Ambitious in Istanbul: Strong American Squads Begin Olympic Medal Race
By FM Mike Klein   
August 28, 2012
Photo FM Mike Klein

The 40th Chess Olympiad opened last night in the WOW Hotel Convention Center in Istanbul, Turkey. The next fortnight will determine whether the name was apt for the two American teams.

Sightly more than half of the delegation was in attendance, with U.S. players arriving from all over the world. GM Varuzhan Akobian might be the best rested – he arrived in Istanbul two days ago and has been sightseeing and studying with longtime team captain IM John Donaldson.

GM Varuzhan Akobian & IM John Donaldson, Photo STL Chess Club
GM Ray Robson, the Olympiad newcomer to the open team, flew from Ukraine, where he, GM Alex Onischuk and Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis Director Tony Rich were touring the capital, Kiev, and Crimea. Rich said part of their adventures included zip lining over the Dnieper River. IM Irina Krush also has plans to visit Crimea. She wanted to visit Odessa, where she was born. She has not visited since she left in 1988.

WGM Rusudan Goletiani arrived from her native Georgia, where she spent the last few weeks visiting family. Several other players were still en route as of last night. Open team coach GM Yury Shulman arrived so late that he had to watch the ceremony in the shorts he traveled in, but he was his usual buoyant self nonetheless.

The American open team has the highest average rating in history according to Donaldson. The top four players – GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Gata Kamsky, Onischuk and Akobian – are on 2702, good enough for fifth seed, their highest in years (Russia has their usual gaudy average of 2769, almost 40 points higher than defending champion Ukraine). They will be looking to renew their medal successes of 2006 and 2008, where they won bronze both times. In Russia in 2010, they were seeded ninth and finished there as well, something Akobian called a “big disappointment”.

In the first round, the men will face Jordan, a much lower-rated opponent than in 2008, when a pesky GM-laden Icelandic team almost scored an upset. The Americans will have black on boards one and three, but Jordan only has one IM and three FMs on their roster. Donaldson just released the lineup for the match – Nakamura will sit for round one (he said he has never played the first round of an Olympiad). The easier pairing may be due to the record number of federations in attendance. FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov said that 161 teams registered, but as of this morning the official web site lists 158 teams.

The American women's team is also seeded fifth. Captained by veteran Michael Khodarkovsky and coached by GM Melikset Khachiyan, the team consists of IM Anna Zatonskih, Krush, and WGMs Sabina Foisor, Goletiani and Tatev Abrahamyan. They finished fifth in 2010 (ranked sixth) but also medaled in Dresden, 2008.

Their opening match will be white against 67th-ranked New Zealand.

Akobian, who played on the 2006 and 2008 squads, did not qualify as a player for the 2010 team. He will hold court on board four, and joked that he and Shulman switched places for this Olympiad. It will also be Akobian's first stint as a non-alternate.

He said that the team's ranking is justified. “I think this is the strongest team. The players may be the same, but Hikaru has become a top-five player.” Akobian explained that the team's top two players have gotten stronger, while the bottom half players have the same ratings but more experience.

Akobian is a big believer in team chemistry. “Ratings are not the main factor. If you look at [Russia] on paper, everyone should go home, they're going to win. In team tournaments everyone has to be like a unit. If everyone is thinking individually you're going to collapse.”

Akobian took a perfunctory tour of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia the past few days. It is his third time in Istanbul and he had seen most of the sights before. Captain John Donaldson, once again spry after a spring ankle injury, was his usual informed and busy self. When I saw him in May he was already discussing the best hotels for the players, analyzing everything from the closest mosque to airline flight paths, either of which could wake the players after a long day of chess. After two days in Istanbul, he could already navigate the bewildering public transportation network and tell you the best shopping mall and assorted trivia.

 “We know John very well,” Akobian said. “The role of the captain is very important with team atmosphere.” Yesterday Donaldson barely sat as he picked up players, got their credentials, attended meetings, and juggled hotel rooms and other logistics. “John is like a machine,” Akobian said. “He's been running since 9:00 a.m. He's dedicated to his position.”
Photo Tony Rich of STL Chess Club

The opening ceremony's first 30 minutes produced dynamic arrangements of traditional dance against the backdrop of varied Turkish outdoor scenes. The several dozen performers donned ethnographic clothing and whirled around in front of Cappadocia and other signature features of the host country. The presentation mellowed after that, with nearly all speeches in Turkish and not nearly enough translation headsets to go around. The Turkish minister of sports resembled a candidate for office as he used his baritone to give a lengthy polemic on something. Whatever it was, it clearly stirred the Turkish speakers in attendance, who were very proud of the opening to the event.

Photo FM Mike Klein

Though the organization has been under scrutiny for certain practices, the opening went over well and the playing hall and arrangements are adorned nicely, if a bit out of town. The airport location and lack of advertising in the city center will be factors to watch in the coming weeks as far as attendance.

In case the reader has never been to Turkey, you can familiarize yourself with their passion for sport in Elif Batuman's piece in The New Yorker, “The View From the Stands”. He analyzes which Istanbul soccer team to cheer for. The morning I arrived, Besiktas and Galatasaray has just tied 3-3 in the local derby, and revelers were still stumbling Istiklal Street at 5:00 a.m. Another article from the same magazine, “Deep State” by Dexter Filkins, can similarly inform you of their current politics. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main subject, has banners and Olympiad quotes hanging above the competitors in the playing hall.

The city is no stranger to hosting Olympiads. In 2000 the event was also in the city. FIDE has awarded the site to smaller venues recently, including Bled, Slovenia and Calvia, Spain. The next Olympiad in 2014 will be north of the Arctic Circle in Tromso, Norway. Besides the last incarnation in Istanbul, the last time it was held in a major world city was all the way back in 1994 in Moscow.

For my arrival into Istanbul, I took a circuitous route that included other Balkan countries. A few surprise Olympiad moments caused a smile. In Podgorica, the sleepy capital of Montenegro (the other country that was vying to host these games), the post office curiously sold chess stamps from the Dresden Olympiad. 

A few days ago I toured a city museum that housed medals and programs from the time it hosted the event. 

These player badges and medals were from the 20th Olympiad in Skopje. A trivia question: which current and very famous American GM scored a record 17.5 points out of 22? 

Show Solution

To give an idea of how far the Olympiad and chess in general have come, the American 2702 rating, good enough for 5th seed here in Istanbul, would have been about 100 points higher than that year's top-seeded USSR squad. And in 1972, the fifth seed was East Germany, at 2458. Today, that is good enough for 57th, just behind Singapore and Mongolia.

The American hotel, the closest to the playing hall, will house the top teams. The Olympiad got in full swing in a hurry for me. Two minutes after entering the hotel, GM Levon Aronian was holding court in the lobby with fans and journalists, then I ran into a bathrobed GM Boris Gelfand in the elevator, who was headed to the penthouse spa for a shvitz.

The games begin today at 3:00 p.m. local time, which is 8:00 a.m. on the east coast. Live games and standings can be viewed at the official web site Look for constant coverage of the Olympiad at Chess Life Online.