The 43rd Chess Olympiad starts this weekend, with 1600 players descending on Batumi, Georgia for the biggest event in chess. The surprise this year is that the defending champions USA are also the top seeds, a role held by the USSR or Russia every time they’ve played since their debut in 1952. Magnus Carlsen is missing from the Norwegian team, but Vishy Anand plays for India for the first time in 12 years. In total, a record 336 teams are registered for the 11-round open and women’s tournaments that begin on Monday.
Let’s first look at some basic details:
The Olympiad Opening Ceremony takes place this Sunday, 23 September at 21:00 local time, with games starting at 15:00 (07:00 New York, London 12:00, Paris 13:00, Mumbai 16:30, Beijing 19:00, Sydney 21:00) on Monday.
The Olympiad is being held in Georgia’s second city, Batumi, a tourist destination that features an impressive mix of the old and the new, not to mention a long beach promenade right in the centre of the city.
The games will be played in the newly built Batumi Sport Palace, while the opening ceremony is taking place an hour’s drive up the coast in the Black Sea Arena in Shekvetili.
Watch the opening ceremony:
The Olympiad features Open and Women’s sections, each of which is an 11-round Swiss team tournament. Teams consist of a maximum of five players, with four playing in each match. Match points determine places, with 2 points for a win, 1 for a draw and 0 for a loss. That leaves little room for error – in 2016 the USA and Ukraine dropped only 2 points each. If teams are tied the first tiebreak is not game points, but the Sonneborn-Berger score, which means things can get complicated, as we saw when the winners in Baku were determined only long after the top two teams had finished their matches!
This year there’s only one rest day, on 29th September, so the previous day’s Bermuda Party after Round 5 finishes will be more of a social focus than ever.
The official website, with more information on the tournament, is batumi2018.fide.com, and you’ll be able to watch every single game live, with computer analysis, here on chess24: Open | Women. We’re expecting to embed official English commentary from GM Ivan Sokolov and IM Sopiko Guramishvili, as well as our own chess24 commentary in Spanish.
So that’s the most important information you need to know, but what about the teams and players? Well, the Olympiad is such a prestigious event that it’s easier to say who’s not playing than who is... so let’s do that!
1. Magnus Carlsen
The most obvious absentee is World Champion Magnus Carlsen. In 2016 in Baku his presence alongside Jon Ludvig Hammer saw the Norwegian team start as 12th seeds before going on to beat expectations and finish 5th. It was still tough for Magnus, who played all but one match, scored an unbeaten +5, and still lost a few rating points!
He may not have wanted the burden of carrying his team in a World Championship year, but since Hammer is missing as well it’s clear there’s also a financial basis to the decision. Without the top two Norway have an ambitious young team led by former World Junior Champion Aryan Tari, but they begin as 38th seeds.
2. The Russians: Grischuk, Svidler, Fedoseev, Andreikin, Dubov, Artemiev, Tomashevsky
And that’s just the 2700+ players! As you can see, it’s not an enviable task to pick the Russian team, since you could make a strong case for any of the above players to be involved. The actual team looks as follows:
The team met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the relatively nearby Black Sea resort of Sochi before the tournament... no pressure!
In terms of rating, and sheer chess potential, Alexander Grischuk and Peter Svidler are unlucky not to be picked above Dmitry Jakovenko and Nikita Vitiugov. They have that rare commodity of experience of winning an Olympiad – Svidler five times from 1994-2002, and Grischuk twice in 2000 and 2002 – but a long time has passed since then, and they shrugged off not being selected this time round. Grischuk noted there’s “no young Kasparov” who you couldn’t leave out, so it’s up to the coach to pick whichever combination he thinks best. And the team is very strong - Svidler and Grischuk playing would have increased the average rating slightly, but not enough to make Russia top seeds.
Dmitry Andreikin, meanwhile, points out that the 2020 Olympiad will be in Khanty-Mansiysk, where Russia, as hosts, will be able to field multiple teams, giving more players a chance.
3. Veselin Topalov
World no. 22 Veselin Topalov can’t play for Bulgaria since a dispute between chess officials means the Bulgarian Chess Federation currently isn’t recognised by FIDE. Ivan Cheparinov has jumped ship to Georgia to take part, while in the women’s section Antoaneta Stefanova, a veteran of a dozen Olympiads, also misses out.
4. Richard Rapport
Perhaps the most mysterious absence. 22-year-old Rapport led the 2016 team and would have been top board this time as well. Hungary often seem to struggle to field their best team, however, with Peter Leko missing in 2016 after a dispute over a lack of support from the Hungarian Chess Federation. The Hungarians still start as 12th seeds, with Leko, Almasi, Berkes, Erdos and 19-year-old Gledura providing a good mix of youth and experience.
5. Paco Vallejo
Spanish no. 1 Paco Vallejo has explained, for instance on Ben Johnson’s podcast, how the Spanish authorities have ruined his last couple of years with a crazy poker-related tax case, draining away any desire he had to represent his country for a nominal fee. David Anton will instead lead the team.
6. Hou Yifan and Tan Zhongyi
In the open section China were able to leave out world no. 31 Wang Hao, but it’s the women’s team that raises eyebrows. The Chinese women went into the 2016 Olympiad as clear favourites and, after some adventures, won it for the first time in 12 years. This year, however, they’re missing not just women’s no. 1 Hou Yifan, whose studies in Oxford are about to begin, but Tan Zhongyi, the Women’s World Champion until the match earlier this year. The winner of that match, Ju Wenjun, does play, but China are only 3rd seeds behind Russia and Ukraine.
