The United States delivered a geopolitical blow to Russia right where it hurts — over the chessboard — thanks to a pivotal performance by a grandmaster from Minnetonka.
For the first time in 40 years, the USA team won the gold medal at the Chess Olympiad, confirming the ascendancy of the United States as a chess superpower.
The U.S. victory was due in large part to Wesley So’s unblemished performance — play that earned him an individual gold medal to go along with his team gold.
The biennial Olympiad, held this year in Baku, Azerbaijan, and which concluded Tuesday, featured 177 nations in the Open division and 147 teams in the women’s division. In each round, two nations are pitted against one another, with four players from each country playing across four boards.
Russia, which has won more Chess Olympiads than any other nation, entered as the top seed, based on the ratings of its players. The United States, which now boasts three players among the world’s top seven, was seeded second.
USA did not lose a single country-vs.-country match in 11 rounds of play. Of the 44 individual games, it lost only three times.
Team USA’s steadiest player was So, 22, a Filipino-born grandmaster who moved to Minnetonka nearly two years ago. So played in 10 of the 11 rounds and did not lose a single game, notching seven wins and three draws. (Teams have five players, so one member can sit out and rest each day.)
So’s score was the highest of any of the U.S. players, and it earned him an individual gold medal for play on Board 3. He accomplished that despite suffering from a severe cold over the final three days of the competition. He brought a box of tissues to the board to deal with a runny nose, and he had a headache and fever. Still, he delivered two key wins and a draw in those three days.
The website Chess24.com had this to say about So's play: "His performance was simply sublime, with seven wins and just three draws. If anything, he could have scored even more."
So’s play moves him up in the world rankings to No. 6, and to No. 2 in the U.S.
If it weren’t bad enough for Russia to finish in third place behind the U.S., given the current tensions between the two nations, Russia also finished behind Ukraine, which took the silver medal. And in their head-to-head contest, Ukraine defeated Russia.
The Russian women also faltered. Despite winning the last four Olympiads, they finished in fourth place this time, while Chinese women took the gold -- and rival Ukraine edged Russia for the bronze.
The U.S. women played exactly to expectations — seeded sixth and finishing in sixth place.
But the most inspiring performance of the Olympiad was turned in by So’s mentor, Filipino Grandmaster Eugene Torre. The first grandmaster from Asia, he’s 64 and was playing in his 23rd Olympiad. He went undefeated with nine wins and two draws and won an individual bronze medal for his play.