Let the Games Begin in Dresden
By FM Mike Klein   
November 13, 2008
The church in the background, Frauenkirche, was bombed during WWII but was recently rebuilt.

"If it just so happens that I not only recognize what is bad and ugly, but also know what is beautiful, it is because I had the good fortune to grow up in Dresden,” wrote city native Erich Kastner. “I was able to inhale beauty.”
Ten American men and women will be looking to add their own brushstrokes to checkered canvases over the next fortnight as the 38th Chess Olympiad convenes in Dresden, the Saxon capital of Germany. A record 154 open teams and 116 women’s teams are scheduled to compete. The first round is today at 3:00 p.m. local time, 9:00 a.m. on the East Coast. The American men are seeded 10th. In a battle of economically-distressed countries, they are slated to face 45th-seed Iceland in the first round, a team with three GMs and an IM. The women’s contingent, ranked 7th, drew 34th-ranked Montenegro for their first match.  In the opening round, both teams are already adjusting lineups for strategic reasons. GM Hikaru Nakamura will sit for the men and IM Irina Krush for the women.

These are a much tougher matchups than normal for the U.S. delegation (however all eight players will still be favorites) and they are a result of the accelerated pairings in place, one of many important rule changes for this Olympiad. Accelerated pairings have been utilized before. According to Men’s Team Captain IM John Donaldson, they were also used in 1990 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. In addition, no draws by agreement will be allowed in the first 30 moves, nor will last-minute roster changes be permitted. Men and women will both pay an identical four boards plus one alternate format, but the tournament was reduced to 11 rounds and winners will be decided by match points instead of game points. The most discussed new rule states that players must not only be in the playing hall but must actually be at their board when the round commences, or they will be forfeited. Dr. Dirk Jordan, chairman of the Olympiad, explained at the opening press conference that the rule is meant to align chess with all other sporting events. U.S. team alternate Varuzhan Akobian said he played under the rule at the World Mind Sports Games in Beijing, and despite a countdown announcement as the round approached, several players did not make it. The consensus is that this will recur at some point here in Dresden – the question remains how strict the organizers and Chief Arbiter Ignatius Leong will enforce the rule.

The players have spent the past few days convening, preparing, meeting and sightseeing. Most of the men’s team arrived Monday and Tuesday, while all five women arrived Wednesday. At a relaxed dinner Tuesday night, several members of the men’s team commiserated amidst the tranquility of what may be one of their only nights away from the playing or dining halls. Each player added their own element to the fold. GM Alexander Onischuk helped translate the German menus and provided grandmaster advice to GM Yuri Shulman on the different styles of beer. The ever-jovial Shulman provided equal parts joke-telling and geography wisdom, while Akobian, easily the freshest face of the lot, leaned forward inquisitively throughout the conversations, eagerly absorbing travel anecdotes. Akobian’s path to Dresden actually started in Brussels and backtracked to Amsterdam before he continued on to Germany; he said simply that he had never been to Belgium or The Netherlands (he preferred the beauty of the former).

A happy team: GM Alexander Onischuk, GM Varuzhan Akobian and GM Yury Shulman

For his part, Donaldson provided historical context to past Olympiads and German history in general. He ended the evening by taking the three team members on a jaunt around the old town in a search for the famous Frauenkirche, a church destroyed by the firebombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945 and recently fully restored and reopened in 2005. Donaldson’s track record as team captain is nonpareil. In his seven previous appointments (1986-1996, 2006), the team has medaled four times, and he is also two-for-two in World Team Championships.

He said his role has changed throughout the years. In Dubai 1986, his innovative approach to preparation included building exhaustive dossiers by cutting, copying, pasting, and then delivering them to team members each morning over breakfast, a technique relished by the players. Donaldson said the only problem was cleaning the files of mustard stains and other detritus from the morning meal. (To show how far tournaments have come since then, consider that the computer pairing system in Dubai flashed “overload” warnings when more than 100 teams entered). The captain said the players mostly handle their own analysis these days – technology has made it so – but he now realizes that keeping his players healthy is as important as anything else, especially with only having one alternate this year. He recounted the Yerevan, Armenia Olympiad in 1996 where only three members of the U.S. men’s or women’s squads remained healthy throughout. “Somewhere in the world, it is always flu season,” Donaldson said. “Wash hands, warm water, 20 seconds,” he half-joked.

Donaldson also said Akobian will likely play more than half of the games to give each of the other players a chance to rest. Donaldson said he felt one of the strengths of the team is Akobian as the fifth player. Team rankings are based only on the top four boards' ratings, so having Akobian as a 2600+ alternate is an asset. Several teams seeded ahead of the U.S. have a middle or low 2500 as their lone alternate.