7. Pia Cramling
40 years after Pia Cramling first played the Olympiad as a 15-year-old in 1978 she’s going to miss out this year, not because she’s incapable or unwilling to play – she’s still world no. 13 and won a bronze medal on top board in 2016 – but because she disagreed with the Swedish Chess Federation’s decision to have just one coach for the open and women’s teams. She wanted her husband GM Juan Bellon to coach the women’s team, as in previous years.
Enough of the missing, though – let’s look at the action that lies in store for us…
The Big 6
Five teams have an average rating of 2700+ and the obvious potential to win gold medals. The normal question we pose at each Olympiad is why Russia, the perennial top seeds, have failed to win the tournament since Garry Kasparov was in their line-up back in Bled in 2002. Perhaps this year, however, the pressure is finally off. Not only have Vladimir Kramnik and Sergey Karjakin been showing indifferent form, but Russia are no longer the top seeds. It’s the USA who now have the pressure not only of being the favourites but of trying to defend their title.
This year Sam Shankland outshone the big 3 US stars, at least in the US Championship
The reason they’ve increased their average from 2765 to 2772 is largely Sam Shankland, who stunned his teammates to dominate the US Championship and has climbed to 2722 from 2679 back in 2016. There’s no longer such a gaping gap between the regular Top 10 stars of Caruana, So and Nakamura and the remainder of the US team (the “weak link”, 23-year-old Ray Robson, is still rated a very respectable 2682). Can they repeat their success? Definitely, but it’s going to be very tough, and they’ll be hoping Fabiano Caruana holds nothing back for the World Championship match…
Russia need no more comment – they have former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, former World Championship challenger Sergey Karjakin, the uber-talented Ian Nepomniachtchi and in Nikita Vitiugov and Dmitry Jakovenko two super-solid chess players who have spent a decade around the Top 20.
3rd seeds China boast world no. 4 Ding Liren on top board, and if he can extend his streak of over a year unbeaten they’ll have excellent gold medal chances. Yu Yangyi is also on a high, but a lot may depend on whether Wei Yi can dazzle us with some attacking masterpieces again.
4th seeds Azerbaijan have never won the Olympiad, but with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the form of his life their chances are greater than ever. Victory in Batumi would be a fine way to celebrate a new stage in his personal life!
Perhaps the most interest this year, however, is focused on the team from India. They finished 3rd in 2014 and 4th in 2016, but now, for the first time since Turin in 2006, Vishy Anand is back playing for his country! With Harikrishna, Vidit, Sasikiran and Adhiban as a supporting cast the sky is the limit, particularly if Adhiban’s aggressive chess proves effective on a lower board.
His humour is already inspiring the team...
The other team we’re including in the Top 6 is Ukraine, who missed out on an average
rating of 2700 by just two points. They finished tied for first place in 2016 despite
the absence of their talisman Vassily Ivanchuk. This year he’s back, and in top
form he could spearhead another title charge.
The other contenders
Let’s take a look at the Top 25 teams:
The gap to the three teams with an average rating of 2688 isn’t huge, but France (MVL), England (Adams) and Armenia (Aronian) can only boast of one 2700 player each. That hasn’t stopped Armenia in the past, of course, and after missing out on the 2016 Olympiad in Baku for political reasons the Olympiad specialists will be gunning for a fourth title.
Poland, with Radek Wojtaszek and Jan-Krzysztof Duda, are the one team outside the first six with two 2700 players, and could be dark horses. Hosts Georgia are boosted by Ivan Cheparinov switching from Bulgaria, and if Baadur Jobava can show anything approaching the kind of form he showed in Baku in 2016 (a 2926 rating performance!) local chess fans may have something to cheer.
We can’t rule out the Netherlands, with Anish Giri on top board and the inspired leadership of Jan Gustafsson… while the reason we picked the top 25 was to include Iran. They finished 16th in 2016 and their young stars Alireza Firouzja and World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo are two years older and stronger now, with 17-year-old Amin Tabatabaei, who didn’t play back then, another potential star. Given the competition it’s a lot to ask, but they must have an outside chance of a medal.
Two years ago, there were three women’s teams with a 2500+ average rating, with the Chinese team the clear favourites on paper. This time round, only Russia are above the 2500 mark:
The Russian team has exactly the same line-up as the team that narrowly missed out on gold on the final day in Baku and was unlucky to plummet out of the medals. That means that Kateryna Lagno is again missing, for personal reasons, but with Kosteniuk, Goryachkina, Gunina, Pogonina and Girya the team has great experience and no obvious weakness.
2nd seeds Ukraine took bronze in 2016, and with the Muzychuk sisters again backed up by Natalia Zhukova and Anna Ushenina they should be in the hunt for the medals once more.
China is all change, with Hou Yifan, Zhao Xue and Tan Zhongyi making way for Shen Yang, Huang Qian and current Chinese Women’s Champion Zhai Mo. It’s not about betting on youth, as often seems to happen in China, since the first two of those players are 29 and 32.
The women’s event this year looks much harder to predict, with numerous teams back to full strength. Koneru Humpy’s return for India is as big a boost as Vishy’s return for the men, France have Marie Sebag and Almira Skripchenko back, while the USA are without US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze but have Anna Zatonskih back to team up with Irina Krush.
It would be foolish to rule out the powerful and experienced hosts, Georgia, while Poland have the same top four that snatched silver medals in 2016. In short, the women’s event also has the potential to be a great battle.
Of course the Olympiad is about much more than the fight for medals. Most players in the 300+ teams arriving in Batumi will have their own personal goals, but first and foremost they'll be aiming to enjoy one of the best experiences in chess, mixing with players from all around the world.
The teams from Kyrgystan
It’s going to be a lot of fun, while fans of political intrigue and back-stabbing may enjoy the spectacle of the FIDE Presidential Election. That’s set to take place on the 3rd October, unless legal/FIDE Ethics Commission cases interfere.
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