Chess Olympiad 2016: Who Is (And Who Isn't) Playing

Chess Olympiad 2016: Who Is (And Who Isn't) Playing

| 40 | Chess Event Coverage

In two weeks from now the Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan starts. Who is playing? Who are the favorites? Which top GMs are missing?

It's the next big event in the chess calendar, and it's the biggest of all. Whereas the Olympics in Rio are finishing up, competition has yet to begin for the chess players. This first preview focuses on the participants; the country lists have been published on the official website.

The Baku Olympiad takes place September 1-14 in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital on the Caspian Sea. The playing hall is the stunning Crystal Hall, where the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest was held. Later in the same year, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and Rihanna performed in the arena. During the 2015 European Games, it hosted boxing, karate, taekwondo, fencing and volleyball.

This Olympiad, the 42nd, is expected to break new records. According to the Director of the Baku Chess Olympiad Operating Committee and Vice-President of the Azerbaijan Chess Federation, Mahir Mammedov, there will be 180 countries participating. That is eight more than competed two years ago in Tromsø, Norway.

Armenia Out

As reported on an earlier episode of ChessCenter and in this week's In Other News report, team Armenia (winners in 2006, 2008 and 2012) will not be playing. The players decided themselves, according to GM Smbat Lputian who spoke to 

"Not as the Vice President as the Chess Federation but as a chess player I understand the decision of our chess players as taking part in this kind of important tournament they have to possess inner and external peace in order to show their best results. It's a pity that according to chess players given the current situation Armenian-Azerbaijani relationship the latter is not possible."

The official response from the organizers came via an interview with the aforementioned Mammedov: "We provided the Armenian team with security guaranteesWe are already experienced in organizing competitions involving Armenian players in Baku. If they do not want to participate in the Baku Chess Olympiad, this is their own responsibility. To be frank, we did not expect this decision because Armenian players did take part in the World Cup held in Baku last year."

One of several impressive promo videos by the organizers.

Azerbaijan ambitious

It's no surprise that host country Azerbaijan is taking this Olympiad very seriously. Three training sessions were organized for the players (Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Teimour Radjabov, Arkadij Naiditsch, Eltaj Safarli and Rauf Mamedov), the first with French grandmaster Etienne Bacrot. The experienced Russian Alexey Dreev has been hired as the captain.

Dreev thinks that playing on home soil will help his team. "To some extent, the pressure will be felt, because of the many local fans. I do not believe that this factor will negatively affect our team. The players in the team are professionals. They are used to this."

Russia favored again

Yet again, Russia tops the list of teams by rating. This has always been the case, but we know that things haven't exactly worked for the Russians in recent years. The last time they claimed the gold medal was at the 2002 Olympiad in Bled. Since then, Ukraine has won twice, Armenia has won three times, and the reigning champions are China.

Captained by FIDE Vice President Andrey Filatov, Russia will play with Vladimir Kramnik, Sergey Karjakin, Alexander Grischuk, Evgeny Tomashevsky and Ian Nepomniachtchi. That means Peter Svidler is out, in favor of the lower rated Tomashevsky. Will this make the difference? Will there finally be enough chemistry in the team? Time will tell.

Hopefully Vladimir Kramnik's back problems will be over by September.

Second by rating is USA, with three players in the current top 10 and two strong 2600-grandmasters: Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Ray Robson and Sam Shankland. With the winner of the Sinquefield Cup and the winner of the Biel Open, boards three and five are pretty strong, but the whole team is fantastic, of course. Gold can be the only goal. Officially the team captain is Aleksander Lenderman, but as the head of the delegation, John Donaldson will probably take his traditional role again.

Third seeded are the reigning champions. Besides Russia, China is the only team with five 2700+ players: Wang YueLi ChaoDing LirenYu Yangyi and Wei Yi. The latter won the last two Chinese Championships and is considered to be one of the major talents in chess at the moment. The only difference from two years ago is that this time Li Chao is playing instead of Ni Hua.

The famous photo of Ni Hua and Wang Yue, in tears after winning the first gold for China.

No Bacrot, Leko, Gelfand, Ivanchuk

If any other team than Russia, USA or China wins gold, it will be an upset. Azerbaijan, already mentioned, is fourth seeded, and next in line is Ukraine. There's big news related to that team: Vassily Ivanchuk, who hasn't missed an Olympiad since he played his first for the Soviet Union in 1988, won't be playing in Baku. The reason is shocking, unless you live on "Planet Chuky." He prefers to play a draughts tournament instead!

