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Reports Sep 14, 2016 | 10:38 AMby Colin McGourty

18 conclusions from the 2016 Baku Olympiad

Sam Shankland holds the trophy as the US team pull off a historic triumph | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad 

The new-look USA team lived up to the hype to win the Chess Olympiad for the first time in 40 years, edging out Ukraine in a tiebreak cliff-hanger. All the big teams won as expected in the final round, giving Russia bronze and meaning India missed out this time round. In the women’s event it looked for a while as though Russia would beat China and win their 4th Olympiad gold in a row, but instead China turned the tables, giving Hou Yifan her first team gold medal as Poland took silver and Ukraine bronze. The Russian women didn't make the podium. We draw some conclusions from the event.

For the lowdown on the final round you can’t do better than watch Jan Gustafsson’s highlights video:

Let’s get to our conclusions:

1. US victory was utterly deserved

It’s tough to enter the Olympiad as one of the hot favourites – just ask Russia! - but if the US team were feeling the pressure they didn’t let it show. They conceded just two draws, to the Czech Republic and Russia, to finish with 20/22 match points:

Rk.SNo TeamTeamGames  +   =   -  TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4 
12United States of AmericaUSA1192020413,531,5152,00

Fabiano Caruana was a rock on first board, not losing a game and getting what proved to be the crucial match-winning victory over Ukraine.

Fabiano even found time to troll Eric Hansen in the final round, wearing the T-shirt based on a famous interview... | photo: David Llada, Baku Chess Olympiad 

Hikaru Nakamura played every round, scored five wins and suffered just one avoidable defeat, while Wesley So added individual gold on board 3 to the team victory. His performance was simply sublime, with seven wins and just three draws. If anything, he could have scored even more.

Sam Shankland and Ray Robson contributed six wins between them, with no obvious weak link.

2. Buying nerds works!

We should first add the disclaimer that Fabiano Caruana was born and raised in the US, while Wesley So has been resident there for years, but it’s hard not to return to the Daily Show’s segment on the US “buying up nerds” to win the Olympiad:

If only because two months later Magnus returned to it when Fabiano’s switch from Italy to the US was confirmed:

And then after the Olympiad was over:

Ruslan Ponomariov of 2nd placed Ukraine also wrote:

“Never mind, next time we’ll also buy chess players and come first… @Igor Kovalenko Come back to our team!”

But there’s no need for sour grapes from Ukraine, since…

3. Ukraine won the Olympiad

Kind of! Ukraine were the only team to win medals in both sections, adding bronze in the Women’s to their Open silver medals and therefore they deservedly won the Nona Gaprindashvili Cup for the overall team performance at the Olympiad. The women hit a mid-tournament slump after drawing a match they seemed certain to win against Russia, while the men only suffered that narrow defeat to the USA, winning all ten of their other games.

Nona was on hand herself to congratulate the Ukrainian teams | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

Individually Ukraine also impressed. Anna Muzychuk took the first board prize in the women’s tournament, while among the men it was only Ruslan who performed below 2700, despite Ukraine starting the event with only two players rated above 2700. The overall star was of course Andrei Volokitin, who finished with 8.5/9 and an incredible 2992 rating performance for individual gold on board 5.

The team received a hero's welcome back in Kiev:

4. Blame Canada Eric Hansen

In our penultimate round report we noted that if the USA didn’t win the Olympiad they could always blame Canada… Peter Svidler narrowed the target in his Olympiad recap at the start of his Banter Blitz show:

He pointing out the role of “chessbrah” Eric Hansen:

It would appear that the single biggest influence on the outcome of this Olympiad may have been exerted by the one and only chessbrah, because Canada in their - I’m very confident in saying - best Olympiad result ever… had a fantastic tournament… In the match between Canada and Ukraine Eric Hansen on board 4 had a completely winning position against Volokitin, which would have won the Canadians their match against Ukraine had he won it, but he misplayed it. He went for a brilliancy in a position which didn’t really require a brilliancy - it was winning with normal moves, but he missed a zwischenzug. The position was probably equal after that, but he got, I guess, so flustered by his mistake that he ended up losing it. That led to Canada losing to Ukraine, and today Eric won a very important game against Shankland on board 4, which led to the match between Canada and the US becoming very close. The US won it with only 2.5:1.5, and not by any kind of a larger margin. I’m pretty sure that a larger win than that would have erased all questions about tiebreaks and would have secured a gold medal for the US, but the fact that chessbrah won today means that I am prefacing this show by this introduction…

