A general rule of thumb at the Chess Olympiad: The winner uses an alphabet we Westerners struggle to read.
So when the USA, having drawn three and won five of its first eight matches, turned up against first-place Russia today in Istanbul, the odds weren’t on the USA’s side.
And then just look at the Russian lineup. Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik, ranked No. 3 in the world today, on Board 1. Perennial contender Alexander Grischuk, one of the world’s best blitz (speed chess) players and someone unlikely to crack under time pressure or the strain of a long tournament, on Board 2. Sergey Karjakin, ranked seventh in the world, on Board 3. Then on Board 4, U.S. teen Ray Robson faced Dmitry Jakovenko, whose rating is 124 points higher than Robson’s.
Alex Onishuk got a quick draw with Karjakin. But Robson fell behind Karjakin.
On Board 2, former world championship contender Gata Kamsky got a slight advantage and squeezed the time-pressured Grischuk. Beating a top-12 player with the black pieces isn’t something you see every day, but Kamsky meticulously pulled it off.
That’s 1 1/2 to 1 1/2. So what of Board 1, with Kramnik bringing the pressure against 24-year-old Hikaru Nakamura?
Nakamura eked out a small advantage in a complex situation. Then came a moment of brilliance, highlighted here by women’s grandmaster/author/analyst Jennifer Shahade:
The 40th Chess Olympiad is underway in Istanbul. The one thing we can tell you with certainty is that the country that has won it the most won’t win it this time — the Soviet Union no longer exists. But the former Soviet republics — Russia, Ukraine, Armenia — still dominate.
The last time a non-Soviet country won it was in 1978, when Hungary upset the Soviet Union but didn’t take the title very far away. Before that, in 1976, the USA won a boycotted Olympiad when most Eastern bloc countries refused to travel to Israel.
The USA isn’t bad in this event, placing on the podium in 10 of the 16 Olympiads since it won.
If that’s not enough history for you, check this lively account by Bill Wall to learn about the winners, the mugging victims and the fight with a couple of grandmasters playing Crash Davis and Nuke Laloosh outside the bar scrapping over an Australian player whose outfit is a little excessive for the Carolina League.
On to the present:
– Twelve of the top 16 players in the world are here. The big exceptions are world champion Vishy Anand (India) and top-ranked Magnus Carlsen (Norway). Anand hates the format.
– The U.S. team is seeded fifth but has two of the top 10 in the tournament — No. 5 Hikaru Nakamura (2778) and No. 10 Gata Kamsky (2746). Third-ranked American Alexander Onishuk (2666) also is on the team, but several of the next players in the rankings are not. Top 10ers Varuzhan Akobian (2617) and Ray Robson (2598) make up the rest of the team. Robson’s only 17.
– Can you guess the major country that is seeded only 92nd? And it’s not as if their best players are skipping the proceedings.
– Women can compete in the “Open” Olympiad (Judit Polgar is playing for Hungary) or the Women’s Olympiad.
– The U.S. women also are seeded fifth. The team by rating (among women actually playing in the Women’s Olympiad): No. 10 Anna Zatonskih (2512), No. 18 Irina Krush (2467), No. 55 Sabina Foisor (2356), No. 69 Rusudan Goletani (2341), No. 91 Tatev Ambrahamyan (2303).
– Some of the “countries” in the Olympiad aren’t really countries. The UK not only has separate entries for England, Scotland and Wales but also for Guernsey and Jersey. Host Turkey is entering three teams. Also entered: The International Braille Chess Association, the International Physically Disabled Chess Association and the International Committee of Silent Chess.
– Follow on Twitter? Why, yes. I also have a Twitter list called “mind games” that includes chess news and updates on how much money your favorite poker player made in the past six hours.
– The top four in the pre-tournament rankings: Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Hungary. The bottom four: Mozambique, Turkey’s third team, Rwanda, Nigeria.
– The top four on the women’s side: China, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine.
– Parity in women’s chess? Not really. The first round saw 46 scores of 4-0, eight more of 3.5-0.5, six more of 3-1 and just two 2.5-1.5.
– The men’s side also was rather lopsided, with 45 teams posting 4-0 wins. But only two of the top six (including the USA) did it. A player from the Dominican Republic (William Puntier, 2312) held Russian grandmaster Evgeny Tomashevsky (2730) to a draw, and Bolivian grandmaster Oswaldo Zambrana (2471) beat Armenia’s Sergei Movsesian (2698). The win that gives real hope to us non-masters: the Virgin Islands’ Reece Creswell (1765) drew Scotland’s Alan Tate (2332).