Reflections on Batumi Olympiad

Back to another Olympiad… another new place… another adventure. I had been to Calvia, Turin, Dresden, Istanbul, Tromso and now would venture to a place abutting the Black Sea in a city known for vintage wineries. Nevertheless, I geared up for this trip not knowing what was to come after a contentious FIDE campaign that had been brewing for months.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

(Tallahassee, Florida to New York)

Hotel Luxor… my destination.

As are most of my international travels, this would be a long journey. I live and work in a rather small, college-oriented town that doubles as the state capitol. Tallahassee, Florida is actually a nice place to live, but don’t ever try flying out of the airport. It is generally US$350 minimum so I drive two hours eastward and fly out of Jacksonville. For the international fare, the difference was nearly $500!

I get on the road hoping not to meet traffic (from construction or accidents) or get a “blue light special.” That’s a police stop. A blue light special in the U.S. is not a good thing… especially for a Black man. You may have heard. I reach Jacksonville International Airport in plenty of time to get my Jet Blue flight to New York’s Kennedy International. I love New York, but I had not been there since the Carlsen-Karjakin World Championship in 2016.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

(New York’s Kennedy International Airport)

Despite the 5½-hour layover, I stayed in the airport and settled for a place to work. Checking on pre-Olympiad buzz, I see Tweets of some of the teams. Nice!

Happy moment for these players.

While checking on my accommodations with Expedia, they said I had canceled my reservations with Daisi Hotel. What??? A month prior, I did cancel a reservation (for the 23rd) and reserved for a day later (for the 24th). I suppose the second reservation did not go through. After speaking with Expedia, they found another accommodation at Hotel Luxor for $41 per night. I had been covering Olympiad since 2004 and wasn’t looking for luxury. All I needed was a comfortable place and the Internet. Book it!

So after sorting that out, I grab a bit to eat at a sushi place. I ate next to a mother and her two children who were devouring cupcakes with glee. She looked at me and smiled as I bit into the sushi roll. This would be a good trip I thought. After finishing I wandered around the airport before getting the shuttle to the concourse.

The gate was crowded with passengers taking Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. I got the window seat. Hate window seats for flights longer than a couple of hours. I like to get up and walk. Anyway, “Rampage” seemed to be something I could watch, but I watched “Ready Player One,” a technogeek movie about virtual reality. Very imaginative, but I fell asleep at some point.

I ordered a special vegan meal in advance. When they brought the meal, it was clearly not what I had ordered. Some type of codfish. I admonished them for the mistake. They then gave me some rosemary potatoes which weren’t bad. I then dozed off. Sometime later, I woke up with an awful feeling and rushed past my two neighbors to the latrine. Needless to say, whatever they served me didn’t agree and I spent the next 20 minutes in the latrine. Sick at 30,000 feet… with turbulence. Not good.

I emerged a bit weakened and I told the attendants of my “digestive crisis.” They were remorseful and tried to give me drinks, but couldn’t keep it down. After an additional 15 minutes of sitting in the back with the attendants, I went back to my seat and took it easy the rest of the flight. Whew! Was it the sushi? The non-vegan meal that I had a bite of? The potatoes? Not sure. As we were exiting the plane in Istanbul, my two Turkish neighbors wished me well.

Monday, 24 September 2018

(Istanbul, Turkey)

After a bout with food poisoning on the plane, Starbucks chamomile tea got me back to normalcy.

The Kemal Attaturk Airport is a spacious facility, but requires a bit of walking. After getting to the area for connecting flights, I realize the gates had not been posted. So I walked around and found a Starbucks where I ordered chamomile tea to settle my stomach. There were a lot of people looking at the monitor waiting for the gate number to appear on their flight. This included a prominent group of African men. They were excited. Had I felt any better, I certainly would’ve asked them who they were and where they were going. I wandered around a bit more and visited another vendor selling fresh fruit drinks. I had one made of coconut milk, pineapple, lemon and ginger. It was exactly what I needed.

