Features Sep 22, 2016 | 9:02 AMby WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni

Baku Olympiad 2016 - an insider's guide

It has now been a week since I came back from Baku and there has been plenty of time to reflect on what made this Olympiad special, but also on what can be improved upon. This was my eighth participation in an Olympiad and, as such, I felt I was well-placed to draw some comparisons. Most of all, though, I just want to share some insider impressions and hopefully give you a bit of a taste of what it was like to be in Baku for this super event, as well as sharing my opinion about some of its main talking points.

First off, I won’t disagree with the vast majority of participants who claimed this was one of the very best Olympiads yet. The organisation in general, hotel, food and venue were all of a very high standard and especially the hospitality was unlike any I’d seen before – but more about that later.

The spectacular Crystal Hall seen from outside and inside | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

There were a few minor issues, like the bus schedules (leaving the hotel, which was five kilometres away from the playing hall, 75 minutes before the start of the round seemed a bit excessive) or the air conditioning, which made the playing hall feel like a freezer during the first round, but was later improved - although it was still too cold for my taste.

Early busses resulted in players having time for a power nap before the round | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Besides those minor flaws, there were unfortunately a couple of more serious problems, the first one being the tiebreak rules, and the second and most important one the security and anti-cheating measures that were taken.

Lela Javakhishvili shared this with the words, ‘It was veryyy cold in the playing hall :)’ | photo: Lana Afandiyeva

Let’s start with the tiebreak rules. I finished my last round game rather early and headed back to my hotel room to watch the action of the top boards unfold live with commentary and video coverage. To my surprise, I found out that even when the last game in Ukraine-Slovenia concluded there was no clarity as to who were the new Olympiad Champions, but when I saw Eljanov’s captain and teammates storm up to him in sheer joy, I guessed they must have known better than anyone else that they had edged it. 

If it was heart-breaking for me to find out roughly an hour later that it was in fact the USA who had won gold, I don’t want to know how the Ukrainian players felt about it, especially considering their earlier celebrations had been recorded for the whole world to see.

The eventual winners at the start of their round 7 match against India | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

To make my point clear, I didn’t have a particular favourite between the two teams (both would have been deserving winners), nor do I have an opinion on what tiebreak system should be used. However, direct encounter seems as good a place to start as any, and I couldn’t agree more with the two gentlemen below.

However, the issue of the tiebreak was nothing compared to the security and anti-cheating measures that were applied. A LOT has been said and written on this topic already, so all I want to do is highlight some perspectives and add my own two cents to the discussion.

When I first heard about the pen and watch ban, I wasn’t really surprised as it had been done before. Luckily, I am not one for pen superstitions, but I did get slightly annoyed when during every single round the pens provided by the organisers failed me at one moment or another (I never found out whether other players experienced the same problem). However, as pointed out by Jon Ludvig Hammer, it seems like there are much more serious issues at hand than banning pens, or even books. As far as I am aware, it was the first time captains were prevented from bringing books into the playing hall and, like so many other measures, it seems more than just a little excessive to me. But back to the issue of consulting captains on draws. If you wonder what is meant by that, I suggest you head to Irina Bulmaga’s blog, which highlights one such problematic situation. Again, I am not sure what the right way to handle this should be, whether it shouldn’t be allowed to consult captains altogether, but I do think this issue should rank higher up than books and pens on FIDE’s priorities list.

The one ban that personally angered me the most was the ban of cameras. I can understand you would have to hand them in before the games start, or leave them with the arbiter, but that neither players nor captains are allowed to bring cameras into the playing hall altogether goes way too far, in my opinion. Even before I became a part of the family of chess journalists, I'd always been very fond of getting as many photographic memories as I could at Olympiads. From my seven previous Olympiads, I have photos from pretty much every single match we played - portraits, photos with our opponents, etc etc. However, those days are over. I was lucky enough to get a press badge, so I could snap a few photos on my one day off (I tried to get some more on other days before the rounds started, but it was such a hassle with security on a couple of occasions that I gave up on that idea entirely), but I barely have a photo of me at the board, let alone a match photo. For some of the participants in the tournament it might have been their first ever trip abroad and it both angered and saddened me that unless they got lucky enough to have an official photo taken, they probably left without a single photographic memory from inside the playing hall.