In the end Eric didn’t prove to be the all-powerful force determining the outcome of the 2016 Olympiad, though Peter couldn’t know that at the time of filming, since…

5. The tiebreak system needs to be changed

When Pavel Eljanov beat Alexander Beliavsky of Slovenia to complete a 3.5:0.5 win for Ukraine, there was one of those great sporting moments. Pavel was immediately congratulated by teammates and those around him as they thought Ukraine had repeated their 2010 Olympiad triumph:

It turned out they were wrong, though, or rather – nothing was yet decided despite all the key players having finished their games. The first tiebreak was Sonneborn-Berger, which depended on the results of all the teams that the USA and Ukraine had played in the tournament… For Ukraine to win 91st seeds Jordan needed to beat Myanmar (they did), and 61st seeds Estonia needed to beat (or possibly only draw with) Germany (they didn't). So if Estonia flapped their wings on table 28 the butterfly effect might have meant the whole outcome of the 2016 Olympiad was changed… Games in that match ended on moves 72, 75 and 100, but it was Matthias Bluebaum’s win over Tarvo Seeman, after a mistake on move 59, that finally meant the USA could prepare the champagne!

Needless to say, the situation where the outcome of a major sporting event remained so unclear drew both bemusement and criticism:

Norway men's captain Jonathan Tisdall put the case in favour of Sonneborn-Berger:

But you can come up with plenty of arguments against – for instance, what if you lost to Bulgaria, who had Veselin Topalov for five rounds, but then get penalised for their performance after he left for the birth of his child? So among imperfect systems, why not choose one – board points is the obvious one – where it’s clear to spectators and participants exactly what they need to do?

Greg Shahade, meanwhile, goes further, and addresses the issue that – somewhat unluckily, to be honest! – the final round pairings were mismatches on the top three tables. He prefers a playoff to letting tiebreaks determine the gold medals:

6. India are the real deal

The final standings don’t always tell the full story. In this year’s Olympiad, for instance, 19th seeds Turkey managed to finish 6th, but they did it without playing a team seeded higher than 12th. The trick, it seems, is to lose or draw to Italy in Round 3, which is what the Indian team also did in 2014 in Tromso  Back then it was the Indians who were seeded 19th, and managed to avoid all the top teams except for Armenia. That they achieved bronze medals was a huge surprise, and harsh on Russia and Azerbaijan, who finished on the same points after much tougher tournaments, but were left without medals.

The Indian teams may not have won medals, but they had a lot to be proud of in Baku | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

Fast forward two years, though, and this time round there was nothing “accidental” about the Indian success. From Round 4 onwards they played only strong teams, including all the teams that finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th. India, you guessed it, finished 4th, so while it looks like a step back from 2014 this was actually the year that India came of age as a national chess team. The women also confirmed their 5th seeding by finishing 5th, only losing a single match across the 11 rounds.

Vishy Anand summarised the performances on Twitter:

Congrats to the Indian Chess Olympiad teams both men & women. In the Olympiad a lot can happen in the last three rounds. Sethuraman played very creatively. He made key points. His loss against Sam was very unfortunate. Adhiban showed a lot of maturity. Hari did well, especially in the big games. His win against Sergey was very smooth. Harika was very unlucky in the 1st game. Chess is a very cruel game.

7. Nothing went Russia’s way

And so it continues. By the next Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia in 2018 it will have been 16 years since the Russian men last won the event, despite having been the top seeds for all of those years. Russian Chess Federation President Andrei Filatov took personal command, but was unable to improve on the likes of Evgeny Bareev and Yuri Dokhoian before him. 

Medals, but not the colour they wanted, for Russia | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

It all came down to the match with Ukraine in Round 4, where top board Sergey Karjakin was dropped and both Evgeny Tomashevsky and Alexander Grischuk lost very decent positions with the white pieces. We were criticised at the time for asking whether Russia’s long wait for gold medals would go on, but while that maybe was a little premature, it turned out you could only afford to drop two points in Baku! Russia then needed to win all their remaining matches, but conceded draws to the USA and India.

It wasn’t all bad news. Ian Nepomniachtchi won seven games in his first seven, while Vladimir Kramnik’s play was aptly summed up by Peter Svidler:

Vladimir Kramnik once again showed that he is playing some of the best chess of his career currently. It’s not just the result he’s shown on a mixture of 1st and 2nd boards… but the manner in which he seems to be approaching his chess these days is absolutely fantastic. It’s a joy to watch.

