The buildup has officially begun for the 43rd Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia. The lineups are posted, so the pre-event punditry can begin. For the first time since its inception, Russia is not head of the open section.
From September 23 to October 6, a whopping 179 federations are expected to converge on the shores of the Black Sea for the 11-round team event, which comprises both an open and women’s section.
Promotional video from the official tournament site.
That leaves six weeks for top teams to pore over the lineups of their biggest rivals, and for smaller federations to wonder which beast they’ll be matched with in round one.
The United States will attempt to defend its gold medal as the number-one squad. Two years ago in Baku, the U.S. team was superseded by a mere two points in average rating to Russia.
The American gold medalists celebrate just after the 2016 closing ceremony. | Photo: Mike Klein/ Chess.com.
But what a difference 24 months makes. Since the last visit to the Caucasus, Russia has stayed almost exactly the same while the U.S. has padded its team average (now 2777) by a dozen points. The team will come to Georgia with the same lineup as two years ago: GMs Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So, Sam Shankland, and Ray Robson.
This appears to be the highest-ever team average. Previously, Russia clocked in at 2773 in 2014 (when 2786-rated Karjakin played on board four!).
The average rating stat is composed of the top four of the five players, and you can likely guess who did most of the damage for the U.S.
Shankland’s U.S. championship win and 62-game unbeaten streak almost single-handedly vaulted his team to the top seed. (Interestingly, if you do count all five players in team rankings, then Russia jumps back above the U.S. But longtime U.S. team captain IM John Donaldson points out that the alternate Robson, 23, is still the youngest on the team, has now graduated college, and has “plenty of room to improve.”)
The medal stand in Baku: U.S. gold, Ukraine silver, Russia bronze. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
The world championship contender Caruana also chipped in while the other team members only had marginal changes. The Olympiad represents another event in a very busy calendar for the challenger. Caruana is slated to play in the Saint Louis Rapid and Blitz and the Sinquefield Cup, both this month, then the Olympiad in September/October and the Chess.com Isle of Man International later in October.
Russia flip-flops with the U.S. and goes in at the number two seed. That’s history just by itself. Since becoming an independent federation in 1992, Russia has had exclusive domain on the top of the pre-tournament rankings. While that streak ends, there’s another one they’d like to come to a close as well: despite being the team to beat, Russia has not won team gold since eight Olympiads ago, in Bled 2002.
Another bit of trivia: According to Donaldson, who is also a chess historian, this is the first time the Americans are favored since the advent of FIDE ratings, not counting the largely boycotted 1976 Olympiad in Haifa.
Unlike its American counterparts, Russia did make some lineup changes as the chase squad. Out are GMs Alexander Grischuk (first time missing the Olympiad since his first appearance in 2000) and Evgeny Tomashevsky, while entering are GMs Dmitry Jakovenko and Nikita Vitiugov. However, three of their top comrades return: GMs Vladimir Kramnik, Sergey Karjakin, and Ian Nepomniachtchi.
USA-Russia is always anticipated (in 2016 it happened twice in the same round). Here’s the ChessVibes video from the 2012 battle in Istanbul.
The winner of the biennial event in 2014, China, is again camped out in the third spot. But like the U.S., it also jumped a dozen rating points in the last two years. China will return four of five players from Baku: GMs Ding Liren, Li Chao, Wei Yi, and Yu Yangyi. Those are all teenagers and 20-somethings, and they will replace one “veteran” with another. The 31-year-old GM Wang Yue is replaced by 32-year-old GM Bu Xiangzhi.
Some of their team members regressed in rating, so why the overall jump? You can thank two men: Ding Liren (2753 to 2797!) and Yu Yangyi (2725 to 2760).
You don’t need to speak Georgian to see that the beach is the place to be for the Olympiad.
Donaldson gives many more teams than the top three chances to win it all. Here’s his explanation:
In 2016 we scored a record 20 (out of 22) points, but still ended up going to a tiebreaker with Ukraine to determine the winner. There is very little room for error. There are six teams with average ratings over 2700 and another seven over 2650. Only Armenia (2006 and 2008) has repeated as gold medalists this century. By the numbers no team has more than a 20 percent chance of winning. That said we have as good a chance as anybody and will do our utmost to repeat.
Other big risers in the top 20 since Baku? That would be India (#9 to #5); Armenia (did not attend to #9); Israel (#16 to #10); Romania (#30 to #19); and Peru (#34 to #20).
The biggest drop isn’t even close. Norway will come to Georgia with only three GMs and without the services of top GMs Magnus Carlsen or Jon Ludvig Hammer. Its young squad consequently falls from #12 to #38.
Now you see them, now you don’t. GMs Magnus Carlsen and Jon Ludvig Hammer (both left) will not play in 2018. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Well, you could take issue with the last superlative. In 2016, Bulgaria only played GM Veselin Topalov for five rounds and finished 66th, which was 44 spots lower than its ranking. This time around, it won’t even place after its federation was banned from FIDE (you won’t even find Bulgaria on the “top country” list).