The toilet anti-cheating rule was without doubt one of the two most prominent measures taken, if sadly for all the wrong reasons. If my first reaction when reading about it before flying out to Azerbaijan had been to just laugh it off, it turned out the organisers were very serious about this. Luckily, a widely signed petition, led by none other than Judit Polgar and Malcolm Pein, seemed to put a halt to those ridiculous proceedings, although I never had official confirmation that the rule was no longer in use. Let’s just say I hope this will have been the last time anyone thought it was a good idea to make chess players feel like they were back in kindergarten. On a side note, I believe this rule was not recommended or even supported by the official Anti-Cheating Commission.

Last but not least, there was of course the issue of mid-game checks. I guess one could easily write a two-part article on this topic alone, but once again, I just want to quote a few people and share my own view on the subject.

Let’s start by saying that on the very issue of being checked mid-game I agree with Nigel and Olimpiu, although they both have a very strong way with words!  I am also of the opinion that you should have the right to play a game of chess without being disturbed, be it only for a 10-second search. Truth be told, I was even surprised to see a number of top players venture the opinion that they think this is not only okay, but should be further enforced, with notably the best performer of the Olympiad stating on Facebook:

Again, I realise of course there is no ideal solution to the problem, but I very much doubt disturbing the players’ concentration during a game is the way forward. While some players like Baadur might not mind, there are others who are in their own little bubble during a game and who might be affected be such a check.

I mentioned earlier Nigel’s strong way with words, and having known him for years, his statements rarely come as a surprise. However, I thought he crossed the line when I read the bit about this particular topic in his interview here on chess24. While I can understand him being upset by the entire episode, the rules were known in advance (which doesn’t make them right, of course) and I don’t condone his personal attack against the arbiter who wanted to check him. I first met Jamie Kenmure at the Khanty-Mansyisk Olympiad back in 2010 and, besides being a very likeable character, I have always admired his passion and love for the game. After reading Nigel’s interview I decided to ask Jamie for his side of the story, which goes as follows: ‘I simply asked Nigel for a random search like I did with many players in the event and he refused. I informed the Deputy Chief Arbiter and my sector arbiter for the event.’ Jamie furthermore told me about 30-40 players were randomly checked during the event, and that he doesn’t know when or where this rule was decided upon (meaning he isn’t one of the people who implemented it). He also did not want to respond to Nigel’s comments. 

Jamie Kenmure with his trademark smile and red hair, back in Bilbao 2014 | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Finally, I would also like to say a word about the case of the Japanese player Tang Tang (2108), who was forfeited when an iPhone was found on him in round 3, after he beat GM Odeev (2401) from Turkmenistan. A few people I talked to during the tournament assumed he must have been cheating, simply basing their assumption on the fact he was found with a phone on him and the rating disparity between him and the opponent he beat. However, it was clear to me he couldn’t have been cheating, if only for the fact he was allowed to continue participating in the tournament. If you want to read the full story, told by the captain of the Japanese team, you can head to the comments section of an interesting entry on Alex Colovic’s blog. While some deemed the security checks at the venue entrance as very thorough, others were quick to point out they were far from flawless. Eljanov, for example, pointed out very early in the tournament that he had had to take his jacket off to go through the security gates, but that nobody had checked it – ‘I could even have carried a gun’.

One would think that this would have been improved during the event, but I heard similar tales right until the end of the tournament. One problem which struck me right away was the fact that the locker-rooms were located behind the security gates, which made it possible to hand in a phone or any other electronic device before the game and get it back at whichever point you wanted. In Tromsø the locker-rooms had been placed before the security gates, which meant once you got your electronic devices back after completing your game, it was impossible to take them into the playing hall. I was surprised nothing was done about that during the event, as it seems such an obvious starting point to avoid a certain amount of problems and issues.

