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Firsts in Norway: Captain Donaldson Previews the Olympiad Print E-mail
By IM John Donaldson   
July 30, 2014
The 41st Chess Olympiad, which starts August 1, this Saturday in Tromso, Norway, will set many firsts. The organizers report that close to 180 teams have registered to compete in the Open section which will smash the previous record of 157 set in 2012 in Istanbul. Add in the competitors in the Women’s section and there will be over 1800 participants not counting the coaches, captains, arbiters and journalists.

Tromso, a city of 70,000, will also set a record as the most northerly site for an Olympiad. Located 217 miles inside the Arctic Circle it is much further north than Helsinki, the previous record holder. The very northern location means that those attending the event will get between 21 and 22 hours of sunlight a day.

The budget for the 41st Chess Olympiad, at over $10 million, will also set a record and is needed due to the huge costs of feeding and housing the participants for two weeks in such an isolated location. Hopefully the difficulties getting to Tromso will act as a deterrent for terrorists who have been threatening Norway the past week.

Tromso will also set a record for the largest number of Grandmasters in a competition with around 300. Nine of the top ten rated players in the world will be in Tromso with only Viswanathan Anand missing. World Champion Magnus Carlsen and Womens World Champion Hou Yifan will both be playing. Philippine Grandmaster Eugenio Torre will be participating in his record 20th Olympiad – he has only missed once since 1970.

The battles will not only be fought over the board in Tromso. Every four years F.I.D.E. holds elections for President and in 2014 there is a big fight being contested between incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and former World Champion Gary Kasparov. If Kirsan wins and serves his full term he would be the second longest serving FIDE President (23 years) behind only Alexander Rueb who served for 25 years.

The competition will be fierce in Tromso with Russia, averaging 2777 for its first four players, the top seed. If Dmitry Jakovenko replaces Ian Nepomniachtchi, who was originally scheduled to play, all five of its players will be rated in the top 15 in the world. Team captain Yury Dokhoian will have a difficult decision who to put on top board as Vladimir Kramnik has been in a slump and is now rated only number three on the team. Ratings don’t count for everything. Russia has been the top seed in every Olympiad it has competed in since the breakup of the Soviet Union but has never won without Gary Kasparov who last competed in 2002!

The two teams that have traded titles since 2004 Ukraine (champion in 2004 and 2010) and Armenia (champs in 2006, 2008 and 2012) will be contenders for the podium as usual. Ukraine comes in as the second seed at 2730 while Armenia, which always features excellent team chemistry, is number four at 2705. Sandwiched in between them, at 2718 is France which has never finished in the top three at an Olympiad but will have chances to do so in Tromso. They are led by 24-year-old Maxime Vachier-Lagrave who is currently rated number 9 in the world.

The United States is seeded number five and its average rating of 2702 is its highest ever. Hikaru Nakamura, ranked number five in the world at 2787, has been in good form of late and has a tradition of playing well in team events. Gata Kamsky, in what may be his last Olympiad, will play board two for the U.S. He provides the team with plenty of experience as does Alex Onischuk on board three. The U.S. has featured these three players on boards 1-3, in different orders, since 2006. Board four Varuzhan Akobian has had a great 2014 to date and is now at his peak FIDE rating of 2653, number 100 in the world. Rounding out the team and making his Olympiad debut is Sam Shankland (2632 FIDE) who recently tied for second in the Biel Open.

The nucleus of this team won silver in the 2009 World Team Championship and bronze in the 2006 and 2008 Olympiads but just fell short in more recent teams events (=4-5 at Istanbul 2012 and again =4-5 in the 2013 World Team Championship). This team has good chemistry and if it plays well and takes advantage of opportunities thrown its way will have a chance for the podium.

Rounding out the top ten are Hungary (2702 average) which has the only female member (Judit Polgar) among the contending teams, China (2696), Azerbaijan (2694), England (2682) and Netherlands (2678). They will all have their chances and in fact the number of teams with legitimate hopes to finish on the podium goes to at least the number 15 seed and maybe to the 20th averaging around 2650 per board. There is tremendous depth! Add to that the record number of teams, only 11 rounds and match scoring (2 points for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss) and you have the ingredients for a tense event. Typically 19 points are needed to win and even that was not enough for Russia in 2012. They won 10 matches but a single loss to the United States left them second on tiebreak to Armenia. There is no room for error!

Alongside the Open competition is the Womens Chess Olympiad which has been dominated recently by China, Russia and Ukraine as traditional powerhouse Georgia has declined. One major recent change that could prove very important was the move by Kateryna Lahno from Ukraine to Russia. The last Olympiad she scored 70 percent on board one for Ukraine and she will be sorely missed by her former teammates. The U.S. had a great run in 2004-2010 (2nd, 4th, 3rd   and 5th ) but played poorly in 2012.

Irina Krush and Anna Zatonskih, both rated in the top 25, are a good combination on the top two boards and Tatev Abrahamyan on three is steadily improving. The play of newcomer Katerina Nemcova on board four and reserve Sabina Foisor (a last minute replacement for Anna Sharevich who had trouble getting a visa for Norway) will be important for the team’s result.