Chess Olympiad Round 1: Upsets, No Shows, Press Issues, 1st-Timers

Chess Olympiad Round 1: Upsets, No Shows, Press Issues, 1st-Timers

| 33 | Chess Event Coverage

Despite the top four rated players in the world sitting out the first round, the 42nd Chess Olympiad took off today in Baku, Azerbaijan. While hardly any upsets took place in the first round, strict security regulations dominated the atmosphere.

Many games in the first round, including those of two strong grandmasters, were over before a move had been made. On the very top boards, top-seed Russia faced Nigeria, who had only managed to get to Baku with three players (but don't forget that their men's football team arrived only hours before the Olympics in Brazil, and they still won bronze!). Playing on fourth board (!) GM Alexander Grischuk scored a point without playing. The same happened to GM David Anton, who won by default for Spain versus Syria, who also played with three boards. Ditto for Palestine.

For many teams, things were much worse. The organizers knew that Angola, Madagascar, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Eritrea, and Central African Republic wouldn't arrive in Baku in time so these countries were not paired. However, Malawi, Cameroon, Mali, Haiti, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, Senegal, Gambia, Congo, Djibouti, and Lesotho all also lost 4-0 due to no shows.

Kyrgyzstan was one of the early beneficiaries of a forfeit win.

A handful of countries not arriving in time is quite common, but there have been few Olympiads in which so many countries missed the first round. Some of these cases might be related to visa issues. Sources told that some teams are stuck at airports because their electronic visa or their visa-on-arrival arrangements were refused.

FIDE's CEO Geoffrey Borg denied there were visa problems. "This has nothing to do with visas for sure. The process was much more straightforward this time round."

Tournament Director Takis Nikolopoulos wrote to "Malawi appeared with only one player and Mexico with only two. According to regulations they could not play (the team must have at least three players in order to start the match), but tomorrow they will come with full teams, according to their captains. Haiti and Malawi came late in Baku and will play tomorrow. For the rest of the teams, which are all from Africa, I have no clear information."

As it turns out, Angola, Madagascar, Mexico, Uganda, Haiti, Congo, and Lesotho are all paired for round two.

Team Poland: They certainly won't miss each other in a crowd in those colors!

Another typical issue for Olympiads, especially in the first round, are issues with the relay of games. A highly-experienced FIDE technician responsible for the live boards, together with the excellent Chess24 live games page, couldn't prevent serious issues today. The relay of the games on the lower boards was a disaster. Numerous broadcasts finished prematurely.

English fans must have been flabbergasted by the result of their team, who were playing on one of the lowest boards, against the International Braille Chess Association (IBCA). The IBCA team is composed of players with bad sight or no sight at all. This team always plays as an individual "nation," just like the International Chess Committee of the Deaf or ICCD.

Why flabbergasted? Because the English were down 2-0 at one point!

Or so it seemed. As it turned out, boards had been switched in the online transmission, and England won the match, as expected, 4-0. The Ginger GM was not the only one confused for a moment. His relief eventually came:

The Bulgarian fans must have been in shock as well; their match against Sudan showed 2-2 on the score board. However, that turned out to be true! Certainly, without players such as GMs Ivan Cheparinov and Kiril Georgiev, the team is weakened, but Bulgaria should still have won this match easily.

GM Veselin Topalov did what he had to do and won convincingly. So did GM Krasimir Rusev on board three. However, GM Momchil Nikolov lost to FM Abubaker Tagelsir.

To make matters worse, IM Martin Petrov went down against 2183-rated Abdelazeez Mohamed Abdalla.

An individual upset was seen in Serbia vs Trinidad & Tobago, which finished 3-1 with FM Kevin Cupid beating GM Nikola Sedlak as follows:

GM Mohamed Al-Sayed (Qatar) lost to the 2176-player Husain Ayyad (Bahrain) and 2216-player Wim (not WIM!) Blijstra (Netherlands Antilles) was surely "blij" (Dutch for happy) with his win over Montenegro's GM Nikola Djukic.

Besides a number of draws here and there, the first round saw few surprises. The most popular score was, by far, 4-0. Still, there was a top grandmaster who was pretty happy with his win, but we all know that this GM usually throws in a teaspoon of irony into his tweets.

