The 33rd Chess Olympiad was hosted in 1998 by the Russian city of Elista, Kalmykia. Today, we celebrate a gold medal performance from that event by none other than Nigerian International Master Odion Aikhoje, who held the title of FIDE Master at the time. The then FM Aikhoje scored an unprecedented 6.5/8, with a 2510 rating performance, to win a gold medal on the second board for Nigeria.
His performance has inspired a generation of chess players in West Africa, and Africa as a whole. Most of us have heard of the exploits of the feared IM “Odirovski” as he is known on Lichess.
His name is well-known all over the continent, and it is an honor for us to look at the games that bagged him gold in 1998 in this second edition of the ‘Africa Chess Greats’ series.
Aikhoje went on to have many other chess achievements and accolades but this Olympiad performance is the focus of this article. Without further ado let us dive in to:
When I first saw this game, my impression was that Aikhoje went ‘all in’ to beat GM Sergei Movsesian, a future top ten player no less! But I stumbled upon Aikhoje’s own account of this game, where he says that after the move 10.0-0-0 he actually offered a draw! My personal thoughts were that this move was a declaration of war!
Movsesian was also taken aback by this offer and caused quite a commotion when he declined the offer as Aikhoje retells. The game continued and after some tenacious defense from White, Movsesian reinitiated the peace negotiations and you can imagine how IM Aikhoje felt!
The second board of the Nigeria-Ecuador match featured exemplary play from the Black side of the Botvinnik system. Black gained a very big advantage from the opening, but White refused to lie down and perish.
He conjured up enough counterplay and was able to simplify the game into an equal rook ending, but Black’s initiative continued even there. And White eventually made the final mistake that allowed Black to convert a draw into a full point. Aikhoje’s victory secured a draw for Nigeria in a tight contest with Ecuador.
In the third round of the Elista Olympiad, Nigeria was paired against the UAE with Aikhoje leading the line against FM Othman Moussa. The Nigerian player came up with another original development scheme, but this time in the Benko Gambit. From the opening, it appears that he is on the ropes, but inaccurate play from his opponent allows him to stabilise his position slowly, until eventually, he takes over the initiative, and does not look back from there on. This win secured an important first victory of the tournament for Nigeria as they won the match 3-1.
The Latvian Gambit is an opening associated with club players, as it is very rarely played outside of that realm. The last place one would expect to see this opening is at Olympiad level, but this is what Aikhoje had to deal with in the fifth round against a Bolivian player rated 2350 (!).
The Latvian Gambit is clearly a dubious opening choice and Aikhoje gained an immediate advantage from the opening. The game became a bit more interesting when White decided to destroy Black’s pawn structure at the cost of the initiative.
It looked as though Black was going to have enough play to secure a draw, until he allowed a strong break that gave White connected passed pawns in the centre and the rest is history. It was a costly defeat for Bolivia as they succumbed 2.5-1.5 to the Nigerians.
Odion Aikhoje led the line for Nigeria in the seventh round against Philip Borman from Jersey. An Alekhine turned into a French without the light-squared bishop in this crucial board one encounter.
Aikhoje snatched an extended h-pawn and started to march his majority to victory, but as we have seen in the previous games, the resistance at the Olympiad is always quite high and Black set up a blockade on the kingside and hoped that White’s vulnerable king would be enough for a truce between the sides, but White had other plans!
Aikhoje was able to combine the continual threat of the g-passer and threats on the enemy king and Black’s stubborn defense collapsed, as Nigeria had their first clean sheet of the event.
The Faroe Islands was Nigeria’s next opponent with our hero on the second board. Straight from the opening he employed one of his rooks to the third rank, which might look strange at first, but as we see later, it looked like the rook would play a big part in a potential attack on the enemy’s king.
This potential attack was too dangerous for the second player to allow, so he sacrificed an exchange hoping that his advanced pawns on the queenside would compensate for the lost material.
He was right in his judgement and White was on the ropes after a few mistakes. Although, one should never give up in chess as sometimes our opponents give us chances to resuscitate our position and the player from the Faroe Islands did exactly that. Unfortunately, Aikhoje was unable to find the study-like draw in the critical moment and suffered his first and last defeat of the event as Nigeria were beaten 4-0.
In the ninth round we had an African showdown as Botswana faced Nigeria. There was another tug of war using the Alekhine Defence, although this time, it was employed by the Nigerian board two player. He was able to trick White, who opted for a King’s Indian Attack set-up, and won a pawn as early as move 9.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for White from there on. Black expertly converted his material advantage by starting an attack on the king. This won him even more material, and then he smoothly earned victory in the resulting endgame, with his bishop and knight versus his opponent’s sole rook. Nigeria won four game points and all the bragging rights in this encounter.
Aikhoje’s last game came against El Salvador in the twelfth round. He used the Torre Attack once more to win a cute game, which I think is very reminiscent of Fischer-Sherwin 1957.
The pawn structure was basically the same (pawns on c3, d4 for White and c4 for Black), where White had some lovely tactics on the kingside, because of this (it seems as though the board is split in half in this structure; White’s play is found on the inside, while Black’s is on the opposite flank). This secured Aikhoje the gold medal on board two and a whitewash of 4-0 against El Salvador.
An amazing performance by an African legend. IM Aikhoje’s performance is one that we all should aim to emulate as we try to take African chess to newer heights.
Although, such a showing should be a moment of joy and celebration, we cannot help but notice the sad circumstances of the gold medal that never ended up in Aikhoje’s possession.
He had to leave before the prize giving and never received his medal due to some controversial details we will not get into here.
It is, however, my understanding that a decade later, he received a commemorative plaque to honor his achievements at the 2008 Dresden Olympiad. Africa Chess Media would like to also tip our hats off to the great chess IM Odion Aikhoje.
What do you think of IM Aikhoje’s performance? Also let us know down in the comments who you think we should cover next. Till next time!