoiling Portsmouth’s chance to take an improbable lead. (BBC)
  • German Cup: Bayern Munich 4, Werder Bremen 0. Saturday’s Champions League final (Bayern-Inter, 2:45 p.m. ET, Fox) will feature two teams going for a triple of league, cup and European trophies.
  • England: Congratulations to Oxford United, which returns to League football with an emphatic Conference final win. (BBC)
  • Mexico: Jose Francisco Torres will be available for the U.S. camp without a club-vs.-country battle, as his Pachuca side fell on 3-2 aggregate to Toluca. Santos followed up a 3-3 draw at Morelia by winning the second leg 7-1. What is this — the NASL? Third seed Toluca and fifth seed Santos will be the clubs playing in the Mexican final and lining up to crush MLS teams in next season’s CONCACAF Champions League.
  • CONCACAF (women’s): It’s a miracle that Haiti is able to field a team at all after the earthquake. They’re doing more than competing — they’ve advanced to the final round of Gold Cup qualifying. (All White Kit)

MMA

  • Strikeforce: Alistair Overeem demolished Brett Rogers to retain his heavyweight championship, saving Strikeforce from the PR dilemma of having their heavyweight champion already beaten by Fedor Emelianenko. All eyes now turn to an Overeem-Fedor matchup, assuming Fedor dispenses with Fabricio Werdum this summer. Also, Antonio Silva pushed Andrei Arlovski farther down the heavyweight ladder. (MMA Fighting Stances)
  • Shine Fights: Boxer Ricardo Mayorga was all set to face veteran Din Thomas in Fayetteville, N.C. Then a Florida judge granted boxing promoter Don King an injunction against Mayorga’s participation. After an afternoon Twitter flurry in which the card seemed to be going on with or without the main event, the North Carolina commission scrapped the whole card, though the co-main event of Murilo Rua vs. David Heath isn’t a bad matchup at all for a smaller promotion. King was asked to present a $1 million cash bond, which he did in two duffel bags. (Yahoo!)
  • Washington Combat: Sort of a senior-circuit main event, though Pedro Rizzo has two wins over Jeff Monson in recent years and was on Affliction’s much-hyped debut card against Josh Barnett. His opponent, Gary Goodridge, lost to Paul Buentello on the same Affliction card and lost to solid fighters Overeem and Gegard Mousasi since then. Bloody Elbow’s Luke Thomas says it’s time for Goodridge to hang ’em up. (Washington Post)

CYCLING

  • Giro d’Italia: Through nine stages, the leader is Alexandre Vinokourov, making his first big run since being tossed out of the 2007 Tour de France for flunking a doping test. Cadel Evans is 72 seconds back. American Tyler Farrar leads in points and has the red jersey, the equivalent of the Tour’s green.
  • Tour of California: Mark Cavendish, who won last year’s sprint title while Levi Leipheimer won the overall, won Sunday’s first stage of the eight-stage race. The big climbs are Tuesday and Friday.

TENNIS

  • Madrid Masters (men): After some atypical struggles, Roger Federer is back to normal, reaching the final and then, because it’s on clay, losing to Rafael Nadal. (AP)
  • Madrid Masters (women): Venus Williams reached the final and climbed to No. 2 in the rankings, her best since 2003. She lost in the final, though, to unseeded Aravane Rezai. Maybe she’ll be seeded next year.

OLYMPIC SPORTS

  • Swimming: Universal Sports has some video from the Charlotte UltraSwim, including Michael Phelps cruising in the 200 IM. Dancing with the Stars contestant Natalie Coughlin also is back in the pool. (Universal Sports)
  • Track, field and whatever this is: Tyson Gay set a “world best” (it’s not officially a world record because it’s not officially an official event) of 19.41 seconds in Manchester. Makes you wonder how Usain Bolt can run a 19.19 around a curve.
  • Running: Remember the USA TODAY profile on Amy Palmiero-Winters, the amputee who qualified for the 24-hour running world championships? She finished a very respectable 19th, coming just short of 200 kilometers. Scott Jurek covered 266.677k for a silver medal as the U.S. men placed third. Anna Piskorka (10th, 214.417k) was the top U.S. woman as the women’s team finished fourth. (USA Track and Field)

CHESS

Hikaru Nakamura and Gata Kamsky drew in their first meeting at the U.S. Chess Championships on Sunday, likely keeping both of them on track to play again in the “Final Four” in this uniquely formatted tournament. Irina Krush killed my fantasy team by losing out of what seemed to be a winning position against Varuzhan Akobian in a 113-move thriller. (U.S. Chess Federation)