Yes, you heard that right. Ivanchuk has been hooked on that other board game for a few years now, and he will be playing his third open tournament in Karpacz, Poland. He told that it "wasn't a difficult decision" as he simply likes to play in Karpacz instead. Ivanchuk scored 50 percent in his last tournament, and according to former draughts world champion Ton Sijbrands, he is making fast progress. "At the moment my level (according professionals) is Candidate Master," Ivanchuk said. "So, my goal is to reach the level of Master."

Vassily Ivanchuk, hooked on draughts these days.

While we're at it, more strong grandmasters are missing. Etienne Bacrot is not playing for France, still sixth seeded. Peter Leko and Boris Gelfand are not representing their countries, Hungary and Israel; both have had issues with their federation. We also noticed that Julio Granda Zuniga is not playing for Peru.

Unfortunately, once again, Vishy Anand won't be playing the Olympiad. He didn't play in the years 1994-2002. He returned to play for India in 2004 and 2006, the last year he competed. Veselin Topalov is playing for Bulgaria, but the team is missing Ivan Cheparinov, Kiril Georgiev and Alexander Delchev.

Magnus Carlsen will play, but Norway won't be playing for medals. He's playing with Jon Ludvig Hammer, Aryan Tari, Frode Urkedal and IM Nicolai Getz. For both Carlsen and Karjakin, the Olympiad will be the last tournament before the world championship in November.

One team that might be the real dark horse in Baku is Poland, who is playing with their strongest possible lineup: Radoslaw WojtaszekJan-Krzysztof Duda, Kacper Piorun, Dariusz Swiercz and Mateusz Bartel. Former world number-10 Michal Krasenkow didn't even make the team; he's captain of Turkey instead.

This seems a sufficient excuse to embed this Poland promo, made for the 2015 European Team Championship, once again.

Old guns, new captains

The Olympiad is always one big reunion in the chess community. This year, many famous names from the past are serving as team captains. Some examples:

  • Nick De Firmian is the team captain of Bermuda
  • Mikhail Gurevich is team captain for Djibouti
  • Maurice Ashley is the team captain of Ivory Coast
  • Judit Polgar is again team captain for Hungary
  • Laszlo Hazai is the captain of Hungary's women's team
  • Ian Rogers is the captain of Australia's women's team
  • Yasser Seirawan is the captain of USA's women's team
  • Jon Speelman is the captain of England's women's team
  • Ulf Andersson is the captain of Brazil's women's team

Evgeny Bareev doesn't really fit in this list, but he should be mentioned here. He's not a captain; he's playing! The former world number-four changed federations to Canada last year, and he is playing board one for that country!

One of the absolute legends of the Olympiad will be Alexander Beliavsky, who is representing Slovenia for the 11th time. Before that, he played once for Ukraine and four times for the Soviet Union. But he's still not the player with the most participations.

Can the Russian women be beaten?

The last three Olympiads were very similar in the women's section. In 2014, 2012 and 2010 Russia won gold, and China won silver. Six years ago, Georgia took bronze; in the last two editions, those medals went to Ukraine.

Taking this into account, Russia should be the favorite. However, based on rating, China is in fact the top seed. It helps to have a world champion with a 78-point lead in the rating list!

Hou Yifan is board one obviously; she will play with Zhao Xue, Ju Wenjun, Tan Zhongyi and Guo Qi. The Russian team consists of Alexandra Kosteniuk, Valentina Gunina, Aleksandra Goryachkina, Natalija Pogonina and Olga Girya.

Bulgaria vs Russia in the last round in Tromsø.

Normally speaking, only Ukraine and Georgia will also be in contention for the gold medal. They are the only other teams with an average rating above 2400. Ukraine has both Mariya and Anna Muzychuk, Anna Ushenina (that's two knockout world champions!), Natalia Zhukova and Inna Gaponenko. Georgia plays with Nana Dzagnidze, Lela Javakhishvili, Nino Batsiashvili, Bela Khotenashvili and Salome Melia.

The Chess Olympiad has been held 41 times before. A wonderful source of information on all previous events is OlimpBase.

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