Together, GM Gata Kamsky (who arrived on his own), Nakamura (who did not attend dinner as he was recovering from his 3:00 a.m. U.S. Chess League game), Onischuk, Shulman and Akobian average 2673 to form the highest-rated U.S. team in history. All are over 2600 FIDE (Kamsky and Nakamura are 2700+), as opposed to the Dubai Olympiad, when even top-board GM Yasser Seirawan “only” topped-out at 2580 (that team took bronze anyway). Dresden will play host to 28 of the world’s 32 super-GMs, though newly-crowned World Champion Viswanathan Anand is not expected to attend. GM Vladimir Kramnik will play, however, and leads the record-breaking Russian team to a ridiculous 2756 FIDE average.

Other FIDE notes: The team originally had to contend with the possibility that their top player would have to split his focus between the Olympiad and his World Championship Challenger Match with GM Veselin Topalov. The controversy can be summarized by looking through previous posts on uschess.org. Onischuk arrived at the hotel and immediately prompted Donaldson with, “So, is Gata playing?” No one seems hopeful the match will take place in 2008, which will at least allow Kamsky to remain centered on his present task. Donaldson will assume a dual role in Dresden as FIDE Zonal President; even before any delegates meetings he could be seen championing Kamsky’s case to anyone that would listen.  Donaldson will also be on hand to ensure the administration of titles to several Americans at the FIDE Congress.

In round 1, the U.S. Women's team sat their top board, IM Irina Krush

The U.S. Women’s delegation will be lead on first-board by Krush– Team Captain Michael Khodarkovsky said he simply put his players in rating order to decide their position. Krush will be joined, in order, by WGM Anna Zatonskih, WGM Rusudan Goletiani, WGM Katerina Rohonyan and WFM Tatev Abrahamyan. Arriving in the hotel lobby with her hair wet but sporting her omnipresent smile and confidence, Krush took some instructions from Team Coach GM Gregory Kaidanov as to her proper sleep needs. She said she feels no pressure from playing first board, adding, “I don’t get nervous here because I always play well at the Olympiad.” Her statistics back this up – at the age of 24 she has played more games than any other American woman, whilst scoring a shade under 70 percent. In her last Olympiad on board one (Bled 2002), she went undefeated while playing 13 of 14 rounds. Krush does not need much to enjoy her Olympiad experiences. While nearly all the men’s team rejoiced at the five-star hotel in Dresden (as opposed to the stripped-down dorms in Turin 2006), Krush said she preferred the previous accommodations because all the players stayed together (the Americans have the closest hotel to the playing site, while some teams are staying across the River Elbe).


The Olympiad kicked off with an elaborate opening ceremony far from the perfunctory beginnings to most other competitions. Modeled after a Summer or Winter Olympic Games, several thousand players, officials and spectators filled the Freiberger Arena to capacity Wednesday night to witness the spectacle of drummers, ice-skaters and Freddie Mercury impersonators. Players from all over the world drank beer and ate pretzels as the emcee declared chess to be the “only game belonging to all people at all times.” The quintet of drummers may have been dwarfed by Beijing’s 2008 counterparts, but the percussionists gave way to a strange mélange of following acts, including Queen impersonators, a few selections from the musical Chess, and cheerleaders, both with and without ice skates. One number from Chess began with a Van Halen guitar riff, prompting Donaldson to joke of the former East German city: “Communist countries usually favored Heavy Metal. There were no ideological views behind it.” He added later, “They need to change the FIDE anthem to ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols, you know, something with a little zip to it.”


A parade of nations took place, honoring chess powerhouses and newcomers alike. Gabon and Greece shared equal billing with America and Armenia. A surprise guest then took to the ice, as GM Susan Polgar slid across the hockey rink to deliver the Olympiad torch to the rook-shaped flame. Polgar is in Dresden assisting with the press relations.

GM Susan Polgar carries the Olympic torch

Near the close of the ceremony, I decided to talk shop with Donaldson, and asked how he felt about the first round pairing against Egypt, which was displayed near the press center (and after late changes turned out to be inaccurate). This was the first he had heard of it, so team members took turns reading off my notes to see the lineup of the Egyptians. One by one the players checked the names of their likely opponents. Finally Kamsky, seated at the end of the row, took a brief look at his opponent’s name (the young talent GM Ahmed Adly, who has gained 100 points in the last year). After Kamsky gave a facile shrug, Akobian laughed, and the team headed out for dinner. One doubts Iceland poses any difference.
Kamsky shakes hands in his first round game against GM Hannes Stefansson of Iceland

For more info check the official website , the results link and the live games link (seems to be overloaded at start of the round.) Also check out Mike Klein's travel adventure blog and look back for more from him on Dresden in the next weeks.