Captain's Report: Donaldson on the Olympiad
By IM John Donaldson   
August 10, 2014
IM John Donaldson and GM Sam Shankland, Photo Cathy Rogers

The 2014 Chess Olympiad can be best be characterized so far as a tournament of many upsets with the performance of the Russian team in the open section the most prominent example. Seeded first with an average rating of 2773 for the first four players, the team of Vladimir Kramnik, Alexander Grischuk, Peter Svidler, Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi were clear favorites to win and break the curse of Russian teams since the 2002 Olympiad - despite being ranked first in the last five Olympiads they have never finished first.

A tie for number one in Istanbul 2012 (second on tiebreak to Armenia) and clear first in the 2013 World Team Championship in Antalya suggested that captain Yury Dokhoian had the ship sailing smoothly but nothing has gone right for the Russians in Tromso and with their present score of four match wins, a loss (a 3-1 drubbing by the Czech Republic yesterday) and two draws they will need to win four consecutive match wins and have a great deal of luck if they hope to take first place. Considering the enormous sums of money that have been spent on the team (they had a training camp before the event, a captain and two coaches in Tromso and flew in on a private plane from Moscow) this has to be a huge disappointment so far.  Russia is a country that prides itself on being the greatest chess nation in the world and to hold neither the individual World Championship (Kramnik was the last Russian champion back in 2007) or the Chess Olympiad title has to be disappointing for them.

Leading the event with 13 match points is 8th seeded Azerbaijan led by Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Teimour Radjabov.  The hosts for the 2016 Chess Olympiad, the Azeris have done very well in European Team Championship (gold in 2009 and 2013, silver in 2011 and bronze in 2007) but never medaled on a larger stage be it an Olympiad or World Team Championship. This might change in Tromso but they are going to face strong teams done the stretch starting with a youthful Chinese squad that is one match point back but has already beaten fifth seed Hungary and drawn with Russia. Yu Yangyi, its 20-year-old star, has 6 from 7, good for a tournament performance rating of 2877 to date.

The United States team, seeded sixth, got off to a slow start, losing to 11th seed Netherlands 1.5-2.5 in round three in a match they might easily have won. They have bounced back since then and are now tied for sixth with 11 match points and face a big test today in Hungary which has Peter Leko on board one and Judit Polgar on board 4. The high scorers for the team are Alex Onischuk (board three) and Sam Shankland (reserve) who collectively have 11.5 out of 12!

Things are much different in the Womens competition where there were fewer potential medal winners heading into the start of the competition. Before round one there were around 20 teams that could potentially medal in the Open competition (and another half a dozen or so that might contend for first) but in the Womens the numbers were smaller with roughly a dozen teams potential medal contenders and the traditional big four of China, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia head and shoulders above the field.  What could prove to be the decisive match for the gold medals was played yesterday in round six when China met Russia. Both teams were undefeated going in and the result was expected to be close but Russia won the match quite easily by the score of 3-1, aided by Kateryna Lagno’s obtaining a winning position against Hou Yifan right out of the opening. Having beaten rivals China and Georgia already, and with Ukraine struggling, the Russian women are in a strong position.

The US Women are fighting for medals with four rounds remaining. Currently tied for fifth with 11 match points they have only lost to China. Last minute replacement Sabina Foisor (filling in for Anna Sharevich who could not get a visa) is doing fantastic to the delight of Captain Melik Khachian and US team Coach Yury Shulman. Sabina has won all five games she has played on board four while Tatev Abrahamian is an undefeated 4.5 from 6 on board three.

The action in Tromso is not limited to the chess board. The FIDE General Assembly starts today and elections for the Continental Presidents are on the agenda. It’s possible that the hotly contested vote for President between incumbent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and Garry Kasparov will be decided today or tomorrow, but it could be as late as Tuesday depending on how quickly the Delegates work their way through the agenda. The United States is represented by Zonal President Franc Guadalupe, Delegate Michael Khodarkovsky, USCF President Ruth Haring, USCF Executive Director Jean Hoffman, plus Walter Brown, Sophia Rohde and Tony Rich who are serving on various FIDE Committees. 

Every Olympiad has it strong and weak points and Tromso is definitely one of the better ones in recent memory. It’s playing hall doesn’t compare to Turin 2006 which had unlimited space, good ventilation and plenty of natural light, but the town is beautiful and ideal for long walks favored by both US national teams.  The organizers have done an excellent job  housing the record turnout (177 in the Open and 136 in the Womens Section) in a town of 70,000 although this has required some players to live in close quarters (the room I share with US team coach Wesley So is about 8 by 12). The expense of eating out (appetizers around $20 and main entries starting at $40) is attributable both to the high standard of living in Norway and the logistical costs of transporting items over 1100 miles from Oslo to Tromso (roughly the same distance as London to Rome) but the buffets in the hotels have been good although the choices are starting to look familiar after a week here.