Preview & Predictions for the 2016 Chess Olympiad

In a couple of days, the 42nd Chess Olympiad will be assembling in Baku, Azerbaijan which sits off the Caspian Sea. Attendees will have an idyllic view of the famous seafront as they represent the flags of 176 countries. There are few sporting events like the Chess Olympiad… perhaps it is unique in its scope and diversity. There are few events where you have so many nations and so many different skill levels competing. The fact that you have professional chess players mixing with the general populace makes it quite appealing. In fact, professional players extol the opportunity to be close with their fans as it becomes more of a chess festival.

The skyline of Baku, Azerbaijan

There have been a few reports released by the organizers and by all accounts, it has the makings of being a top flight event. However, there will be a number of notable absentees. Peter Doggers penned preview at chess.com titled “Who Is (and Who Isn’t) Playing The Olympiad?” While teams like Russia, the U.S., China and host Azerbaijan are fully-loaded, three-time Olympic champion Armenia will not be in attendance due to the political tensions between the countries. There had been negotiations to provide security needed, but apparently the Armenian players felt that they would not be able to perform under those conditions. According to the chess.com article, GM Smbat Lputian stated,

Not as the Vice President as the Chess Federation but as a chess player I understand the decision of our chess players as taking part in this kind of important tournament they have to possess inner and external peace in order to show their best results. It’s a pity that according to chess players given the current situation Armenian-Azerbaijani relationship the latter is not possible.

Armenian players competed in World Cup tournament last year in Baku, but there is no report on their experience. Be that as it may, a powerful force missing at the Olympiad means that a number of other federations will have a shot. Teams like Cuba and Poland will become instant contenders and India looks to repeat last year’s success. Azerbaijan will have the addition of Arkadij Naiditsch, the host country will fill the strength gap of Vugar Gashimov, but of course the fallen Azeri’s loss was a blow to the teams camaraderie. The country will field three teams with Azeri 2 poised to attack strong teams in order to help Azeri 1… as in a cycling competition. Perhaps they have ambitions of their own!

PREVIEW – Open Section

Looking at the landscape of the Olympiad, many top players will not be present, but before we list them, it is important to note that both Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin will be playing for Norway and Russia respectively. Here are the list of active heavyweights who will not be traveling with their national teams (both open and women’s).

Viswanathan Anand (India)
Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukraine)
Peter Leko (Hungary)
Boris Gelfand (Israel)
Emil Sutovsky (Israel)
Etienne Bacrot (France)
Krishnan Sasikiran (India)
Julio Granda-Zuniga (Peru)
Ivan Cheparinov (Bulgaria)
Kiril Georgiev (Bulgaria)
Alexander Delchev (Bulgaria)
Humpy Koneru (India)
Tatev Abrahamyan (USA)

Without these top players (especially in the case of Bulgaria), the teams will certainly have an uphill battle, but young players will be looking to capitalize off of the opportunity. Also in the Internet age, we will see how much the gap has closed. First-round upsets are looming throughout the playing hall as we routinely see players from developing federations taking scalps. Asian countries continue to make strides and bagged the gold and bronze in Tromso. Such success will be difficult to repeat. Here are the top 20 teams and their top player (by rating).

2016 Chess Olympiad Tournament
September 1st-14th, 2016 (Baku, Azerbaijan)

TEAM RANKING (Open)
#
Federation
Flag
Team ELO
Top Player
Rating
1 Russia
2760 GM Vladimir Kramnik 2808
2 USA
2740 GM Fabiano Caruana 2807
3 China
2735 GM Wang Yue 2737
4 Azerbaijan
2705 GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov 2764
5 Ukraine
2688 GM Pavel Eljanov 2737
6 France
2678 GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2819
7 Poland
2677 GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek 2733
8 England
2672 GM Michael Adams 2727
9 Hungary
2656 GM Richard Rapport 2752
10 Netherlands
2654 GM Anish Giri 2769
11 India
2651 GM Pentala Harikrishna 2752
12 Germany
2644 GM Georg Meier 2657
13 Spain
2628 GM Francisco Vallejo Pons 2713
14 Cuba
2622 GM Leinier Dominguez Perez 2720
15 Israel
2622 GM Maxim Rodshtein 2698
16 Croatia
2619 GM Ivan Saric 2667
17 Norway
2613 GM Magnus Carlsen 2857
18 Czech Republic
2604 GM David Navara 2742
19 Belarus
2602 GM Sergei Zhigalko 2656
20 Turkey
2599 GM Dragan Solak 2633
Team Rosters (Open)

China’s Ni Hua hoists the cup at the 2014 Olympiad in Tromso, Norway.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

PREDICTIONS – Open Section
USA – GOLD

It’s been a long time since the USA has won an Olympiad tournament and even longer since they were the odds-on favorite. With bronze medals in 2006 and 2008, the Americans looks to get the gold medal with with the most powerful team in the country’s history. With the “Murderer’s Row” of Fabiano Caruana (2807), Hikaru Nakamura (2791) and Wesley So (2771), anything less than a medal would be considered a disappointment.