Donaldson rounds out some predictions. When asked by Chess.com to name all the teams that have at least a 10 percent chance of winning, he said:
Besides the U.S. and Russia the other teams with average ratings over 2700—China, Azerbaijan, India, and Ukraine—are the most logical contenders. China, which has won back-to-back World Team Championships as well as the 2014 Olympiad, is always tough. Azerbaijan is led by Mamedyarov who has been in great form of late, while India, which has played very well the past few Olympiads, has Anand playing for the first time since Turin 2006. Finally Ukraine, which played magnificently in Baku, is back at full strength.
Donaldson then named Poland as a possible dark horse, but also didn’t rule out a new-look Armenian team.
Of the top 20 players in the world, the only one not playing besides the aforementioned Carlsen, Grischuk, and Topalov is GM Peter Svidler. GM Richard Rapport is noticeably absent from the Hungarian team, as is GM Paco Vallejo for Spain, who has admittedly not had chess on his mind lately.
GM Viswanathan Anand will play at the Olympiad for the first time since 2006. | Photo: Official site.
Some notable captain changes will take effect, too. With IM Malcolm Pein on the ticket for the presidential campaign of IM Georgios Makropoulos, in steps legendary GM John Nunn to captain the English contingent. GM Jan Gustafsson jumps from player to captain (well, he last played in 2012), but for Netherlands, not Germany! Also changing roles will be GM Evgenij Miroshnichenko who “drops the mike”—he will go from commentator to captain of Iran.
2018 Chess Olympiad | Top 20 Open Teams
|1||United States of America||2777||Donaldson John|
|5||India||2723||Ramesh R B|
|9||Armenia||2679||Petrosian Arshak B|
|14||Czech Republic||2637||Jansa Vlastimil|
|16||Spain||2623||Magem Badals Jordi|
|18||Belarus||2610||Tukmakov Vladimir B|
|20||Peru||2601||Soto Vega Jorge|
There is slightly more movement at the top for the ladies. With GM Hou Yifan sitting out, defending champion China falls from number-one to number-three this time around. China also leaves GM Tan Zhongyi off the roster, despite her winning a women’s world championship in the interregnum since last Olympiad!
Russia returns all five women from last time but changes places, going from number-three to number-one (biggest riser: the youngster WGM Aleksandra Goryachkina), while Ukraine only changed its alternate and therefore remains the meat of the sandwich, still at number two.
China-Russia is usually the matchup to focus on (they’ve combined for eight of the last 10 women’s team golds), and it’s almost certain to happen in one of the 11 rounds. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Women’s perennial powerhouse Georgia was fourth in Baku, and it is not yet listed, but rest assured that the home country will be attending! Likely Georgia is waiting to see if there will be an odd or even number of teams. The host country traditionally gets two teams, and possibly a third if it will even out the number of federations, but this can affect how to form each five-some.
Notable risers in the women’s tournament includes France (#23 to #6 as GM Marie Sebag and IM Almira Skripchenko return); Kazakhstan (#31 to #8 as young star IM Zhansaya Abdumalik  added nearly 100 points); Azerbaijan (#16 to #10); Armenia (did not attend to #13); and Netherlands (#21 to #14).
Winners in 2016, can China repeat without its star? | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.
Those beginning noticeably further down include the U.S. (#6 to #9 as U.S. women’s champion IM Nazi Paikidze declined her invitation); Hungary (#8 to #12); Lithuania (#12 to #24); and Iran (#13 to #26). As in the open, Bulgaria (#9 in 2016) will not attend, which will end GM Antoaneta Stefanova’s streak of 13 consecutive Olympiads (12 on the women’s team and once in the open).
Another notable absence this year is GM Pia Cramling, who first played 40 years ago and has split time between the open and women’s teams for Sweden. She is not on the roster due to a row about captaincy despite calling the Baku Olympiad her favorite since she got to play alongside her daughter.
2018 Chess Olympiad | Top 20 Women’s Teams
|9||United States of America||2387||Khachiyan Melikset|
|11||Spain||2358||Martinez Martin David|
|14||Netherlands||2334||Cifuentes Parada Roberto|
|18||Cuba||2318||Alvarez Pedraza Aramis|
|20||Italy||2316||Garcia Palermo Carlos|
As he’s said several times, one of Donaldson’s main jobs is to bring the Tiger Balm and alcohol swabs. While the U.S. will not have any sort of training camp, here’s his plan for his team this year:
In Baku everyone knew each other from individual tournaments but had not played together. It took a few rounds to make the transition, but after that went pretty smoothly. That will not be an issue in Batumi. One take away from Baku was the need to stay healthy throughout the event. Olympiads can be stressful and because you have players from all over the world there is always somebody sick.
Chess.com will have extensive daily coverage of both events. Directors of Content Peter Doggers and Mike Klein will be on site, as will photographer Maria Emelianova.