The Response to Donaldson's Olympic Impressions
By IM John Donaldson   
October 20, 2010
ImageThe response to my article on the 2010 Chess Olympiad and the state of American chess was most gratifying. It was encouraging to see that many readers have a keen interest that the level of excellence in this country continues. Unfortunately, their optimism for the future may be misplaced.

Originally, I only intended to cover the Olympiad in my article. The postscript was at the urging of Hikaru, Alex and Yury who are very concerned about the future competitiveness of American chess. During the tournament, it was hard not to notice the many strong young teams in the first row (top 12 boards) throughout the Olympiad.

France, with three 2650+ under 21 was mentioned but one could just have easily substituted Azerbaijan which has three 2700 players who are all under 26 or even Italy. The latter, like France, was one of the “weak countries” of European chess not so long ago. Today, besides Fabiano Caruana (+2700 and rising) they have four other GMs under 21.

Here are some responses to specific points that were raised.

RichTNYC writes:
I'm not sure how dark the clouds on the horizon are, given how few players it takes to make up a team.

Greg Shahade adds:
It's certainly no disaster to imagine a team of Nakamura, Hess, Robson and Akobian 8 to 10 years from now, and I think it's a near certainty that there will be at least 2-3 more juniors around that level as well when the time comes. Also I suspect that guys like Kamsky and Onischuk will still be able to be integral parts of a strong team in 10 years.

Rich is right it only take 5 players to make up a team. The problem is the pool of US players needed for a team competitive to fight for medals is currently quite small and the playing level on other teams is continually rising.  Just staying at our current level will not be enough and expecting players over 30 to keep improving is not realistic. We need at least 8 players +2650 to draw from.

Alex Onischuk competes in triathlons and is one of the fittest players on the circuit but he was chuckling when he read that he will be an integral part of the team in 10 years (age 45). During Khanty Mansiysk he figured two more Olympiads was realistic!

Robert Hess is a great talent, but he is also a smart young man with many options. He might decide to become a professional chess player, but just as likely may opt for a more standard profession and join the ranks of Michael Wilder, Stuart Rachels,  Ilya Gurevich, Patrick Wolff and Tal Shaked as early retirees. The premature retirements of Gurevich and Wolff were particularly tough as they were around 2600 FIDE when they stopped playing in the mid-1990s and were already fighting for spots on the national team. The loss of Robert would be comparable, but could anyone blame him if he chose this course?

Greg Shahade, who has done a great thing in founding and nurturing the US Chess School writes:
Naroditsky is 14 and about 2500, Darwin Yang is 13 and 2450. There are tons of talented 9-12 year olds who have a chance to be strong IM's and even GM's before they reach their 16th birthday. Of course things could be better in the United States, but my feeling is that the future is relatively bright, and that we will win some medals in the years to come.

No question Daniel Naroditsky (b. 1995) and Darwin Yang (b. 1996) are talented but note the ratings above are USCF – FIDE they are 2425 and 2402 respectively. This is still very impressive but Abasov of Azerbaijan and Cori of Peru are roughly 100 points higher at the same respective ages and just a little further up on the road are Giri of the Netherlands (b. 1994 and rated 2667) and female phenom Yifan Hou (b. 1994 and rated 2578).

American youngsters are often competitive into their early teens but then the gap starts to widen perhaps because in some other parts of the world kids are not engaged in a variety of afterschool activities. I am not saying there is anything wrong with that approach – indeed for many kids it may be for the better – but it does affect our future competitiveness as a chess-playing country.

Chexmates is right that the SPICE Cup tournaments at Texas Tech are a great thing. In particular the B group is giving many upcoming American players much-needed opportunities. The event coming up shortly will be a real test for young Darwin but is just the sort of challenge he needs as it is for Ray Robson in the A group. While the SPICE Cup tournaments are tremendous for offering opportunities for up-and-coming players they are less-suited for established elite American players as the prizes/conditions are more suited for young stars on the rise.

The annual Grandmaster norm round robin tournaments at the University of Texas at Dallas should be also mentioned. Although not as strong as the A group at the Spice Cup they still afford the chance for the best UTD chess players to fight for GM norms and give three invited GMs a chance to support themselves and keep in practice.

Parametd writes:
A small gripe with the article though... 'Outside of the US championship there is nothing for our elite players (Nakamura, Kamsky and Onischuk)' I don't know why Shulman or even Akobian is not considered elite?! Surely, Yury has proved himself at last after 2008 US Champion and his 2010 performance.

There is no question that Yury and Varuzhan are strong GMs but I would define elite as 2700 FIDE. That is the top 40 players in the world and roughly the number that can presently support themselves solely by playing. These are the players that have a realistic chance of making it into the small group who compete for the World Championship.

Joe Lux writes:
John has a point about top-notch competition in the United States. However, there are more chessplayers earning a living from chess-related activities, than ever before in America. That is a positive.

I couldn’t agree more with Joe. There must be at least 50-100 people in the United States who earn their living solely from chess and a small army of semi-pros right behind them.

This means teaching, coaching, writing, lecturing and administrating. Being an elite-player requires only studying and playing.

Michael "f-pawn" Aigner raises an important question, maybe the key one, when he asks who will pay for strong round robin events.

I don’t have an easy answer to this one. Looking at previous big tournaments in the United States one things stands out – the money was put up by patrons and not sponsors. Individuals like the Piatigorskys,  Louis Statham,  Erik Anderson and others at America’s Foundation for Chess, Frank Berry and Rex Sinquefield were motivated more by philanthropic concerns than a strong desire to get the biggest bang for their sponsorship dollar. Considering the popularity of chess in the United States seeking similar-minded individuals seems like the most promising approach rather than trying to interest companies.

One correction:

In my superficial analysis of Shulman-Malakhov I wrote:
24.Rc5! Rfa8 25.d6 (25.Bb5 restricting the knight is not bad either but the text is stronger.) 25...f6 26.Rc7 Kf8 27.Rac1 leaves Black helpless.

I got it half right. While the position after 27.Rac1 does initially look impressive, it is hard to improve White’s position. Instead 24.Rc5! Rfa8 25.Bb5! was correct maintaining the pressure. This looks very promising as Black has no counterplay. Incidentally, this was Varuzhan’s suggestion during the match.

Read John's original in-depth article here. Also look for Olympiad wrap-ups by GM Robert Hess and IM Irina Krush in an upcoming issue of Chess Life Magazine. Photo by Tony Rich of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.