Finally… the gate was announced and I walk over to find there were no seats in the waiting area. Several people were stretched out over 2-3 seats. I did see the Togolese team sitting. The team from Ivory Coast (with bright orange uniforms) came into the area but left when there were no seats. One African lady woke up from her slumber and I took the seat next to her.

The Nigerian team then walked in and I recognized Oladapo Adu, Bunmi Olape, Bomo Kigigha and Femi Balogun. It was good to see “Dapo” and we embraced. He was a mainstay in U.S. tournaments but had been in Nigeria for the past year. I asked the Nigerians why they were late because the first round had already begun. They said there was a delay in West Africa.

Nigeria’s IM Oladapo Adu preparing to board Istanbul-Batumi flight.
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Finally, we were on our way to Batumi! I was feeling so much better and was anxious to see how the first round went. It is generally a round where you only pay attention to upsets. The team results are fairly certain. Unbeknownst to me, the biggest upset was happening as we were in the air.

Finally we landed!
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Monday, 24 September 2018

(Batumi, Georgia)

I had been checking the games on chess24 until it was time to board. By the time we landed Morocco’s Mohamed-Mehdi Aithmidou had beaten Li Chao of China! There were a few more upsets, but a near 500-point scalp is rare when it involves an elite player.

Getting through customs was quite a breeze, but by the quizzical look, it appears that the Georgian official had seen few Black people with a U.S. passport. It was also a brand new passport, so I expected questions. I watched the African teams behind me apply for their visas. The El Salvadorans were in front of me. On the outside, there was a desk with volunteers for the Olympiad. My name wasn’t on the list for transport and didn’t realize I could have taken the Olympiad bus to one of the hotels and walked. I took a taxi and learned that many of the drivers in Georgia don’t speak a lot of English, and me… zero Georgian.

Would my cabbie find my hotel?

There was a big discussion on where my hotel was since they had problems reading the Expedia printout. A volunteer put me in a cab and told me (with a concerned tone) that the fare was “15 lauri” for the trip. I was concerned. As I watched this cab driver navigate the traffic, I took in the Batumi sites and noticed the distinctive Georgian letters.

Of course, a silent cab ride is not the most pleasant experience. To my surprise, the cab driver drove right down a dark road (Akhvlediani Street) and I saw my hotel on the right on a residential block. I gave him 20 lauri and he thanked me profusely.

I carry my bags up several stairs. I had no expectations, but the lobby of Hotel Luxor is a very nicely-decorated style. I go to the desk and meet Irma, a friendly Georgian lady. We had a few communication issues, but we figured out everything. Finally, entered my room and did a quick survey of the place. Not bad! It was US$41/night and as I would later discover, conveniently located. What more could I want?

CLICK to see larger images. Hover to get descriptions.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

(Round #2 – Batumi Sports Palace)

OK… so I get a good night’s sleep and begin the adjustment of my body (eight-hour time difference). After getting a bite to eat in the hotel’s dining room, I set out to find the place which is supposed to be nearby. I Googled the address given to me by the Olympiad volunteers “Batumi, Asatiani Street. N 27” and it was about an eight-minute walk.

Where is the venue?
The address on Asatiani Street led me to a park near a city building.

This was NOT the Olympiad venue. After asking other clueless Georgians, I found my way back to the hotel and had to find out the location of the venue. I looked on Google Maps to show the hotel manager where I needed to go. She wrote a note to give to the cab driver. I got in a cab and it was 10-15 minutes away. I then learned that the venue was actually the “New Sports Palace” as the other arena was about 40 minutes out. I learned the players also had their issues.

The security procedure was a bit awkward, but I got through and found my way into the press room. I saw the usual journalists with whom I have covered many events. I saw my friend Ian Wilkinson from Jamaica and had to go and greet him first. I then went back to say hello to the team and Mike Klein (as usual) briefs me on everything. He’s a great help.