It's also an Olympiad where some big names are missing. In our first preview, we noted the absence of players such as GMs Boris Gelfand, Peter Leko, and Vassily Ivanchuk. The latter told that he prefers to play a draughts tournament instead. This olympiad it's GM Ruslan Ponomariov who is defending the Ukrainian honors on top board. He surely has good support!

In the women's section, there were hardly an upsets, except for a few draws. For example, WGM Anne Haast (2306), who elongated her Dutch Championship title streak last week, only drew with WIM Denise Frick rated 1803. The only close call was Greece's win by 2.5-1.5 over Sri Lanka.

Let's look at a few more games. There's hundreds and hundreds being played each day so chances are that we might miss things, but we hope to create a nice selection for you each day.

We're starting with GM Sam Shankland, who played so well at the previous Olympiad (a gold medal with eight wins and two draws). He continued where he left off and scored the first point for the USA with a move that became the Move of the Week in this week's Express ChessCenter.

GM Sam Shankland surely earned the trust of coach IM John Donaldson at the 2014 Olympiad. Shankland won his first seven games and finished with 9.0/10.

Reigning champion China was one of many teams which started with a clean sweep. Their board four is GM Wei Yi who sacrificed a piece in the opening for overwhelming compensation.

An easy start for China's Wei Yi.

GM Teimour Radjabov, one of the local heroes who has his portrait on display in huge proportions in one of the halls, had a nice final move.

GM Magnus Carlsen didn't play for Norway, who beat Wales with two wins and two draws. The following game saw a romantic opening, called the Fritz variation of the Two Knights. Maybe these days it's more suitable for blitz.

Carlsen's opponent in November, Sergey Karjakin, is playing board one for Russia ahead of Vladimir Kramnik.

Two of the Ukrainian women won their games on the g7 square. First to strike was board-two GM Natalia Zhukova, whose combination was based on the common theme of double attack.

On board four, IM Inna Gaponenko targeted the same spot with a slightly more difficult idea:

The Ukrainian women's team with Gaponenko on the right and Zhukova on board two.

Team Spotlight of the Day: South Sudan

Each day we plan to spotlight for readers a nation or federation that they might know very little about. With more than 180 federations competing, there's a lot to pick from!

Today we start with South Sudan. As of 2011, they are the world's newest country, and the foursome is playing in its first-ever Olympiad. Their challenges are large, but after speaking with them, they have big goals.

South Sudan has only one rated player on the team, Rehan Deng Cypriano (1899), who doubles as the captain. Unlike most other teams, they have no alternate board, no full-time captain, and no coach.

Despite this, their shoestring operation nearly netted them a match win today against Faroe Islands.

Team South Sudan (left) against Faroe Islands.

The country has been mired in a civil war almost since they day it was founded.

"We did not do any preparation or study," Cypriano told They relied on microloans from fellow South Sudanese just to make the trip to Baku. "It is hard for the government to send us," Cypriano explained.

"There was a promise from the African Federation for full sponsorship, but these things, they didn't happen."

Two of the four players boarded a plane for the first time to attend the Olympiad. Cypriano by far has the most experience. He has played in an African Zonal and won the country's first national championship in 2014.

According to Cypriano, chess is very popular in his homeland. The team estimated that one-quarter of the population plays.

After the first game finished, they were 1-0. Unrated third-board Michael Deng Khor Kuol won his game against 2239-rated Joan Hendrik Andreasen. How many teams can say they are undefeated lifetime at the Olympiad? For a few minutes, South Sudan could.

Kuol showed you can beat a master convincingly without knowing a bit of theory against the French.

Then, Cypriano was offered a draw by Faroese IM Helgi Dam Ziska, who may not be a household name, but he did make it into a video last year. He also won the 2016 Small Nations Individual Championship. What did the captain do on board one? He said "no."

"I refused because I was winning — even a beginner would win," Cypriano told He said he figured that his win would make them 2-0, and he expected at least one draw from boards two or four.

Instead, Ziska improbably kept his lone remaining pawn on the board and found a trick at the end.

From there, Faroe Islands ground down their less-experienced opponents in two long endings to take the match 3-1.

They are not here just to compete. Cypriano said his team's goal is to win two individual board medals. As improbable as this is, his comment was given with any hint of bravado. 

Kuol is relishing the chance to experience a new city. More than that, he is proud to bring good news to the world about his country and to bring positive notoriety to his people. 