Hikaru Nakamura making several statements today.

In their version of “Murderer’s Row,” Hikaru Nakamura could score big.
Photo by Lennart Ootes.

With So coming off of a strong performance in the Sinquefield, the team seems to be top heavy. However, they have the talented Ray Robson and Samuel Shankland who won a gold medal in Tromso with a sparkling 9/10. The key here will be whether the disparate parts fit together in this young team. Figuring out what to do with the top three boards is a luxury no team can boast… not even Russia.

China – SILVER

The defending Olympiad champions have been riding high since their emotional, tear-soaked celebration. It was the culmination and perhaps a relief of all the frustrations from the past. Ni Hua lead the team with solid result avenging his disastrous loss to cost China the gold medal in the 2005 World Team Championship. He retired from the national team with a clear conscience.

Yu Yangyi being and Li Chao share a light moment at 2011 World Team Championships. Cameraderie is one of the recipes of traditional success for China. Many of these players evolved as school kids together. Photo by Wang Liang, https://sports.sina.com.cn/chess/.

The good part is the Chinese team is young with Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi dominating lower board. Ding had 7.5/10 and Yu scored 9.5/11 carrying the team to gold. This team will feature Li Chao, who like Wang Hao, missed Tromso. How is it that you can leave three 2700s at home and still win? With the rise of Wei Yi and the rock-solid pedigree of Wang Yue on board one, China is in a good position to medal once again.

Azerbaijan – BRONZE

Eltaj Safarli was glad to boast to me about Azerbaijan beating the US while we stood in the airport line. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov’s win in the last round helped prevent the Americans from the medal stand. The result did not win the bronze for the Azeris, but allowed India to sneak in after the overachievers beat Germany and crushed a beleaguered Uzbekistan. Ironically, Germany’s Arkadij Naiditsch changed federations and will play his first Olympiad the Azerbaijan. Thus, the host country is the beneficiary of migratory talent.

Arkadij Naiditsch before beating Magnus Carlsen
2014 Chess Olympiad, Tromso, Norway
Photo Paul Truong.

The buzz in the chess world was that the Latvian-born Naiditsch was approached by Azeri officials and he switched into a better situation. The reason that Azerbaijan will be in the medal hunt is obvious. They are seeded 4th, they have Shakh and Radja (Teimour Radjabov), they have home court advantage which includes immense support of the country. The chemistry is also incredible and has resulted in two European Team Championships. With the addition of Naiditsch (as a reserve!), the team will be in medal contention.

Russia

Vladmir Kramnik has been battling health problems lately and withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup as a result. Having “Big Vlad” is extremely important as he provides veteran leadership and steadiness at the top. However, Russia has not won the tournament since Bled, Slovenia in 2002 when Garry Kasparov was still running the tables. The Russian team has lacked chemistry and they have tried many different lineups, never finding the formula for gold. Despite their lofty rating, they will have to overcome this issue and Andrei Filatov is tasked with this job.

In Anish Giri’s book on candidates to dethrone Carlsen, ten players were featured. Sergey Karjakin was not one of them. Will this outing be an important confidence builder going into the match in November, or confidence breaker? Photo by Amrita Mokal.

Sergey Karjakin had medal outstanding performances with the Ukraine and scored 7/10 for Russia in Tromso. Will he be thinking about withholding preparation while Magnus Carlsen hides some of his (playing weaker teams)? Who will step up for Russia? Evgeny Tomashevsky hopes to bring his World Cup performance with him to Baku. If the lower boards don’t score, Russia may be off the medal stand.

Cuba


GM Lazaro Bruzon was in fine form in Tromso.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

A surprise pick for the top five, but this team has been itching to break through. The team that brought us Jose Raul Capablanca is ranked 14th, but has the same five core of players. Perhaps this group may not have quite enough to take a medal, but if Lazaro Bruzon gets 8/11 as he did in Tromso, the team may improve on their 7th place. Beating India, Israel and England was a feat, but the team will rely on the stability of Isan Suarez Ortiz. Ortiz won a silver medal on board 4 in Tromso. One x-factor is the chemistry. These players have been seen traveling the world representing the Cuban flag with great passion and valor. In a time where emerging nations are beginning to flex muscles, Cuba’s time to medal may be now.

