A guide to the chess Olympiad – Part I

GM smurfo

NOTE:  This was supposed to be a small note, but once I assembled all the questions I’ve been asked over the years, it quickly turned into quite a long article. So I’ve broken it up into two parts, vaguely along the lines of (1) the Olympiad in general, and (2) my thoughts on the upcoming one in Baku.




I can’t get enough of the Olympics. I could be glued to the screen for hours on end, regardless of the sport or even whether there’s an Aussie in it. From swimming to sprinting, table-tennis to trampolining, gymnastics to judo, I love it all. Except equestrian. Don’t talk to me about equestrian.


And every four years, I and many other chess players invariably get hit with the same question by other sports fans: Is there a chess Olympics?


It’s often asked with a playful smile, but the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. The chess Olympiad is held every two years, and while not the extravaganza of the sports Olympics, it’s still an incredible event with its own charm, flair and drama. In fact, the next edition begins in Azerbaijan within a fortnight of the closing ceremony in Rio.


I often find myself explaining the basics of the chess Olympiad to my friends, so I’ve decided to list the most common questions and their answers to provide a sort of guide and preview to the event. At least it’ll give you something to read while the Dressage is on.


So, what’s it all about?

The Olympiad is the premier chess event for countries around the world. Held every two years, it lasts around three weeks and sees teams from roughly 200 countries compete for medals in the Women’s and Open competitions.


Wait…Women’s and Open?!

Yes. Women can choose to play for their country’s Open team if selected, but as for many other events such as individual world, national and junior championships, there is a separate category for females. Usually around a dozen countries have a female player in their Open team.


But why do they separate the genders at all? It’s only chess.

This is a very popular question, and goes to a much broader debate about the sexes in chess. If you’re interested in finding out more,  I've written on this before, e.g. herehere and here – but be warned, it’s a touchy subject to say the least. An extra element is the recent ruling that transgendered women can compete in Women’s teams at the Olympiad, which has now occurred a couple of times. This is different to the Olympics, where at present only intersex women can compete.


How many players in a team?

A team is made up of five players, although only four play in each match. Most countries tend to rotate their lineup pretty evenly throughout the tournament, but some of the very strong countries stick with their top four and only substitute in their fifth player if necessary, for example because of illness.


How does the tournament work?

Countries get points for winning their match in every round. It depends from year to year, but usually there are thirteen rounds. In each round, every country is matched (‘paired’) with another country, and their top four players (‘boards’) play their respective opposite numbers from the opposition. A score of 2.5 or better from their four games will mean the country wins the match and earns two ‘match points’; if the match is tied at 2-2, each country earns one point. The country with the most match points at the end of all the rounds is the winner.


How are the pairings decided?

The Olympiad uses a Swiss pairing system, just like in most regular chess tournaments. The basic idea is that as the competition goes on, teams will be matched with other teams on a similar score: the top teams will compete against each other, and likewise for the bottom. This does mean that in the early rounds there can be some wildly lopsided match-ups, and typically most matches in the first round will end in a score of 4-0.


What about ties?

Countries with tied match points at the end of the tournament are sorted on ‘board points’, by tallying the total individual points from all the matches. And because ties are relatively common, it’s important for the big countries to try to close out 4-0 scores against weaker teams – every game matters!


So who are these ‘big teams’? The Russians, right?

On paper, yes. But in practice… The Russian (and previously USSR) team has been the top seeded team in the Open division ever since the tournament began, and indeed they dominated the Olympiads prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since then, however, they’ve accumulated something of a reputation as Olympiad chokers. Winners in recent decades include Armenia, Ukraine and the recent chess powerhouse of China. The other powerhouses include Azerbaijan, India and the United States. But on paper, the Russians are still clearly the rating favourites.


These same countries are typically also the big names in the Women’s competition, although the Armenia and Azerbaijan teams are relatively weaker than their Open equivalents, while the Indian and US teams are arguably relatively stronger.


Is there, like, opening and closing ceremonies, and an athletes’ village?

Yes and yes. The ceremonies are nowhere near as lavish as in the Olympics, but given the incredible ceremonies put on by Azerbaijan for last year’s Asian Games, I’m expecting big things this year. Teams are typically housed in a large hotel complex (or complexes), and we do hang out when we’re not competing. (In the 2006 Olympiad in Turin, we stayed in the actual athletes’ village that was used in the 2004 Winter Olympics.) Meals are all eaten together in the same dining halls, and it usually takes only a couple of rounds for the thousands of players to organically decide on the unofficial bar for the tournament. It’s also pretty standard for football games and other sports to develop, and again, players of all countries join in.



What’s the schedule like?

We play one match a day for thirteen days. Add in an arrival day, the two ceremonies and a couple of rest days and the event stretches out for about two and a half weeks. Each game can last roughly six hours, so when you factor in a couple of hours of targeted preparation for the opponents in the morning, the days can be quite grueling, so the rest days are typically used for their namesake.


Having said that, there is one special event that has become so popular it has now made it on to the official Olympiad schedule. Many years ago, the Bermudan team, which is basically made up of several wealthy, friendly businessmen, started sponsoring a huge party on the night before one of the rest days. It’s usually held in one of the biggest nightclubs in the host city, with the traditional rule that men get two drink vouchers with their ticket, and women get free entry. You may well scoff at this, but given how unusual the world of professional chess is, it’s probably no surprise that chess players tend to dominate each other’s social networks. And yes, this can extend to romance, particularly at the world’s largest gathering of players with the rarity of a relatively even proportion of men and women!


But enough about that, for now at least. In Part II, we’ll talk about this year’s Olympiad, the favourites, player poaching, drug testing and more.