"We have so many challenges in our country," Kuol said. "Probably a country like South Sudan seems to be a mess."

He said that at home his countrymen don't think about long-term goals since even the next day is not certain. Kuol motioned to the multi-story high-rise buildings on the Baku coastline, some aging and plenty more being built. He saw a permanence he does not usually enjoy.

"For us, we need to have dreams."

Finally, we close with a section on the nonsensical bureaucracy that has so far permeated the reporting on the event.

The organizers of the Olympiad invited the president of Azerbaijan back this afternoon for a ceremonial photo opportunity to kick off the opening round.

There was only one problem — no photos by the press.

Hiccups often happen in the start of the world's most diverse chess tournament, but in the eyes of many in the press corps, today's round one was marked by a lack of information, communication, and transparency. The world's most notable chess journalists could not get access or answers. The replies to our queries ranged from ignorance to obfuscation.

First, security guards said the press would be allowed entrance at 3:00 p.m. Then that was delayed. Then perhaps we'd be allowed in but without cameras. They weren't sure when. And then no one was actually allowed in at all until seconds before the start. There was no time to find any team you wanted to snap the handshakes for.

These veteran journalists could not access the playing hall prior to the round.

Guards that could not speak English didn't have any answers and delayed the entrance by the press corps a few minutes at a time, like an airline might. When the Russian-speaking press asked for clarity, none could be given there either.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (black suit, left) exited with FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (blue suit, adjacent), but it would still be several more minutes until the press collectively argued their way into the playing hall.

Even after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev left, officials were still stating that the press was barred due to his attendance. Evgeny Surov of Chess-News recorded the whole thing on Periscope.

In all, the efforts of the insistent veteran El Pais reporter Leontxo Garcia forced the hand of FIDE CEO Jeffrey Borg. Journalists were allowed entrance, but the problems didn't end.

FIDE CEO Jeffrey Borg finally came only to block the entrance himself without an explanation. Leontxo Garcia said he'd never been denied access to an Olympiad like this.

About an hour into the event, all journalists were asked to stop taking photographs and exit. According to David Llada, one of the official photographers, he was also ushered out. The "Twilight Zone" continued when the efforts of the Olympiad Organizing Committee's Deputy Director Joanna Golas were rebuffed, and she was forced to leave as well.

The regulations officially say that only official photographers are allowed in the event after 10 minutes which are stricter regulations than the last few Olympiads.

When we asked the question, "What happens if there's an upset or unexpected development, and we need to get photos of the team that we didn't get in the first 10 minutes?" we were told that that's what the official photographers are for. Since they were ushered out too, this represents circular (and contradictory) logic. The press corps has been told that tomorrow they will be given access.

GM Ray Robson of USA: Not pleased with the red tape? Actually he was looking at a teammate's game.

In addition, several games on websites carrying live moves were in conflict with each other. Even so, journalists were still disallowed from even entering the hall to simply verify results. 

Finally, there was a tragicomedy that would be easy to brush off were it not for the day's struggles. The feature on South Sudan nearly never happened as the quartet was barred from the press area, and the press was banned from the exit hall.

The interview subjects and this reporter were one meter apart, yet they were not allowed to interact. They had their zone. We had ours.

The South Sudan team on one side, the reporter on another.

Finally, an agreement was made, and an intermediary walked the South Sudanese players around the building several hundred meters out of the way, only to have them rebuffed once again by security when trying to re-enter, as was the plan. The interview was instead conducted outside in the pitch black nighttime wind of the Caspian Sea. Full credit to South Sudan for waiting more than 30 minutes to be interviewed despite constantly being jostled about without sense or logic.

No other major sporting event in the world seems so restrictive with the press, making it difficult to highlight the major stories, people, and subplots of the competition. Organizers of the Olympiad, so far, are preferring to suspend access to what should be one of the most interesting and feature-rich worldwide chess events. The sport's press are here for 10 more rounds. It remains to be seen if the situation will improve.

This report was co-written by FM Mike Klein.

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

Between 2007 and 2013 Peter was running ChessVibes, a major source for chess news and videos acquired by in October 2013.

As our Director News & Events, Peter writes many of our news reports. In the summer of 2022, The Guardian’s Leonard Barden described him as “widely regarded as the world’s best chess journalist.”

In October, Peter's first book The Chess Revolution will be published!

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