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Captain's Report: IM Donaldson on the World Team Print E-mail
By IM John Donaldson   
April 20, 2015
Photo FM Mike Klein for chess.com

Most chess players are acquainted with the biannual Chess Olympiad, the second most important event FIDE organizes after the World Championship. The World Team Championship is not as well-known but many consider it a truer test to determine the strongest chess country.

The World Team, like the Olympiad, is held every two years with the former in odd years and the latter in even. Unlike the Olympiads, which are open to all FIDE member nations (now over 180), the World Team is much more select. Only ten countries are invited and they have to qualify by either finishing in the top three in the most recent Olympiad or being champion of Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas. The defending champion is also seeded as is the host country which is also allowed to select a wild card entry.

The World Team is run as a round robin and not a Swiss like the Olympiad. This means no team can finds its way to the podium without having met all fellow medal contenders - a not infrequent occurrence in Olympiads where there are too many teams for the number of rounds.

Olympiads are the three ring circus of the chess world where famous and not so famous players meet, both men and women compete and chess politicians do what they do. Not so for World Team events which are considerably more austere affairs. There are separate World Team events for men and women and they have never been held in the same location simultaneously (the US women are playing right now in China).  World Team events are often held in locations where there are few spectators which adds to the monastic feel. The World Team is a tournament in which the focus is top level chess with no distractions.

Unlike the Olympiads, which date back to the 1920s, the World Team Championship has relatively recent origins dating back to the late 1980s. The first event was held on 6 boards but since 1993 four boards has been the standard like the Chess Olympiad. Each team is also permitted one reserve player. Team rosters are submitted at the start of the event and are fixed for the competition.

There is no requirement that teams play in strict rating order and since the switch from game to match points (2 points for a match win, 1 point for a draw and zero for a loss) it's not uncommon for teams to play around with their lineups looking for the optimal arrangement. Azerbaijan has often put their top-rated player Shakhriyar Mamedyarov on board four allowing him to go back and forth between boards three and four playing continually with White (each match teams get either White on boards one and three or two and four). This has led to some massive scores for Shak but hasn't always worked out well for the Azeri team.

The World Team is an event where the US has traditionally done well winning the event in 1993 ahead of Russia, Armenia and Ukraine and taking the silver medals in 1997 and 2009. The team finished tied for fourth in 2011 and 2013, in both cases finishing ahead of its initial seeding, but will be challenged to reach that placing in 2015. Missing from the team roster are Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Ray Robson and Gata Kamsky. The reasons for their absence vary. Hikaru and Wesley made commitments prior to the US receiving an invitation for the World Team, while Gata has stuck to his pledge to retire from team competitions when he reached 40 in 2014. Ray couldn't afford to take more time off from his university studies after playing in the College Final Four and US Championship back to back.

Despite these missing stars the team that the US has sent to Armenia is a strong one and an indication of the growing strength and depth of American chess as all players are rated over 2600 FIDE. The team (in board order) is Sam Shankland, Alex Lenderman, Alex Onischuk, Varuzhan Akobian and Daniel Naroditsky will do battle with the World's best. Gregory Kaidanov is the US coach and John Donaldson the captain.

Top-seed in the 2015 World Team is Russia headed by Alexander Grischuk. All its players are rated in the top twenty five in the world and its first four players average 2760 FIDE. Not far behind is Ukraine at 2719 led by its big three of Ruslan Ponomariov, Vassily Ivanchuk and Pavel Eljanov.

Defending Olympiad Champions China come in at 2715. They are led by 22-year-old Ding Liren who is very close to becoming the first Chinese player to be rated in the top ten in the world. So deep is the Chinese bench (second only to Russia) that they have left behind four 2700 players including Li Chao at 2748 FIDE.

Hungary (silver in the 2014 Olympiad) and the host team Armenia are the next seeds at 2693 and 2691 respectively. The latter have consistently overachieved in team events the past decade having won gold in the 2006, 2008 and 2012 Olympiads and 2011 World Team Championship. This is a remarkable achievement for any country, particularly one with less than three million people! Armenia struggled in the 2013 World Team and 2014 Chess Olympiad, but led by Levon Aronian and on home ground they will be hoping to repeat their past glories in 2015.

The rest of the teams are pretty close in rating. In order they are Israel (2676), Cuba (2665), India (2662), USA (2647) and Egypt (2548). It says something about the democratization of chess information (internet, strong chess engines, massive game data bases) the past decade that Egypt has two 2600 players in its lineup.

The 2015 World Team Championship is being held in Tsaghkadzor, about a 45 minute drive from the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Tsaghkadzor, which means valley of flowers in Armenian, is located at the end of a long valley at an elevation of close to 7000 feet. The players are staying at the Golden Palace Hotel which is also the site of the tournament that runs from April 19-28. Rounds are daily except the 24th which is a free day. Each round is held at 3pm Armenian time (11 hours ahead of the US West Coast) and will last between four and five hours meaning the last few hours of play can be conveniently watched over breakfast. Games can be viewed at the official tournament website at http://tsaghkadzor2015.fide.com/

The US team would like to thank the US Chess Federation and particularly Franc Guadalupe, who secured the US team entry, for this special opportunity. The 2015 US Championship was arguably the strongest ever with an average rating of around 2640 FIDE but it is nothing compared to what US players will meet at the World Team. Sam Shankland is likely to face opposition over 2750(!) FIDE on board one in Tsaghkadzor. Other players on the team will also be challenged. Such opportunities are priceless for the development of our young players.

Armenians are famous for their hospitality and the US team has been very well-treated since its arrival on April 15  after a long journey from the United States (it was 24 hours door to door from the West Coast travelling through Paris). Among the highlights of the three day stay in Yerevan were a visit to the Tigran Petrosian Chess Club and the adjacent Genrikh Kasparian Chess House for young players. Both were second homes to Varuzhan Akobian in his youth before he moved to Los Angeles as a teenager.

Var, who was greeted like a long last son, gave us a tour of the two establishments which have been critical in helping Armenia become a chess powerhouse.  All Armenian children, by law, receive chess instruction as part of their regular schooling from grades one to three. After that the most promising ones are offered free instruction three days a week for several hours at the Kasparian Chess House, a system not unlike that of the Pioneers Palaces in the old Soviet Union. The promising ones from these classes receive individual instruction.

Armenia has the unique distinction in that the President of the country, Serzh Sargsyan, is also the President of the Armenian Chess Federation. This is not just an honorary title as Sargsyan could be seen checking out the first round action in Tsaghkadzor for several hours. Such interest in chess among Armenian public officials is not uncommon. During the 1996 Chess Olympiad in Yerevan the President at the time, Levon Ter-Petrosian, sought out Ukrainian Grandmaster Oleg Romanishin to tell him what an admirer he was of his dynamic style of play. This level of interest helps to explain the high level of financial support the Armenian Chess Federation receives and the rewards (apartments, cars, and substantial honoraria) the members of the national team have received for their exceptional performances.

On a last note one can only feel sad that that the great tournament in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, (April 16-26) is conflicting with the World Team. The two tournaments are less than 100 miles apart as the crow flies and yet they might as well be on different planets. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of war since the early 1990s and while the conflict is cold at the moment it still has ramifications in the chess world. Azerbaijan qualified to play in the 2015 World Team as 2014 European Champions but declined. Now the question is whether the Armenian qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup, scheduled to be played in Baku, will feel safe to participate. The 2016 Chess Olympiad is also scheduled to be played there as well.

The World Women's team is underway as well in China. In round two, the US Women's team drew against a higher rated team, from Poland. Follow that event here.


April - Chess Life Online 2015

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