REVIEW – Women’s Section

In the women’s field, the usual suspects are at full strength with three-time defending champion Russia leading the way with top-seed China on their heels and both the Ukraine and Georgia fielding strong teams. GM Humpy Koneru of India is not suiting up this year so it paves the way for one of the many talented juniors. Play in the women’s sector has stagnated a bit as China is the only team over 2500 and only four are over 2400. This issue may be taken up by the FIDE Women’s Commission on Chess as there has been problems in the championship cycle as well. In fact. Hou Yifan has already given hints that she will abandon the cycle if not reformed. Nevertheless, the games will be hotly-contested as the field will try to break the Russian streak.

2016 Chess Olympiad Tournament
September 1st-14th, 2016 (Baku, Azerbaijan)

TEAM RANKING (Women)
#
Federation
Flag
Team ELO
Top Player
Rating
1 China
2528 GM Hou Yifan 2658
2 Russia
2493 GM Alexandra Kosteniuk 2538
3 Ukraine
2485 GM Anna Muzychuk 2544
4 Georgia
2474 GM Nana Dzagnidze 2529
5 India
2410 GM Dronavali Harika 2542
6 USA
2376 GM Irina Krush 2444
7 Hungary
2374 GM Hoang Thanh Trang 2467
8 Germany
2371 IM Elisabeth Paehtz 2476
9 Poland
2360 GM Monika Socko 2454
10 Bulgaria
2346 GM Antoaneta Stefanova 2515
Team Rosters (Women)

Kateryna Lagno defeated Hou Yifan
in a key game in 2014 China-Russia match!
Photo Paul Truong.

PREDICTIONS – Open Section
China – GOLD

China has been dominant in the women’s circuit for nearly two decades. They have scored twelve Olympiad medals in the last thirteen tournaments (four gold, four silver, four bronze). However, the last three Olympiad have been won by Russia. The disappointment of the Chinese has been apparent at the closing ceremonies, but perhaps they will be more focused. For a country with four women’s world champions and talented juniors emerging, the country is not satisfied with the past laurels. Nothing short of gold will be sought for. Hou will be at the helm and she has a strong supporting cast.

Will Zhao Xue get one of her Fischer-like scores?

Will Zhao Xue get one of her Fischer-like scores?

Zhao Xue is now 31 year old. It seems like only a few years ago that she was rolling up prodigious scores as a teenager (11/12, 2002 Bled Olympiad; 10/12, 2004 Calvia Olympiad; 10/13, 2006 Turin Olympiad). Her results are still strong, but consistency is not always there. Ju Wenjun has taken up the role of executioner scoring 8/11 in Tromso. As a team, Chinese lost only to Russia (3-1), but is fielding the same exact team with the idea of keeping stability. This may be the last Olympiad before the country of 1.4 billion unleashes a wave of young talent.

Russia – SILVER

This team is still solid and even better chemistry with the wunderkind Aleksandra Goryachkina having come up through the national ranks. Kateryna Lahno won a medal, but the Ukrainian transfer is not in the team in Baku. Yet they have a credible chance to defend their crown. In Tromso, Valentina Guinina scored a prodigious 8/10 to take the gold medal on board two. Alexandra Kosteniuk is back on board one after a gold medal performance of 7.5/9 on board three. Both Natalia Pogonina and Girya Olga were on the gold-medal team in Tromso and are both seasoned veterans.

“Threepeat” for the Russian women in Tromso, Norway!
Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

One to keep an eye on is the 17-year old Goryachkina. She is a heavily-decorated as the World Under-10 Girls Champion in 2008, the European Under-12 Girls Champion in 2010, and both the European and World U14 Girls Champion in 2011 (scoring 9/9 in the latter). In the last four years, she has continued her dominance winning both the European and World U18 Girls Championships in 2012 and winning World Junior Girls Championship in 2013 and 2014. She helped Russia win silver last year at the World Team Championship in Reykjavik and also bagged a silver medal on board three. Last August she won the Russian Women’s Superfinal becoming the youngest national champion since Kosteniuk.

The future of Russian women’s chess, Alexandra Goryachkina.
Photo by Fred Lucas.

Ukraine – BRONZE

With two former women’s world champions (Anna Ushenina and Mariya Muzychuk) and one player having been over 2600 (Anna Muzychuk), the Ukraine hopes to bring the gold back to the Ukraine. With political tensions in the troubled nation, two defections (Sergey Karjakin and Kateryna Lahno) and Vassily Ivanchuk nixing the games for draughts tournament, it would be a sweet victory. In the past 20 years, only five teams have won a medal of any color: China (9), Russia (9), Georgia (5), Ukraine (4) and Poland (1).

