2018 Chess Olympiad Preview

2018 Chess Olympiad Preview

GM smurfo

One tournament is unequivocally the best event of the chess calendar: The chess Olympiad.  Held every two years, it brings together thousands upon thousands of players, journalists, spectators, arbiters, organisers and chess celebrities from every country on earth. It reminds me of an African wildlife documentary where many species of animals follow their own unique migration to a common watering hole, finally congregating around a shared objective. Similarly, the Olympiad sees a motley crew of chess vagabonds joining forces in some obscure location for two weeks of celebration, drama and friendship. And a little chess.  

Sadly, this is the first time that I will miss the event since my debut 14 years ago. It's not a decision I regret (I hope my two-month old reads this one day...), but it does make me surprisingly sad. I have built up many valuable friendships in the chess world, which are both special and irregular. Some friends I have only ever met at Olympiads, believe it or not! This is especially the case for friendships that span to distant corners of the globe. It's a strange thing to meet for two weeks every two years, but somehow these bonds can be remarkably strong.  

The nostalgia has been amplified over the past few days thanks to that cursed phenomenon of social media. From all parts of the world, people have been publicly documenting their respective journeys to Batumi, Georgia. And of course, everyone looks so happy!  


It's hard to describe the feeling of the Olympiad. You really get the impression that the chess world is genuinely 'one family', however corny that may sound. On the one hand, you rub shoulders with the world's elite, whether it's in the food queues of the dining hall or the dance floor of the Bermuda Party. And on the other hand, you meet chess fraternities from remote countries, including little islands like Bermuda and big ones like Madagascar. You also meet team who've had to overcome all sorts of obstacles just to make it there, such as players I met from Libya and Aruba. But make it they do.  


Though I won't be there in person, I, like many, many other chess fans, will be following the action online. This Olympiad is especially interesting because it coincides with the FIDE election cycle, and this election is shaping up to be one of the dirtiest in recent memory. It's held about ten days into the event, which leaves a lot of days for wheeling and dealing around the tournament itself. While salacious and dramatic, this is a part that, frankly, I won't miss. I have friends connected on all sides of the campaign, and I have no appetite for predictions - I'll leave other bloggers to talk about it.   But I do have my own predictions for the chess. It's going to be a hot event.  


Who will win: I'm backing the US. Rating favourites with an eye-watering average of 2772, their top lineup of Caruana, So, Nakamura and Shankland is the most intimidating foursome since the days of the USSR. The only risk of weakness, if you can call it that, is if for some reason John Donaldson needs to use his reserve against a top rival. At ELO 2682, Ray Robson is hardly a serious chink, but the captain will still want to play top-four against the other big nations, which generally have more depth on their bench.  

Who will challenge: Russia, for example, features the super-GM Dmitry Jakovenko (ELO 2747!!) as its reserve. That's some serious firepower as a bench-warmer. And former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, who has a reputation for big scores at the Olympiad, is a huge weapon down on board 3. But having said that, Russia has earned something of a history of choking on the big stage, if that's anything to go by.  

In my opinion, America's main rival is actually China. Contrary to Russia and the US, the Chinese team has a well-established history of playing with fantastic team spirit and cohesion, which, unsurprisingly, makes a big difference at team events (look at the Armenian and Azeri teams for good examples). Ding Liren is in the form of his life, and I still believe the teenage board 3, Wei Yi, will play a World Championship match one day. Their board 4 is Bu Xiangzhi, who recently beat Carlsen with Black.   Azerbaijan is seeded fourth and has the dual advantages of being a former winner of the European Teams Championship and of playing in a neighbouring country. The latter factor can't be stressed enough. India is the final team with an average over 2700, and has Anand as its spearhead. Both countries will be serious competition for the top 3.  

Who to watch: Two teams far down the seedings are worth attention. The first is Iran. Seeded 23rd and with an average below 2600, the Iranian team could be a big surprise this year. With an average age below 20, and headed by the new World Junior Champion Parham Maghsoodloo, it's a dangerous line-up. I predict Iran to finish top-10 this year.  

The second is Turkey. Seeded 22nd, it is also a relatively young team, but, importantly, also a deep one. It's captained by the very experienced Michal Krasenkow. As they say, "I have a feeling".  

