Back in 2002, The Chess Drum ran a short article by Dan Lucas that mentioned the U.S. possibly being the host of the 2004 Chess Olympiad. It was during a time of transition for U.S. Chess and at the time, Florida was vying to become the center of U.S. and world chess. The World Chess Hall of Fame had opened in Miami and Florida was a candidate for the headquarters relocation from New York. In addition, there was a proposal to bring the Chess Olympiad to Jacksonville, Florida. The Olympiad was ultimately held in Mallorca, Spain.
In the article, Don Schultz was quoted as saying that he had a facility in Jacksonville and a verbal agreement for $6,000,000 of funding. Schultz was the U.S. representative to FIDE and was also pushing hard for the World Championship reunification match to be hosted in Florida. That took place a few years later in Mexico City when Viswanathan Anand defeated Vladimir Kramnik and unified the world title.
After 30 years, the U.S. Chess Federation moved from New York to Tennessee and in 2022, completed a move of its headquarters to St. Louis. The city is home to the World Chess Hall of Fame and the St. Louis Chess Club. There are a host of universities with chess programs that attract Grandmasters from around the world. Fabiano Caruana has taken up residence there as well and “The Lou” is a bustling center of chess excellence.
During the 2008 Chess Olympiad in Dresden, I met David Heiser and we struck up a conversation about the possibility of the Olympiad being hosted in the U.S. for the first time. After we returned from Germany, there were e-mail exchanges among a handful of influential people in the chess community about the idea. Those conversations emerged and after a brief online discussion about sponsorship and possible venues (Chicago, Orlando, Las Vegas), the idea died. It would resurface from time to time without efforts to make a bid.
Back in 2019 at the U.S. Delegates meeting in Orlando, I raised the idea to the attention of the U.S. Delegates and the Executive Board. While there was both verbal and tacit support, there was not any energy or passion put toward further discussion of placing a bid. Typically it is a 4-year window. Budapest, Hungary will be the host in 2024 and Uzbekistan will host the event in 2026. Bids for 2028 (deadline November 7th, 2023) will be heard at the General Assembly in Budapest. Realistically, a country serious about hosting an Olympiad should allow time for a thorough assessment of regulations.
In discussing these issues, there were many naysayers. Strangely, the U.S. is not a nation with economic hardship and has hosted many international events including several Olympic Games. Of course, the Chess Olympiad is its own little universe and every federation can send a full team. Only in the past decade, had there been an increasing emphasis on team outfits. Now all of the teams have some type of uniform. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the array of colors and mingling of cultures. It is a celebration of chess and all of the countries have a chance to participate fully.
I had a debate with one influential member (let’s call him “Jack“). He lamented that it would be difficult to host an Olympiad in the U.S. because the U.S. Chess Federation only has a $4 million budget. What Jack is missing is that the Olympiad is not typically funded by the national federation so it’s puzzling why that would be an issue. Given that there are many high-level corporate and academic professionals in the chess community, assembling such a team for a sponsorship pitch should not be a difficult task.
Dubai, Chennai Set Standard
In recent years, nations far less economically endowed than the U.S. have successfully hosted Olympiad tournaments. I have attended six… Mallorca (Spain), Turin (Italy), Dresden (Germany), Istanbul (Turkey), Tromso (Norway) and Batumi (Georgia). The sensational case was the All India Chess Federation (AICF) organizing one of the best Olympiads in history in only four months with a $12 million budget. Before that, Dubai (UAE) was the Olympiad people raved about for decades. Barbadian FIDE Master Philip Corbin reminisced in his biography Calypso Chess that the Emirati organizers offered $1 million for air travel when registration lagged.
“They had absolutely no experience in international chess apart from Pan-Arab Chess Federation established in 1979. But many of the players in Dubai called this Olympiad the best organized ever.”~FM Philip Corbin on the 1986 Chess Olympiad in Dubai, UAE
Like Dubai, Chennai had a similar emotional effect. India had the personnel, but what was evident was the cultural passion for chess. Jack argued that these smaller nations have governmental support. It’s true, but America’s lack of government support has not stopped the country from hosting recent World Cups (1994 and 2026), Summer Olympics (1984, 1996, and 2028), and other major sporting events. These are mostly funded through the private sector. Depending on the country, there will be different levels of support from the public and private sectors.
