Recovering in Khanty: Zombies & Upswings at the World Team

Alex Onischuk, Photo GM Khachiyan

The United States entry in the 2017 World Team Championship has spent the first half of the competition stumbling around like extras from The Walking Dead and finds itself tied with Ukraine for 6th and 7th after five rounds. Currently leading are Russia ahead of China, Poland and a surprising Turkish team.

The U.S. team entered the World Team seeded in the middle and with hopes of improving on its performances in 2011 and 2015. In each of those events the American team was seeded near the bottom, but over achieved and tied for fourth. The team will need to have a dramatic turn around to match these performances and it will require every player to find better form.

Going into the event the team realized playing in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, was not going to be easy as our top three players were committed to Norway Chess and the Grand Chess Tour. The city of 80,000, located not far from the confluence of the Ob and Irtysh rivers, is well known through the chess world for hosting major competitions. The administrative center for Russian oil fields in Western Siberia, it is a prosperous, definitely much wealthier than the average Russian city, but it is not easy to get to.

The Turkish first board Dragan Solak took the scenic 43-hour train ride from Moscow to a small town hear Surgut, before catching a ride from some Chechens for the final four hour car ride to Khanty Mansiysk, but the American team opted to fly. This entailed a 10-14 hour journey to Moscow from the U.S., a 10-15 hour layover in Moscow and then a 1:50 am flight to Khanty from Sheremetyevo (for some reason the flights only leave in the wee hours of the morning). We factored in the two nights lost sleep, but hoped that arriving three days early would help to adjust to the 10-12 time zone difference. Unfortunately after accepting the invitation the organizers decided to start the event one day earlier and it was too expensive for us to change the tickets for an earlier departure.

The team has been trying its hardest, but sleeping has been difficult, especially as it has been hot most of our stay and the hotel doesn’t have air conditioning. Leaving windows open is a double-edged proposition as mosquitoes and much larger bugs seem to like American blood. There is also the issue of sunlight. This far north it never gets completely dark so blackout curtains are provided, but using them leaves the room hot and stuffy.

This combination of circumstances has been especially difficult for the veterans on the team, Varuzhan Akobian and Alex Onischuk. Both had tremendous U.S. Championships, with Onischuk tying for first with Wesley So and only losing in the playoff. Here Onischuk’s excellent technique has not yet surfaced. Witness the following game from round five from the match with Belarus where Alex almost loses a position that is his bread and butter.  Excuses are easy to make, but play over this game and you will better understand how the U.S. team has suffered. After three hours of this match it looked like we would likely win 2 ½ – 1 ½ with 3-1 even possible – Sam was better and had 30 minutes while his opponent was playing on the increment. The worst case had to be 2-2, but we ended up lucky not to lose this match!

Such a miracle has to be a good sign. After taking a 6 mile walk together on the free day and having a nice meal in the local Georgian restaurant, the team is ready for a strong finish the last four rounds.

Women’s captain Melikset Khachiyan at the World Team

The US Women’s team is doing very well and has not been plagued by the jet-lag, since several players came directly from Europe to Khanty Mansisyk. They are currently tied for sixth through ninth which does not do justice to how well they have played.

The Russian and Chinese women entered the Women’s World Team Championship as the clear favorites with average team ratings over 2500. Next up in the pre-tournament seedings are Georgia, Poland, India and Ukraine who are all well over 2400 FIDE per board. The US is seeded near the bottom with Vietnam and Azerbaijan at around 2350. That has not stopped them from competing hard in every match and their score of one match win, two draws (with Russia and Poland) and two losses (1 1/2 – 2 1/2 to Ukraine and India) could easily be two wins and three draws. Anna Zatonskih has been a rock on board one (+1, =4) and teenager Akshita Gorti terrific in her debut on the national team with one win and three draws against significantly stronger opposition. All teams members are in good form and captain and coach Melik Khachiyan has been doing an exceptional job.

Akshita Gorti, Photo World Team website

On their round five draw against Russia, Captain Khachiyan said, “Our preparation was good, both chess and mentally…we have a big heart and a spirit of all for one!” Khachiyan also pinpointed this defensive success by Nemcova in the Russia match.


Follow the World Team here and look for more from John and Melik upon the event’s conclusion.

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