Where's Maradona? Diego Maradona joined Napoli in 1984 and turned it from a relegation-threat to one of the great Italian forces, before taking Argentina to the World Cup trophy. At the chess Olympiad, we also get to see some of the chess world's heavyweights 'slumming it' on the middle boards. As opposed to football, depth is even more important in team events where a match is still decided by individual games, and it can be tough for the lone super-GMs to steer their lopsided teams through the event. The positive side is that spectators can get up close and personal with some of their heroes beyond the roped-off section of the top boards.  

This year there is no Carlsen in the Norwegian team and no Topalov in the Bulgarian - in fact, no Bulgarian team at all. The Vietnamese team is ranked 27th, so expect a huge score by the super-strong Le Quang Liem (2715) on board 1. Likewise, former FIDE World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov heads the 36th-seeded Uzbekistan, and Farrukh Amonatov, ELO 2615, once again leads the 71st (!) rated Tajikistan.  

Australia: Seeded 41st, we have sent one of the youngest, and flattest, Australian Olympiad teams. Wonder-kid Anton Smirnov (2549) is our board 1, who is still undefeated after playing two Olympiads! He also drew both classical games in his mini-match with Karjakin at last year's World Cup. Our second board, Zhao Zong-Yuan, is the veteran of the team (though he's younger than me - ouch), and will provide some valuable experience. Our boards four and five both have several GM norms to their name. The team is brimming with potential and should be aiming for a top-20 finish.  


Who will win: The women's event is going to be really, really tight - closer than the Open, I feel. On paper, the Russian team is a large ELO favourite, fielding four of the top eight women in the world. But the team seems to often suffer distractions at the Olympiad, and last year they failed to win a medal. Problems with the coach Sergei Rublevsky led the supremely talented Kosintseva sisters to boycott the team (and apparently chess) in 2013, and I can't help but feel that the vicious FIDE election, in which the Russian federation is heavily invested, will also prove a large disturbance this year. If every member plays at her full potential, they should win, but that's a big 'if'.  

My pick is the defending champions, China. Seeded 3rd, it's notably missing Hou Yifan, the strongest women in the world. Yet, even despite this large hole, the board 1 is nonetheless filled by the strongest women in the tournament: Wenjun Ju. And even though the team is missing its only other players in the world's top 20 (Zhongyi Tan and Xue Zhao), I still predict they'll win! Shen Yang on board 2 is a very strong IM, but the board 4, Lei Tingjie, is where the real firepower comes in. She's a 20 year old (open) GM with seriously underrated potential and a real chance to be the team's point-machine.  

Who will challenge: Ukraine. The Muzychuks are Ukraine's answer to the Polgar sisters, and have won pretty much every world title between them. The board 3, Anna Ushenina, is also a former World Champion, while Natalia Zhukova on board 4 is no slouch either, having won the European Championship twice. Georgia has the home-ground advantage and boasts three open GMs in the team; Nana Dzagnidze is a contender for the board 1 prize. The Indian team is a little lower seeded than expected, but mainly because of ELO drops by some of its members; at full potential, it can definitely challenge for first. Moreover, it's aided by a 'super-trainer' as captain: Quality Chess owner Jacob Aagaard.  

Who to watch: It's hard to see any team outside of the top-5 competing for the medals, but one to watch is Kazakhstan. I'm betting on the teenager Zhansaya Abdumalik (2482) to win the board 2 medal. The US is also underrated as the 10th seed, though why the superstar 14 year old Carissa Yip (2318) is not playing is a mystery to me. Still, any team with Irina Krush on board 2 has to be feared.  

Where's Maradona? No Pia Cramling this year for Sweden, who's the Zlatan Ibrahimović of the women's chess team. Instead, Olga Badelka is an ELO 2404, 16-year-old star of the future, who leads 36th-seeded Belarus.  

Australia: Seeded 33rd, the Australian women's team is also the strongest we've ever sent. This is largely due to a couple of 'federation-changers' in recent years - in fact, all five members were born overseas! The former England junior star Heather Richards beat me last year, to add to her list of GM scalps. Top-20 is definitely within reach.  

You can follow all the action over the next two weeks on the slightly dodgy offical website, or for personal impressions, check out the twitter hashtag #BatumiChess2018.