Peter Doggers is on top of all the new tips and Maria Emelianova is in the right place at the right time with her camera. I was seated next to Spain’s esteemed journalist Leonxto Garcia of Spain and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam of New in Chess. I had introduced myself to Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal not realizing that their colleague Niklesh Jain had shocked the chess community with a marriage proposal earlier that day!

Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal of ChessBase India
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

I was too late to take any photos (so I thought) so I greeted Susan Polgar and Paul Truong and asked them about Josh Colas and Justus Williams (both IM-elects and players at Webster). Optimism was in the air! I then went into the exhibition area where a LOT of players were milling about and socializing at the various booths including two of the FIDE Presidential candidates… Georgios Makropoulos and Arkady Dvorkovich.

As I was talking to Joy Mtine of Zambia, GM Nigel Short walked up and gave me a slap on the back and greeted me warmly. I guess he hadn’t found anything wrong with my articles. He was in a good mood. I asked him if he missed participating as a player and he stated that he had competed since 1984, but realized at this point, that there were more important things at hand. Looking around the room, I didn’t need clarification. He mentioned that he was going to go and socialize since that is what you have to do when you’re in political mode.

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So I officially finish my first day, but I have yet to visit either playing hall. I also had to figure out where to eat. On the previous night, I did visit a local store and pick up water, bananas and a few other snacks to go along with the stash that I brought with me. That was dinner.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

(Round #3 – Batumi Sports Palace)

I woke up and had a modest breakfast in the hotel dinner… loved the black olives and a type of cole slaw. The breakfast reminded me of the place I stayed in during the Istanbul Olympiad. This would be my first official day on the floor of the Olympiad. Typically you want to have a plan when photographing such an event due to its size.

On the first day, I decided to focus my energy on the larger playing hall where the lower boards were. Here I would see most of the teams that I came to photograph. There was a beautiful historical display adjoining both hall of Georgian chess accomplishments.

Adjoining corridor featuring the rich chess history of the Republic of Georgia.

For a federation to have such a rich history is certainly admirable and to fill both sides of a 200-foot corridor is visually impressive. I was fortunate enough to participate in press conference with Nona Gaprindashvili and Maia Chiburbanidze. The two legends spanned the entire history of the display.

So now it was time to shoot…

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Overall it was an exciting day. I was able to shoot the whole floor and greet some players in the process. I was able to watch the press conference of two legendary figures in Georgian chess. In the end, I asked a question that I knew would spark a difference of opinion. The question was about the role of computers in chess.

A very passionate exchange ensued with Gaprindashvili taking a more cautious view toward relying on computers. She stated that chess has to come from the soul. Paul Truong told me, “See you’ve started a debate!” Chiburdanidze smiled, but then offered that computers help us to see ideas that did not occur before. Great discussion!

By the way, a week from this date on October 3rd, 2018, a new FIDE President would be elected. There was tremendous energy brewing in the exhibition hall.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

(Round #4 – Batumi Sports Palace)

Bermuda’s Daniel Cabral

After two days of taking the taxi back and forth to my hotel, I figured that the Hilton was only a 10-minute walk through the park and I could take the shuttle with the others. I would only have to endure occasional stares from the locals. I got to the hotel just before 2:00 pm and the bus had not boarded.

Before boarding I had a conversation with Daniel Cabral, a player on the Bermuda team. We talked about the old Bermuda Open. He stated that it was a very successful event, but since both Nigel Freeman and Nick Faulks had left the island, the impetus died. However, he mentioned that there had been talks to revive the event. He also talked about the Bermuda party and gave me a history.

The event first started in one of the Bermuda player’s hotel rooms and after it became popular, a suite was rented. Before long, a facility was needed. He said that in coming years they would hope to give it a more “Bermuda” feel with Gombey dancing and colorful aesthetics.

So we get to the venue, I wish Daniel well and I set up my camera to get shots of some of the teams coming into the venue. That’s always a nice photo-op because you get to see teams in the outfits and also in a good mood.

