AFTER RIO - EVEN MORE OLYMPIC GOLDS FOR THE USA!
by Theo Slade
Although I have never been to a Chess Olympiad, it is easy for me to see why it remains a firm favourite of players who have already experienced this unique gathering of chess players from all over the world. It is an open team event, staged every two years, giving the super grandmasters a chance to play against both known and unknown opponents whilst providing mere mortals with a golden opportunity to pull off an upset or two.
Personally I enjoy playing team chess because of the camaraderie. The fact that you want your team-mates to win and that they want the best for you too is a pleasant sensation and quite a change from individual events where you hope your rivals will drop points — and vice versa!
I have heard people say that attending an Olympiad is a wonderful opportunity to meet up again with friends from many foreign lands. And also that Baku was the best organised Olympiad ever! Indeed, this huge event took place in a modern, well-lit and spacious venue with ideal playing conditions. The hotel accommodation was very good and the great modernisation Baku has undergone in the past ten years or so made it a splendid location for players, captains, organisers, commentators and reporters alike. In recent times Azerbajian's capital city has also hosted the World Cup, so clearly FIDE has full confidence in its ability to stage even the most important chess events.
I have to admit that when following the excellent online coverage of the Olympiad, I cheated a bit by rooting for two teams, England and the USA!
As it happened, a member of the chess club that I sporadically attend, James "Jim" McTigue, was actually playing in the Baku Olympiad, representing the US Virgin Islands! He had competed in an Olympiad before, in Novi Sad 1990, and told me that he wanted to play in this year's Olympiad too, "whilst I still can." I admire his initiative and positive attitude, especially considering that he is entering his more senior years. To be honest, I can't understand it when players turn down invitations to represent their countries. After all, such an honour is usually a high point in the careers of most sportsmen and women. More often than not the reason given is that they have other commitments, but just imagine if Tom Daley said that he would not be able to go to the Olympics in 2020 because he did not want to take time off work!
That minor gripe aside, it seems that most countries fielded more or less their strongest possible teams, with a few notable exceptions: Vishy Anand (IND), Peter Svidler, Dmitry Andreikin, Ernesto Inarkiev, Nikita Vitiugov (all RUS), Boris Gelfand, Ilia Smirin, Emil Stuovsky (all ISR), Peter Leko (HUN), Vasil Ivanchuk (UKR), and Humpy Koneru (IND) were all missing for one reason or another. Armenia also did not compete due to their hostile political relationship with Azerbaijan, which of course meant that Levon Aronian, Sergei Movsesian, Vladimir Akopian, Gabriel Sargissian, and Hrant Melkumyan all missed out.
Anyway, back to business. Being a resident of the USA, what else could I write about than the fantastic performance of the American gold medal-winning men's team? Though only seeded second, their top three boards were all higher rated than their Russian counterparts, so even in a face-to-face match you could argue that USA were the stronger side. Of course, it is easy to say that with hindsight, but before the Olympiad the Russians were undoubtedly the bookie's favourite.
Anyway, the USA began their quest for gold by thrashing Andorra 4-0.
In the second round, USA eased past Scotland 3½-½.
Wesley So's ruthless exploitation of his opponent's mistake foreshadowed what was to be a fantastic Olympiad result for him, both individually and as a team member.