Handicapping the U.S. Olympiad Teams
By FM Mike Klein   
October 27, 2008
Can our olympiad men’s team top their 2006 bronze-medal performance?  With a world championship candidate and a murderer’s row of players backing him up, the chances are "yes.”

Brace yourself for the next six weeks of chess. GMs Vladimir Kramnik and Viswanathan Anand will play a world championship match, followed shortly thereafter by GMs Veselin Topalov and Gata Kamsky squaring off for the right to challenge the winner. But if nationalism is what you are looking for, your post-Beijing olympics lull can be satiated at the upcoming chess olympiad, to be played this month from November 12-25 in Dresden, Germany.

The United States will field its strongest team ever in the men’s division. The quintet of GMs will be led by Gata Kamsky, the country’s highest-rated player (FIDE 2723 as of July). Kamsky’s appearance is somewhat surprising but nonetheless appreciated by domestic chess fans—his planned match with Topalov is slated to begin the day after the olympiad ends (whether that match will take place as planned remains to be seen, but the dates and location of Lvov, Ukraine have been guaranteed by FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov). Kamsky, 34, is a top-20 world player who took a seven-year hiatus from chess, eventually returning to lead the U.S. team to bronze in the 2006 Olympiad in Turin, Italy. Although he has the lowest career olympiad percentage of any of his teammates (56½ percent in two events), Kamsky often faces 2750+ competition round after round.

Close behind on rating and presumptive board two is GM Hikaru Nakamura (FIDE 2697), the youngest member of the team. Although Nakamura, 20, deferred his board two status at the Turin Olympiad, he has gained 33 points and has acquired heaps of experience since 2006. In a recent interview, Nakamura promised to play more mainstream openings going forward. He played 11 of 13 rounds at the last olympiad, going +4=6-1 (63.6 percent), and his youth means he may play nearly every round in this edition too.

GM Alexander Onischuk is the third-highest-rated team member at 2670. He is one year Kamsky’s junior but has played in no less than five olympiads totaling 54 games, scoring a respectable 60.2 percent overall (his first three appearances were with the Ukranian delegation, but he moved to the U.S. in 2001). Onischuk is also the only American left from the 2004 team.

Board four will be occupied by GM Yury Shulman, who will be competing in his first olympiad for the U.S squad. He automatically qualified by winning the 2008 U.S. Chess Championship. Shulman is also 33 and he will surely be eager to get back to the olympiad after a decade break. He played three times for his native Belarus in the 1990s, scoring 65½ percent, the best career record on the current team.

The American men will take GM Varuzhan Akobian as their lone alternate. The Armenian-born talent will turn 25 in the middle of the tournament. Akobian, rated 2610, was in a virtual dead-heat for the final spot with GM Alex Shabalov (who was actually one point higher on the July FIDE rating list). But according to USCF qualification rules, a sliding scale of bonus rating points are awarded for players under the age of 26 (the complete formula also factors in USCF rating, peak ratings and has minimum activity requirements). Akobian’s ten extra points for being 24 years old netted him the final spot. He will look to play as well as he did in Turin, where the U.S. used him often in the early rounds and he delivered with a +3=3-1 performance (64.3 percent).

The team chose as its captain IM John Donaldson and will be one of the pre-tournament favorites to medal; they will likely enter as a top-five seed.

“The olympiads keep getting stronger and stronger,” Donaldson said. “My first time as captain was 1986 and few teams had all-grandmaster lineups much less all players over 2600. I expect in Dresden there will be at least a dozen teams with average ratings over this benchmark. The competition will be very tough.”

The current installment of American women will be a blend of veteran talent and less familiar faces. Top player IM Irina Krush, 24, is the likely number-one board. Her tremendous history at four olympiads (including the last three) has yielded a 69.1 percentage over 47 games (the most by any American woman on this year’s team). Although this would be the first year she has played top board since 2002, it was there in Bled, Slovenia that she went undefeated, remarkable since she played 13 out of 14 rounds. She will arrive in Dresden with her highest-ever olympiad rating—2470.

Current U.S. Women’s Champion WGM Anna Zatonskih, 30, played board one for the women’s squad in 2006 but is once again outrated by Krush and may cede her the top board. The two women have a lot in common—both were born in the Ukraine and both have played in four past olympiads (Zatonskih’s first two trips were under the Ukrainian flag). Additionally, the duo were part of the 2004 silver medal team, the only top-three finish in American history. Led by GM Susan Polgar, that team’s average FIDE rating was 2490, the highest-ever for the Americans, whereas this year’s team is 2375, its lowest since 2000.