It would be my first day photographing the hall with the top teams and learning of the 15-minute allowance for photos. The scene was very electric and you could feel the tension in the air. It was a crucial round with USA-India on the top table. I saw Hikaru Nakamura briefly and he reached out to shake my hand. It was good to see him at another Olympiad shooting for the gold. I had witnessed both of his bronze medals (Turin and Dresden), but was not in Baku for the gold.

USA-India shake hands before battle!

The heavyweight matchup on board #1…
Fabiano Caruana vs. Viswanathan Anand
Photos by Daaim Shabazz

I witnessed an epic battle and the battle of the generations with the American coming out on top of the Indian legend. It was a thrilling match. Fabiano Caruana could very well be the next World Champion and here he seems to be putting everyone on notice that it is a strong possibility.

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Besides all of the chess being played, there was also lots of socializing, new friends being made and new alliances being forged. Wonderful environment. Of course, the Africans were in the middle of it!

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Friday, 28 September 2018

(Round #5 – Batumi Sports Palace)

Unfortunately, this would be my last round of live coverage. There was the Bermuda Party in the evening and the rest day was tomorrow. I will generally use the rest day to catch up on reports, conduct interviews, attend some business sessions or simply tour the city. I had no idea what I would do on the rest day, but I knew I had to cover as much as I could on my last day. It’s also good to have your own pictures of top players despite having built up a decent relationship with chess photographers. The objective was to shoot any chess personalities and teams that I wanted for my archives. I went crazy and shot both halls!

I attended the Bermuda Party, an interesting experience. In fact, I was also interviewed by Amruta Mokal of ChessBase India at the Bermuda Party as I was leaving. It had been raining for a while and needed to call it a night. Sagar, Amruta and I ended up walking in rain back to our hotels. We were soaked, but that’s what memories are made of!

Daniel… here is proof that I was there!

Video by ChessBase India

Saturday, 29 September 2018

(Rest Day – Batumi Botancial Gardens)

Unfortunately, I had to bid farewell to a number of people. We had the rest day and it was possible that we would see each other around town. I woke up not having any idea of what to do for the rest day. I looked online and decided to go to the Batumi Botanical Gardens. It was a 20-minute cab ride away. Being a man who loves to shoot pictures and a lover of gardens, this would be a peaceful break from the raucous Bermuda Party the previous night. What a great choice!

View of the Black Sea!

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After walking more than 15,000 steps, I decided that I would take a cab from the summit back to the Hilton. It had gotten a bit dark and it was enough of a workout. I get to the hotel and saw Sagar and Amruta once again.

One of the most pleasant experiences of the Batumi Olympiad was meeting Sagar Shah and his wife, Amruta Mokal. They are a very energetic husband-wife team doing a fantastic job at ChessBase India. I had a chance to have dinners with them at the Hilton Hotel and was intrigued by their story. Operating out of Mumbai, India they are basically traveling from venue to venue without keeping a residence. That’s quite a bit of dedication. Hopefully, they will receive the blessings they deserve.

Ultimately, I decided I would present Sagar with Triple Exclam!!! The Life and Games of Emory Tate, Chess Warrior. I knew he would appreciate it because I saw one of his videos where he was discussing vintage chess books. His work for ChessBase India has given the massive country an invaluable platform in the same way The Chess Drum is giving a platform to those of African descent. He was even gracious enough to interview me about it.

With Amruta Mokal and Sagar Shah of ChessBase India
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Sunday, 30 September 2018

(Leaving Batumi)

I left Batumi not knowing what would happen in the FIDE election. I would not be able to attend any of the General Assembly sessions, but the feeling I got was that the momentum had swung to Dvorkovich. This occurred to me while looking at the activity at the respective campaign booths. Dvorkovich was throwing a party while it appeared that Makropoulos was working hard to keep people engaged.

With the amount of vitriol that was exchanged, I envisioned shouting matches, tete-a-tete battles in the aisles and maybe even a fistfight. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. Despite the legal case involved, this election turned out to be more civil than the ones involving Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and his $20 million pledges.

