For Part 1, click here.
In the last article I described the basics of the chess Olympiad, and mentioned that it used to be dominated – almost tediously so – by the USSR. But the chess world is different now and both the Open and Women’s events are extremely competitive. Let’s take a look at this Olympiad, what you can expect to see, and what you should look out for.
Why doesn’t Russia always win if they’re so good?
It’s a mystery! One argument that is often floated is that they lack team spirit for the big stage. I don’t buy into that. The Russian teammates are for the most part good friends, and nobody can accuse any Russian sporting team of lacking in nationalism. The truth is probably just that all the top countries are quite evenly matched for team events and so there’s an element of luck that just hasn’t gone their way. On the other hand, there’s no denying that the nations with particularly strong team spirits have consistently done well at the Olympiads. The Armenian and Azeri teams, for example, are ferociously patriotic during these events, while many top Chinese players have remarked that winning an Olympiad gold medal would be the absolute crème de la crème of their careers.
Who’s going to win the Open gold this year?
It’s so hard to predict, even during the final rounds of the tournament. The competition is usually extremely close (which is why board points can make all the difference). Russia will again be the top seed on paper, but Azerbaijan is also heavy favoured, buoyed by a home-ground advantage. Of the usual suspects, the US has its best chance to win gold since the glory days of the Fischer era in the 1960’s. This has largely come on the back of talent poaching, with reportedly huge sums of money being paid to transfer Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, two top-ten players, to the US team from Italy and the Philippines. That puts the top three boards of the US as the strongest in the world, although there’s a significant drop to their young guns on the bottom boards. Despite this, I rate them as a huge chance this year.
India is another country with golden potential given the recent rise of their boards two and three, but a lot will come down to the form of their board one and former World Champion, Vishy Anand. It depends which Vishy shows up at the Olympiad: the one who plays a solid event to limit any individual rating damage, or the one who goes all out for gold. The other country to watch out for is France, led by 2800 superstar Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The team is made up of good friends, including the non-playing captain, and they have been unlucky not to place higher in past Olympiads and European Championships. I’d love to see them pull off a surprise upset in Baku and upstage the old guard.
Having said all of that: China. They may not seem to have the firepower on paper, but they’ve done it before, and I have a feeling about them again this year.
Player poaching?! What’s that all about?
The eligibility rules for representing a country are relatively lax; with time and money, any transfer is possible. To be fair, So has lived and studied in the US for some years now, and Caruana is part American, so their claims are hardly contentious. Russia boosted its squad considerably by convincing Sergey Karjakin to jump ship from the Ukraine, but for the Crimea-born Karjakin, this could have been motivated by numerous factors. But certainly, recent years have seen an increase in horse-trading in the lead up to Olympiads, and it’s not just among the top teams. For weaker countries that often struggle to field teams, players from other nations with some sort of link sometimes take the chance to get a rare ticket to the Olympiad, in a mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides.
What about in the Women’s?
Russia recently scored a big star from the Ukrainian team, but Ukraine still boasts an impressive lineup. India’s girls have also been improving in leaps and bounds over the past two years and are a serious chance. But China, spearheaded by the undisputed women’s world champion Hou Yifan, is my pick.
Where’s England figure in all this?
England’s got a very decent team in the Open division this year. Nigel Short is in incredible age-defying form at the moment, and Matthew Sadler’s semi-comeback to professional chess has been very impressive. My mate Gawain Jones and his colleague David Howell have seriously kicked on in the past 18 months as well. Still, they lack a bit of the firepower to match the big guns. The English women are also quite strong on paper and have a lot of talent coming through the junior ranks. However, their team – like many national teams, I should add – is often tainted by internal politics that tends to get in the way of their performance.
You haven’t mentioned Carlsen, Topalov or Giri at all!
That’s one thing that really sets Olympiads apart from the regular professional circuit: In team events, one star is not enough! Carlsen is apparently super motivated to help Norway achieve its best at the Olympiad, and there is some serious talent among the current crop of Norwegian juniors. Aryan Tari is one to watch as a future ‘top-tenner’ for sure. But objectively, Norway is a class below the medal favourites. Bulgaria and the Netherlands have relatively stronger team line-ups overall and will be on the top boards, but again, they’re definitely top-heavy. Other strong nations will be seeking to neutralize the stars with rock-solid draws on the top board, counting on winning the match on the lower three boards. This adds a strategic team element that you don’t often see in Olympic sports.
What about drug testing?
Believe it or not, yes! The world chess organization (‘FIDE’) still holds out hope of one day getting chess introduced into the regular Olympics. I’m one of a minority of grandmasters who thinks this is a silly idea, but in any case, that’s one of the main motivations for the drug testing. It’s extremely rare to be tested, and there have even been cases of players refusing them on philosophical grounds and getting away with it.
Of far, far greater concern is cheating through electronic means. Chess computers are so strong these days that even a program on a smartphone can beat a world champion. The players go through rigorous scans and metal detectors before entering the playing hall, but there have been some fabulously (and scarily) creative methods employed by cheats in the past, including famously in Siberia in 2010.
Is there a refugee team, like in the Rio Olympics?
No, which is unfortunate. But players can play under the FIDE ‘team’ if they’ve been left stateless, which is a little similar. Also, there are a few special teams in Olympiads: the visually impaired team, the disabled team and the hearing-impaired team. You may wonder what the performance disadvantage is for the latter two teams, and indeed they are typically quite strong. The legendary German GM Thomas Luther heads the disabled team, while I lost to the Israeli GM Yehuda Gruenfeld in Australia’s match against the hearing-impaired team at the last Olympiad. But for me, watching the ‘blind’ team in action is a sight to see, if you’ll pardon the pun. These guys are absolutely incredible. They typically use a small calculation board during the games, which has slots for the pieces in the squares, and on which they can feel to ‘see’ the position while they’re thinking. But this can only help so much, and for the most part they are playing regular blindfold chess against a sighted opponent at the top level. That their team performs so well at the Olympiads, with some players achieving International Master titles, is nothing short of astonishing, and their matches frequently attract the most spectators outside of the top pairings.
Let’s just say we’re less successful than in the Olympics J We sit in the category of ‘strong amateur’ teams, as we don’t boast a single professional in our squad. Having said that, for the first time ever we’ll be fielding three grandmasters. We’re a fun but hard-working team and typically finish much higher than our seeding; last time we just missed a top-ten spot, despite being ranked outside the top 50 countries on paper. I’m not necessarily the strongest player but I’ll again be sitting on board one, mainly because I’m relatively good at digging in and ‘holding’ against super-GMs. Rating-wise, we have a very flat team, so we’re hoping that our lower boards can step up to help us rack up the 2.5 board points we need to win each match.
Where can I watch?
No live network coverage, unless you live in a chess-crazed nation like Norway! But there’ll be live streaming with commentary on several online sites. The official site is here, while many will prefer to hear their favourite commentators on the big chess servers like chess.com, chess24 or ICC. The good thing about chess is that spectators can follow many games at once without missing out on the action, and all the games in each round will be broadcast live with handy computer evaluations giving a running update on the state of play.
And of course, in addition to the chess news sites, a few chess bloggers will be there ‘on the ground’ and writing our thoughts throughout the event. You can be sure I’ll be one of them: from the tournament hall to the football games and the Bermuda Party, I’ll be there!