Mariya and sister Anna after advancing to the final.

Mariya Muzychuk and sister Anna Muzychuk. The strongest pair of sisters since the retirement of the Nadezhda Kosintseva and Tatiana Kosintseva of Russia.

The Ukraine won the title in 2006 and silver in 2008 before the inclusion of the Muzychuk sisters. Anna was recruited, sponsored by and played for Slovenia for ten years while Mariya was making a move up the ranks. Natalia Zhukova and Anna Gaponenko are wily veterans having represented the Ukraine in several Olympiad tournaments.

Georgia

The 2018 Chess Olympiad will be hosted in Tblisi, Georgia, a country with a strong chess tradition. In fact, it is the women who carry most of the trophy hardware. Bolstered by the world champion tradition of Nona Gaprindashvili (1962-1978) and her protege Maia Chiburdanidze (1978-1991), both have left the tradition in capable hands. Nana Dzagnidze has been the top player for years and was a member of the Georgian team that won the gold medal in 2008. Ironically, she was not a member of the team that won the Women’s world team last year.

Mariya and sister Anna after advancing to the final.

Georgian winning the World Team last year in Chegdu, China.
Photo by Liu Yupeng.

Four members of the current Olympiad team were on that winning team. Bela Khotenashvili scored 7.5/9 points led the team with a 2699-elo performance and board medal while Lela Javakhishvili, Meri Arabidze, Nino Batsiashvili and Salome Melia were also . Arabidze is not in the team despite being a star performer at World Team.

India

Without Koneru Humpy on board one, it is hard to see India compete for a medal, but the Indian men showed how to beat the odds by winning bronze without Viswanathan Anand. India is blessed with a wave of young talent but will be led by Dronavali Harika and rising star Padmini Rout. Rout won a gold medal on the reserve board in Tromso, but has vaulted up to board two. Her improvement has been rapid and she has played internationally in the USA and Europe.

WGM Padmini Rout, the Indian star with her trademark wealth of hair,
had a wonderful performance with 7.5/8.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz.

The youngest member of the team is Pratyusha Bodda a past under-17 champion. Now 18, she has won in practically every national age group and is from the same region as Koneru and Harika. Here she is being interviewed prior to her press conference announcing her WIM title.

The Indian team has a nice mixture of veteran leadership in Harika, the youth of Rout and Bodda and the fighting spirit of Tania Sachdev and Soumya Swaminathan.

Soumya Swaminathan
Photo by Fred Lucas.

* * *

Drum Coverage: https://www1.bakuchessolympiad.com/https://www.thechessdrum.net/

Predictions: 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012

Daaim Shabazz

Daaim Shabazz is the founder of The Chess Drum, while serving as a tenured faculty member of Global Business & Marketing at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, USA. He holds a B.S. Computer Science from Chicago State University, an MBA in Marketing and a Ph.D. in International Affairs & Development, both from Clark Atlanta University. He has served the journalist community for more than 30 years and still competes in tournaments occasionally.

2 Comments

  1. 2016 Chess Olympiad: Round #11
    Tuesday, 13 September 2016

    Open Section

    USA 2½-1½ Canada
    Ukraine 3½-½ Ukraine
    Russia 3-1 Italy
    Turkmenistan 1-3 Azerbaijan 1
    India 2-2 Norway

    Full Results

    Finally… the USA can call themselves Olympic champions in chess for the first time in 40 years! Led by Fabiano Caruana and with a strong supporting cast, the Americans edged out the Ukraine on tiebreaks despite the latter’s stirring 3½-½ win over Slovenia. After the legendary Alexander Beliavsky resigned, Pavel Eljanov broke out in jubilant emotion perhaps thinking that such a result would have secured the gold medal. With the team missing their top player, it was a fantastic result and such a victory would have been deserving. However, the USA pipped the Ukrainians and were one of two undefeated teams in the open section. The other? Not Ukraine, not Russia, but Greece (+4 =6)!!

    The day started with fairly safe predictions… the favorite would win on the top three board and snare the medals, but the order of the medals was in doubt. USA was playing their northerly neighbor and despite wonderful relations, Canada wanted to spoil the party. Caruana was simply too strong for Evgeny Bareev who is playing in his first Olympiad for Canada. Hikaru drew comfortably with Anton Kovalyov and Wesley So continued his dominance, by crushing Alexander Lesiege, the former Canadian ace.