As it turns out Batumi was spared the drama and the new President was ushered in with minimal incident. There was a matter of someone stealing marketing literature from Georgios Makropolous’ booth, but that controversy simmered down quickly. Say what you want about Makropoulous, but at least he took the result in a dignified fashion and didn’t muck it up with some fabricated controversy.

When I saw the cameraderie between Makropoulos and Arkady Dvorkovich after the bitter campaign, they appeared to be two friends who never wanted to hurt each other in a fight. FIDE politics are indescribable.

Final Thoughts

All in all, I enjoyed my short stay but would have preferred to stay until the end. Alas, life does not always grant us these wishes. Perhaps one time, I will be able to attend an Olympiad for the duration. For now, it’s either the first half or the second half. They should have these events in the summer when people plan for vacations. 🙂 If I missed seeing you in Batumi, God willing, we shall meet in 2020 in Khanty-Mansiysk!


Best Memories of the Olympiad were…

  • Enjoyed meeting my friend, Ian Wilkinson, President of Jamaica Chess Federation
  • Ian Wilkinson QC & Daaim Shabazz

  • Meeting Yolander Persaud of Guyana. 🙂 She’s a successful lawyer and now sits on the FIDE Ethics Commission.
  • Meeting IM Andrew Kayonde, top player for Zambia. He is now famous for saying, “I know he is Vassily Ivanchuk, but I am the Zambian champion.” Twenty years ago, few (if any) African players would have had the courage to say this. Unfortunately, I left before we could get our own interview.
  • Having dinner with the U.S. team, most notably Anna Zatonskih and Melikset Khachiyan. I found Anna to be very pleasant and a loving mother!
  • Watching Nana Alexandria walk around with a constant smile on her face
  • meeting the Malawian team and getting a shot of them watching teammate being sketched
  • Malawians watching teammate Desiderata Nkhoma
    get a sketch done by Temur Dadiani

  • Meeting Ogunsika Babatunde of Africa Chess Media, a very noble venture to highlight African chess news
  • Georgian boy greeting me “What’s up bro?” It could’ve been his first interaction with a Black person. I don’t believe people in the neighbhood knew that the Olympiad was happening and probably wondered why I was there.
  • Discussion with Australia’s Cathy Rogers about President Donald Trump. She’s definitely not a fan.
  • When asked why I’m not playing in the Olympiad? My response was, “I need a 2-7.” In other words, I need to be 2700 FIDE. Many times people forget which country I’m from. Can I play for U.S. Virgin Islands?
  • Pleasant conversation with GM Ray Robson. I interviewed him at the Istanbul Olympiad in 2012 and now he has graduated. We discussed a variety of topics including veganism, rising American talent (on his tail) and his plans for post-graduation. Wish him the best!
  • Chatting with Uganda’s Patrick Kawuma about his brothers Moses and Stephen
  • Listening to Watu Kobese of South Africa explain his cynicism about chess politics. He said, “There are too many envelopes being passed around.”
  • See Susan Polgar and Paul Truong riding down the Botanical Garden trail as I was going up the incline. I told them, “C’mon don’t be lazy.” 😀
  • The ladies at Hotel Luxor… especially Irma. Very charming place.
  • View of the Batumi skyline during sunset

Worst Memories of the Olympiad were…

  • Falling sick on the New York-Istanbul leg.
  • No snacks in the press room. Did I miss something?
  • Nervousness brought on because the taxi drivers could barely make out Georgian street names in Latin-based characters.
  • A taxi driver who wanted 20 lauri for a short trip. He was not an honorable man although he kept saying “Barack Obama”.
  • Riding to the Batumi Botanical Gardens with a taxi driver and see him perform the sign of the Christian cross across his chest before speeding to overtake a vehicle in traffic. My eyes widened and maybe my heart valves did too.
  • The four-hour headache the morning after the Bermuda party. The techno music was relentless, and the smoke was awful, but the social atmosphere was nice. Check out this view and sound of the music and Black Sea!

Thanks for the great time Batumi!

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