INTRIGUING READS

  • Golf and tennis: One sport’s U.S. federation is taking all the right steps to get kids interested and keep them playing. The other is scratching its head as players appear to be abandoning the sport, and the solutions may be quite costly. (Wall Street Journal).
  • Football: Flag football — eventual answer to gender-equity questions? Convenient dodge of gender-equity questions? Waste of time? Great activity? Many opinions here. (New York Times)
  • Skiing/long-running TV shows: Lindsey Vonn was thrilled to do a guest spot on Law & Order. Not so thrilled to hear this is the final season. She’s organizing a group to save the show. (Yahoo! – Fourth-Place Medal)

After alleged world title ‘blunderfest,’ chess world turns to St. Louis

The fun thing about watching chess in the Internet age is that you have no shortage of ideas about what’s going on. Yesterday, around move 40 of the 12th and final game in the World Chess Championship, defending champion Vishy Anand had either all but officially retained his title, blundered away his advantage, come up with some diabolical plan or run off to a corner to sing Carry On My Wayward Son in a fetal position.

Former world’s women champion Susan Polgar was among those who thought Anand had blown it on move 40, which was the last move before more time was added to the players’ clocks. He had a 40th-move mistake earlier in the match but was under much more time pressure in that game.

Polgar has since revised her post, but at the time, she was stunned. Before Anand played, she posted this: “40. Rf8+ The last hope for Topalov is for Anand to blunder with Kg7.”

Which is, of course, what Anand played. “Blunderfest,” screamed one of her commenters, in reference to that and an earlier blunder (confirmed upon further analysis) by challenger Veselin Topalov.

Over at Mig Greengard’s Chess Ninja Daily Dirt blog, several commenters were running computers to help them analyze the game for themselves. They found Kg7 wasn’t so bad after all.

Then Mig chimed in: “Did she really say that? Bizarre. Why would such a strong player, and she’s very strong, rely on 5 seconds of computer eval. … Maybe someone else with a comp is filling in for Susan at the moment. And he/she needs a quad-core.”

For the record, Polgar had said earlier that she wasn’t using computer analysis.

Anand made a few more surprising moves down the stretch, running contrary to several commenters’ suggestions that were bolder but may have backfired. The champion instead showed why he’s the champion, squeezing an advantageous position into a win.

Did either player fall apart on the big stage with big stakes? Jennifer Shahade, the chess organizer/commentator/writer/grandmaster, isn’t interested in second-guessing:

“I think it’s hard to be objective about the level of their play if you are exposed to computer analysis, which makes things too easy to find 🙂 That’s why I never do live commentary running an engine.”

You may have seen Shahade recently on ESPN2’s First Take or on in this promo for the U.S. Chess Championships, in which she and her brother compete to name the competitors:

Hikaru Nakamura is the last player named, but he’s also the favorite. He’s the defending champion and the highest-rated player. He isn’t just going to St. Louis for the U.S. Championships — he has relocated there because of the burgeoning chess scene.

“I think he’ll get great support there and this will help increase his chances of seizing the World Championship crown,” Shahade says. “I love Nakamura’s style, so I certainly will be rooting for him all the way.”

Geography, though, matters a little less in the Internet era. Shahade says Nakamura, who became a grandmaster at 15, “pretty much grew up” on the Internet Chess Club. And Shahade’s brother, Greg, is the commissioner of the U.S. Chess League, which eliminates travel costs by competing online.

Nakamura isn’t set to compete for the world title just yet. Gata Kamsky, who played Anatoly Karpov for one of the two pre-unification world titles in 1996, came back from a hiatus of several years in 2004 and worked his way back into the world championship cycle, losing to Topalov in the match that determined Anand’s challenger.

“I believe in Gata Kamsky,” Shahade says. “He’s a determined fighter.”

That doesn’t mean he’s taking up the new sport of “chessboxing,” though, which has drawn some publicity just because it seems so strange. Not that it’s strange to want some exercise while playing — Shahade sometimes gives demonstrations while hula-hooping. (Surely someone is hard at work creating hula-chess for the Wii.)

Clearly, the sport’s image is changing. Shahade, who wrote Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport (not quite as lurid as the title implies, but a compelling exploration of gender and competition), is one of many chess players encouraging more women to play. Her organization 9 Queens teaches girls and at-risk youths to play. Polgar has set up shop at Texas Tech. Women’s world champion Alexandra Kosteniuk keeps up a dizzying travel schedule.

And if you’re bored with fantasy baseball and can’t wait until fantasy football, play fantasy chess. My team is Nakamura, Shulman, Hess, Lenderman, Shankland and Krush. Catch me if you can. Tournament games start Friday.