The Republic of Georgia won the 2018 bid in 2014 with a $20 million budget over South Africa’s $12 million budget. There was an extension to the bidding process which drew a protest from South Africa. Another controversy came after FIDE Treasurer Nigel Freeman delivered his report of his site visits. He was to remain neutral and allow the federations to vote their conscience. However, he caused a stir after giving an endorsement to the Georgia bid right before the General Assembly vote. Georgia won the bid 93-58.
Georgia has less than four million people; Azerbaijan, the 2016 host, has 10 million. Both have powerful cultural chess traditions. The U.S. has 340 million people and a rich chess history, but it is not part of the general American culture. However, the U.S. is more than capable of financing such an event. With more than 22 million millionaires and 735 billionaires, it is also the home of many Fortune 500 companies. Some of these well-heeled persons are members of the chess community. Any idea that the U.S. is financially incapable of holding an event (due to a lack of government support) is short-sighted.
The total budget for the Chennai Olympiad was 92 crore rupees or $12 million. Also here are some of the other details.
The event was hosted and managed in India by the AICF. Sanjay Kapoor, who later became president of AICF, was the president of the organising committee for the 44th Chess Olympiad, and AICF’s secretary, Bharat Singh Chauhan, was the tournament director. The coordinating committee was headed by the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M. K. Stalin and included A. Raja (MP from Nilgiris), Udhayanidhi Stalin (MLA from Chepauk-Thiruvallikeni) three representatives of the AICF, the president of the Tamil Nadu State Chess Association and other representatives of the local authorities.
The event was stellar despite the short notice and turnaround time to get material and human resources into place. This raises a larger point. Even if a U.S. Olympiad organizing committee had unlimited sponsorship, how long would it take to put a structure into place to organize such a mammoth event? Would the U.S. Chess organization be able to assemble a committee and/or hire a top-notch event planner? In my view, it can be done, but it would require an intense passion before anything else. I have not seen this yet.
Why go through the trouble of hosting an Olympiad? Below are two of the most compelling videos that provide some context. The expressions speak volumes, but the second one masterfully shows the broad appeal of chess.
2016 Olympiad (Baku, Azerbaijan)
2018 Olympiad (Batumi, Republic of Georgia)
In our conversation, Jack said he didn’t see the benefit of hosting the Olympiad. Perhaps this only shows his lack of foresight. Such an event could open the door for many other chess sponsorships and firmly put chess back into the public consciousness for the first time since Bobby Fischer’s reign. If the U.S., one of the most influential economic forces in the world, cannot enlist sponsorship from the private sector, then such a failure says more about the lack of marketing vision (for chess) than anything else.
Besides the economic infusion brought to the host nation and the positive publicity, it will provide an opportunity to showcase talent. It will also give the media capital of the world a chance to see the power of chess. There is tremendous value in Olympiad tournaments and the effect is long-lasting. There are obvious obstacles. Difficult visa requirements as a result of U.S. foreign policy may also hinder participation. Perhaps ten years from now there will be a different diplomatic climate in the U.S.
It is a surprise to many when told that the U.S. has never hosted an Olympiad in the event’s 100-year history. The U.S. chess community has the organizational talent but perhaps lacks the international experience seen in places like India, Georgia, or Azerbaijan. The SuperNationals is the largest national event hosting almost 6,000 participants and thousands of parents and coaches. Despite SuperNationals having to accommodate more people than an Olympiad, dealing with foreign entities is many magnitudes more difficult.
The recent Pan-Am Youth Festival hosted 21 nations. Visa issues, lodging (provided by host), and logistical arrangements for guests are potential juggernauts. There also needs to be interpreters and special services to accommodate a variety of situations. An Olympiad event would require accommodating 190+ national delegations (players, coaches, federation officials), not to mention the organizing staff and FIDE officials. It is a gargantuan task.
Participants overstaying visas is a legitimate concern since America is a premium destination for many migrants, both legal and illegal. However, what are organizers of the Olympics (IOC) and World Cup (FIFA) doing that the Olympiad (FIDE) is not? We have to answer that question. If not, chess will remain on the fringes and whatever momentum we got from “Queens Gambit” will eventually fade. The American public will have yet to see chess on its proudest and grandest stage. Perhaps someday in the future, the U.S. will bear the Olympiad torch.