It’s tough to write an update right now – my captain even advised me to stay away from the blog for a while – but I should at least give a brief piece about the state of play after the final round. It’s been a very tough few days for me after the somewhat tragic round 9, and nothing’s gotten better from a personal note, but I shouldn’t detract from what has been an outstanding Australian team performance.
After today’s 2-2 draw with Slovakia, thanks to another amazing win by Stephen, we’ll finish somewhere in the top twenty. Given our seeding of 61 and that we were missing four of our regular top five players, it’s quite simply a phenomenal performance. In fact, a win in the last match would have seen us in the top ten, which would have been the best ever Olympiad performance by an Australian team. And it really could have happened – had I not blundered in my game. Yes, unfortunately, I’m to blame.
My slide started a few days ago, and simply put, my psychological stamina has been broken ever since. Round nine saw me blow a chance to secure a team victory against the higher rated Mongolia, in the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable. Having outplayed my 2600+ opponent with the black pieces in a perfect French defence, I found myself in a completely winning rook endgame two pawns ahead and about to pick up some more, just as my opponent, who had been in hideous time trouble for most of the game, made his 40th move with seconds to spare. Presented with several different ways to finish things off, I bizarrely sunk into some sort of trace and simply forgot to move. My captain recounts that he almost screamed at me as he watched my clock run down to zero, while I sat there oblivious. My opponent was so shocked by the dramatic turn of events that he started laughing incredulously. I couldn’t leave the board for ten minutes after the game, and stayed sitting with my head in my hands, waiting for the ringing in my ears to stop. It didn’t.
The next day I played a really horrible game against the ex-Chinese grandmaster Zhang Zhong, but fortunately the team again carried me through, and we recorded a win. I did my best to forget about chess during the subsequent rest day, got a good night’s sleep, and was confident of holding the fort on board one in the final game against the legendary Slovakian grandmaster Lubomir Ftacnik (who once coached me back when I was 13). I reached an equal endgame where I had a whole-of-board blockade, but just when the draw was in sight, inexplicably I chose to open things up around my king. The loss saw us finish the match tied, saw me finish with three straight losses and go from four out of seven to four out of ten, and will see my rating fall below 2500 for the first time since becoming a grandmaster.
No loss is fun, and losing three on the trot is always a horrible experience. But in a team event and particularly an Olympiad, when there’s teammates and Australians back home counting on you, the disappointment is amplified. It’s because of this, and it may just be the moment talking, that personally, I cannot recall feeling more crushed from a chess performance than this one. But at least Australians can be proud of their team as a whole, and especially the performance of the newcomers Moulthun and Max. The state of Australian chess has probably never been stronger, and – while not right now! – I’m sure it won’t be long before I start looking forward to the Norway 2014 championships.
Postscript: The final results see the Australian men’s team tied for 19th place. A win in the final match would have seen us finish tied 9th. Armenia edges out Russia on tiebreak to take gold, with Ukraine finishing third. The Australian women finished =40th.