    A side story surrounds Canada’s fourth Eric Hansen, who is very popular and well-liked in American circles. He has competed in many open tournaments and most recently has handled commentary at major event at the St. Louis Chess Club. So… when Hansen had to replace Maurice Ashley, he had to take over interviewing duties. He was quickly chided for the types of questions he would ask and it soon became an Internet parody. In fact, Caruana wore a shirt to the match poking fun at Hansen’s line of questioning.

    Hansen took the joke well, but then was able to beat a very in-form Sam Shankland and serve as spoiler for his board medal quest. The game was an interesting Ruy Lopez and of course white spurned a draw offer and went forward with 22.g4. Shankland went astray, perhaps seeing that his teammates were comfortably ahead. Hansen seized the initiative, planted a knight on e6 and black’s position collapsed quickly. However, after So mopped up Lesiege, the gold was a matter of verification.

    World Champion Magnus Carlsen had a creditable tournament leading Norway to their highest position in history… 5th place. He scored 7.5/10 and was satisfied with the team’s performance. However, he made a rather unfortunate and classless comment about the USA’s victory.

    The reaction was swift and although it was clearly tongue-in-cheek, it was in poor taste and something that he has mentioned before. The truth is (and apparently unbeknownst to a sizable portion of the chess world), Caruana was born in Miami and raised in Brooklyn and after spending 10 years in Europe, returned to his native country. Although he has dual citizenship, he has never been a permanent resident in Italy.

    Perhaps Carlsen’s comment is more of the continued spite of an American victory. Such sentiment is very widespread in Europe and is no doubt a side effect of America’s repugnant foreign policy decisions for the past 50 years. Nevertheless, this team is hard to criticize. Wesley So was the star of the team and now a gold medalist (9/11)… Caruana got a bronze.

    For Hikaru (7.5/11) and Shankland (5.5/8), they had decent results as well. Finally, Robson (3/5) who at 21, still has a bright future ahead. There is also a pipeline of talent which includes 2600-rated teen GMs Jeffrey Xiong and Samuel Sevian. This victory will certainly inspire yet another generation of players. Furthermore, the landscape is changing in chess. The USA is now a perennial contender, but in the top 25 you had teams such as India, Turkey, Peru, Iran, Paraguay, Brazil and Cuba. Certainly the balance of power has shifted and the Olympiad is gradually living its motto.

    Thanks for a wonderful tournament Baku. See you in Batumi in 2018… inshallah!

    Medal Standings

    GOLD-USA

    SILVER-Ukraine

    BRONZE-Russia

    Winners: Ukraine (silver), USA (gold), Russia (bronze)

    Winners: Ukraine (silver), USA (gold), Russia (bronze)
    Photo by Maria-Emelianova

    Women’s Section

    China 2½-1½ Russia
    Hungary ½-3½ Poland
    Ukraine 3-1 Bulgaria
    Azerbaijan 1 3-1 Malaysia
    USA 2-2 India

    Full Results

    China was heading into the last round needing at least a draw to secure their first gold medal since 2004. The last game to finish was two champions, Hou Yifan and Alexandra Kosteniuk. For Russia, it was not to be. Not only did they fail to defend their title, they failed to medal. For China it was a relief after having earned three consecutive silver medals behind Russia.

    Guo Qi was one of four Chinese
    to win a board medal.

    During the closing ceremonies in Istanbul, the Chinese women were visibly upset. In Tromso, they were a bit more spirited, but certainly the quest for gold never left their minds. The Chinese team in 2018 may have a decided different look. Perhaps Zhao Xue at 31 is making her last stand and if so, will go out with a gold medal (as Ni Hua did in 2014). The rise to Tan Zhongyi is a very good sign and according to Zhao, there is a lot of talent in the pipeline.

    For Poland, it was a triumphant tournament and was their highest placement, a fact readily celebrated in social media. The Ukraine was able to continue their string of success with Anna Muzychuk ensconced on board one next to her sister Mariya and a former world champion on board four! Ukraine, a battle-scarred country, had a good result and won the Gaprindashvili Cup for the federation with the best combined result. To return to Ukraine with silver and bronze is quite a feat and they will be showered with a hero’s welcome in Kiev.

    Medal Standings (Women)

    GOLD-China

    SILVER-Poland

    BRONZE-Ukraine

    Winners: Poland (silver), China (gold), Ukraine (bronze)

    Winners: Poland (silver), China (gold), Ukraine (bronze)
    Photo by Maria-Emelianova

    Video by GM Daniel King

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