Normally at Olympiads the Russian women dampen the disappointment, and this time round they came very close to doing the same. When Natalia Pogonina scored a win in the final encounter it looked as though Russia might claim their fourth successive gold medals. 

Kosteniuk & Hou Yifan led their teams into the final showdown | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

China hit back, though, with Valentina Gunina’s glorious run of 7 wins in 9 games ending in a loss to Ju Wenjun, while Alexander Goryachkina blundered in a difficult position. Chess is cruel, sometimes, and it took minutes for Russia to plunge from potential gold medallists to finishing 4th – with Ukraine ahead of Russia in both sections.

Rk.SNo TeamTeamGames  +   =   -  TB1  TB2  TB3  TB4 
66United States of AmericaUSA1172216332,527,0149,00
816Azerbaijan 1AZE1172216309,025,5151,00

8. Olympiad gold for Hou Yifan was long overdue

Long-awaited gold for the Chinese women's team | photo: Maria Emelianov, Baku Chess Olympiad

Amazingly, that was Women’s World Champion Hou Yifan’s first Olympiad gold medal with her team, since she only started playing for China in 2006. Even more curiously, although China matched the 20/22 points of the men’s gold medallists and scored 9 wins and 2 draws, it wasn’t the most convincing of tournaments for them as a team or for Hou Yifan personally, as she admitted in her post-game press conference:

Tan Zhongyi was the star performer (and the only player to perform above her rating), playing all the games and scoring 7 wins and 4 draws for gold on board 4.

9. Baadur Jobava is a team player

Baadur “keeps playing his unique brand of chess” (Svidler) and in Baku it proved hugely successful as he scored 8/10 and a 2926 rating performance.

Baadur won the prestigious 1st board individual gold medal, ahead of Leinier Dominguez (silver) and Fabiano Caruana (bronze) | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku World Cup

For Georgia there was bitter defeat to Turkey in the final round after what had been a fine tournament. Baadur explained afterwards how playing in a team event affects him:

I’m 100% more motivated usually than in individual (events)… it’s more responsible for me. If you play on first board you’re like some type of leader. You’re an example for them.

Jobava goes on to suggest that it’s the lack of a team leader like Garry Kasparov that prevents Russia from succeeding. Check out his post-tournament interview with Anastasia Karlovich:

10. It helps to have the World Champion on your team

Talking of leaders… Norway finished in a hugely impressive fifth place, their best result ever, though if you’re not going to have your best results with arguably the best player of all time in your team you’re most likely doing something wrong.

Norway finished 5th and could even have made it to fourth if they'd won rather than drawn with India in their final match | photo: David Llada, Baku Chess Olympiad

Magnus played all but the first round, and scored a very decent +5, although it cost him 4 rating points. Among the supporting cast Frode Urkedal in particular impressed and scored some crucial wins, while Jon Ludvig Hammer's 9 draws and 2 losses weren't the height of his achievements in Baku:

11. The Greeks did something special

We’ve been following this story for a while, so all that remains to confirm is that yes – Greece managed to end the Olympiad as the only unbeaten team other than the USA (or China in the women’s section)! With the final round draw against Hungary they'd scored 4 wins and 7 draws – the closest anyone else got to that number of draws was France, with 4!

12. Torre the Great

Once again it’s over to Peter Svidler, who called 64-year-old Eugenio Torre’s 10/11 in his 23rd Olympiad “frankly beyond belief”:

I wanted to speak a little about people who impressed the most, and somehow I kept on ignoring his performances in my previous two banters during this Olympiad, which is ridiculous, but I think pride of place goes to Eugenio Torre. You probably know who he is, and you probably have read about his results by now, but what he achieved during this Olympiad is absolutely tremendous. He is by no means a young man by now and he… played a tremendous level of opposition. The Philippines are a decently strong team and they played very, very decent opposition almost throughout the tournament. The result Eugenio showed in this event is absolutely fantastic.