Occupying board three will be fellow WGM Rusudan Goletiani, 28, three-time World Youth chess champion and a native of the republic of Georgia. This will be her second olympiad. Goletiani is rated 2359. In 2006 she scored six wins, five draws and a single loss, for a 70.8 percent score, the best of any American competing in Dresden.

Olympiad newcomers WGM Katerina Rohonyan, 24, and WFM Tatev Abrahamyan, 20, will round out the team. Rohonyan is the third Ukrainian-American on the women’s team and Abrahamyan, like Akobian, got the selection based partly on the age bonus. She gets 30 bonus rating points for being 20 years old, which narrowly edged her past both WGM Camilla Baginskaite and WIM Batchimeg Tuvshintugs.

The women’s team will be an underdog to medal but will be aided by the experienced support staff of Captain Michael Khodarkovsky and Coach GM Gregory Kaidanov. Gregory will not play after a string of six consecutive olympiads he competed in from 1996-2006 (over which time he chalked up one team silver, two team bronzes, and one individual silver for going +6=4-0 on board four in Calvia, Spain in 2004).

To follow all the action, go to the official web site of the 2008 Olympiad—dresden2008.de and also look for regular updates on uschess.org as well as an in-depth feature in February 2009 in these pages.

The Olympiad

Structure, history and rule changes for 2008

The chess olympiad is chess’ premier team event. The biennial contest pits the top male and female players from nearly every FIDE country against one another in a Swiss system pairing format. The best player from one country will play the best player from the opposing country, and so forth on down to fourth board.

This year is the 37th running of the olympiad, which was first held unofficially in conjunction with the summer olympics in Paris in 1924 (FIDE was born on the final day). The first official olympiad took place three years later in London. Like the summer and winter olympics, the chess olympiad awards medals to the top three finishers. Both team and individual medals are awarded, with the former being the focus. The American men have compiled five team gold medals (the last in 1976), five silver medals and seven bronzes. Their first medal was a silver in 1928, where the team was led by GM Isaac Kashdan, who remains the most successful American ever at the event. His lifetime record was +52=22-5, or 79.7 percent—better than GM Garry Kasparov and fourth to only former World Champions and GMs Mikhail Tal, Anatoly Karpov and Tigran Petrosian. Kashdan would go on to help the U.S. win three of its four gold medals of the 1930s. The last men’s medal was a bronze in 2006, where team members performed at a 2656 level. They have a lifetime record of +920=887-309 (64.4 percent) spanning 33 olympiads.

This year Russia comes in as the heavy favorite. Trying to rebound from their disastrous sixth-place finish in 2006, the six-time champions’ lineup consists of GMs Vladimir Kramnik, Alexander Morozevich, Peter Svidler, Alexander Grischuk and Dmitry Jakovenko. Their FIDE average is a gaudy 2750, the highest for any team in history.

As of the registration deadline, 135 federations nominated teams to compete; in 2006 an all-time high 148 nation teams played. From IM Jacob Aagaard of Scotland to Arne Zwaig of Norway, a total of 5,512 men have competed in at least one olympiad. Only two have perfect scores in a minimum of nine games—Alexander Alekhine in 1930 and IM Robert Gwaze in 2002. No country has played in all 36 events but several have missed only one.

The women’s olympiad began in 1957 and now coincides with the men’s event. The Americans are not as well known here, having won only a lone silver in 2004. They finished fourth in 2006 and have a lifetime record of +314=227-221 (56.1 percent) over 20 olympiads. China is the most decorated country in recent history, with four consecutive gold medals from 1998-2004. Their women have medaled in nine olympiads in a row and have never finished worse than sixth in their 14 appearances.

The Dresden incarnation has installed some significant rule changes, causing some to dub this the “reform olympiad.” Men’s teams will now only have one alternate (down from two) and women’s teams will now have four boards competing (up from three). The uniform “four plus one” system makes full equality amongst the two tournaments. This will generally benefit countries that have deep women’s programs and may also benefit countries with younger men—the reduction in alternates means top players will now have to play more in early rounds and fatigue may become an issue. Perhaps to partially offset this, the tournament has been reduced from 14 rounds (women played 13) to 11. In addition, match points are now the scoring system instead of game points, making for some intriguing decision making by players.

Other rule changes include barring teams from changing team members at the last minute and abolishing all draws before move 30. Players are now required to show up on time for each game and shake hands to commence play or they will be forfeited.