I hadn’t intended on writing so much about all those security and anti-cheating measures, but I realised that it all upset me more than it should. I understand cheating is a serious issue, of course, and there is no easy way of dealing with the topic, but all the measures in Baku made the tournament lose some of its trademark atmosphere, in my opinion. It's difficult to put this impression into words, but I just felt this particular Olympiad wasn’t the big chess celebration it used to be. I think a large chunk of the participants have barely ever heard of cheating and all the topics surrounding it. For a lot of players the Olympiad is a big social gathering, where you get to meet people from every corner of the world both on and off the board, as well as a prestigious chess event, and in my opinion all the excessive measures took away a lot of that feel. A vast majority of participants are not in contention for any prizes and all they want to do is perform their best while meeting new friends and making memories that will last them a lifetime. I hope FIDE will keep this in mind while coming up with security measures for the next Olympiad.

Baku faces: Tologontegin Semetey (Kyrgyzstan), Razan Alshaeby (Jordan), Malaku Lorne (Jamaica) | photos: Fiona Steil-Antoni

On the topic of the next Olympiads, the locations for the next two are now known: Batumi 2018 and Khanty-Mansiysk 2020. While I would personally have preferred more exotic places, I expect both those Olympiads to rise to the standards set by Baku 2016. I was in Batumi last year and very much liked the city as well as the chess enthusiasm in the entire country, while the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2010 was one of my favourites so far.

Just like in Baku, I expect chess to be everywhere in Batumi and Khanty-Mansiysk | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Talking of favourites, an event that is now an inherent part of every Olympiad is of course the Bermuda party. As with everything else, the Azeri organisers had pulled out all the stops and hosted a party that won’t be forgotten by anyone who attended anytime soon. Three different dance floors, free entrance, a number of spectacular dances and shows, as well as having some of the world’s best players in attendance. While most of the pictures I snapped that night were useless (for a lack of lighting or an abundance of drinks), one that wasn’t is the one below with my good friend Helgi Dam Ziska (who earned his final GM norm in Baku and will become the Faroe Islands’ first grandmaster at the next FIDE Congress) and a certain Magnus Carlsen:

To finish this article on a positive note, I want to come back to the incredible hospitality I witnessed in Baku. From the moment I got through immigration at the airport (where the officer lady greeted me with a smile and the words ‘Fiona? Where is your Shrek?’), all the volunteers did their utmost to help out whenever and wherever they could. Seeing as I spent the entire second half of the tournament nursing a cold I did very little sightseeing, but I was lucky to get an insight into all that the local culture has to offer when on my only day off I got lost in search of the Exposition Hall and ended up inside the Hospitality Area instead. There, I was greeted by Javid, Serdar and Pirim, who not only made sure I was spoiled with local tea and jam, but also introduced me to the customs and traditions of every one of Azerbaijan’s ten regions.

Yours truly sampling the best of Azeri culture | photos: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Once I was so full with local treats I could barely move, Javid escorted me to the Exposition Hall, where I got an introduction to Shabaka, an Azeri art form of stained glass windows made without glue or nails (as can be seen bottom left in the above photo). I also got more of an insight into the local culture as I was told the story behind the paintings which adorned the spectacular chess pieces that were exhibited there.

The Exposition Hall had something on offer for everyone | photos: Fiona Steil-Antoni

After this very enjoyable expedition I decided to go back to my room to use this one opportunity to listen to my colleagues Ilja and Niclas for a few hours. And while I already knew they are the best of the best, I was very impressed with the images and coverage from the playing hall.

Finally, in case you wonder why I haven’t mentioned how the tournament went for me, it’s simply because the less said about my performance the better…  However, it was nice to get the opportunity to play the eventual winners China on top board in the first round, and my team finished 10 ranks higher than it was seeded, which is not a bad result.

Facing world number two Ju Wenjun on top board | photo: Peter Doggers

All in all, and despite my slight rant about the security measures earlier, this was a great Olympiad and I am grateful to everyone who was involved in making it happen. I also very much enjoyed my stay in Baku, a city which has a lot to offer and which I would gladly visit again. Congratulations to all the winners and see you all in Batumi in 2018!

Baku’s iconic Flame Towers displaying chess pieces and patterns at night | photos: Fiona Steil-Antoni

For more photos from Baku check out my Olympiad Facebook album

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