Eugenio Torre (right) took bronze on board 3, since Wesley So (gold) and Zoltan Almasi (silver) racked up their scores against stronger opposition | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

13. Some teams went missing

Before the event we knew that Olympiad specialists Armenia would unfortunately not be travelling to neighbouring Baku, but during the event as well we saw some of the fancied sides fail to even enter the race for the top places - that’s partly why the final round pairings were such an anti-climax. Defending Champions China and Azerbaijan both lost three matches, with the 3rd and 4th seeds finishing 12th and 13th (and even that was an improvement on their abject state before the final round). It’s hard to explain the poor form of players like Li Chao, Wang Yue, Wei Yi and Arkadij Naiditsch, but something went wrong. Perhaps for Azerbaijan it was, as Baadur noted, all about the pressure on the hosts. In the women’s section similar words could be written about Georgia.

14. Watch out for Iran

Despite a heavy loss to Norway in the penultimate round, the 46th seeds from Iran finished in 16th place, with every player performing above their rating:

1GMGhaem Maghami Ehsan256610½1½½1½½016,511263210,9
2Maghsoodloo Parham256611½11½½½½½18,011268418,6
3IMLorparizangeneh Shahin24781½½1011½10½7,011258016,8
4Firouzja Alireza24631½1½1½004,5825015,6
5FMGholami Aryan24350112,0325023,3

Since boards 2-5 are aged 16, 17, 13 and 15 the world had better watch out for coming Olympiads!

Other over-performers included Sudan (ranked 110th, finished 71st), South Sudan (ranked 176th, finished 107th – it helps if your unrated players perform at 1989, 2099 and 2014!) and the top Latin American team Peru, who were ranked 34th and finished 10th, with a last round draw against England.

Jorge Cori scored 8 wins in 10 games for a 2810 performance and the bronze medal on board 2. Just imagine if Julio Granda had been there in Baku instead of in the chess24 studio in Madrid!

As bronze medallist on board 2 Jorge got to share the stage with Kramnik | photo: Maria Emelianova, Baku Chess Olympiad

15. Baku 2016 was a great Olympiad

The praise for the Olympiad in Baku has been all but universal – a great playing venue, accommodation, organisation, Bermuda Party and opening and closing ceremonies…

…while the video coverage was of a quality that few events are likely to have the resources to match in the near future. It helped that there was no FIDE presidential election this time round, so we could all concentrate almost exclusively on the chess. In short, everyone had a great time, and there was time for one last song:

16. The anti-cheating approach needs a rethink

The one notable issue – and this was the product of FIDE commissions rather than local organisers – was with the anti-cheating regulations. Players were initially expected to inform an arbiter before they went to the toilet, something most of us last needed to do in primary school. A protest that drew support from swathes of team captains seemed to succeed in getting that requirement removed in practice (if not struck from the rulebook), though it remains ugly that officials are still implying that going to the toilet frequently during a game of chess is a strong sign of a potential cheater. Almost the only well-known chess figure to champion that idea until now has been Silvio Danailov…

In general, the regulations seemed to show a disregard for the dignity of the players and the demands they’re under during a game. It’s hard to disagree with Nigel Short's sentiment (you might argue over the wording...) when it comes to the regulation allowing random searches during a game:

17. Giri has a promising career as a Bollywood dancer

We can’t completely overlook Anish Giri when it comes to drawing conclusions  Anish played every round, but three wins were followed by eight draws as the Netherlands finished only 36th after a great start:

That’s not really why we’re here, though. As promised, Giri the dancer:

18. The US are only going to get better

Svidler is expecting big things from 15-year-old World Junior Champion Jeffery Xiong | photo:

As the USA’s rivals lick their wounds, Peter Svidler pointed out that this is only the beginning. Partly inspired by a talk with Garry Kasparov in St. Louis, he explained:

Very close to the Olympiad there was a World Junior U20, which was won with a round to spare by Jeffery Xiong, and he already is a tremendous player, and by 2018 I fully expect him to be a fully-fledged member of that team. I have nothing but respect for both Shankland and Robson, but I think with Xiong on the team the US will be even more formidable than they are right now, and I think they’re entering a very, very promising era. They will be a huge force in every single team event they play for the foreseeable future. All of their team are youngsters. You probably have to consider Hikaru to be an elder statesman there, and Hikaru’s not that old!

For now, though, that’s all for the 2016 Olympiad. We’ll have some more material in the coming days, while for top chess action we need to wait 12 days until the Tal Memorial. For more details check out our 2016 Chess Calendar.

Of course this article couldn’t come even close to summing up as massive event as the Olympiad. What are your conclusions? 

See also:

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