The United States, Russia and China are top seeded and the teams to beat at the 179-nation biennial Olympiad, which starts at Batumi, Georgia, on Monday. Russia and China are the favourites in the women’s event.
For half a century in the Soviet era its team of legends led by Mikhail Botvinnik, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov was totally dominant. In 26 Olympiads from Helsinki 1952 to Bled 2002 the USSR/Russia won every time except for 1976, when the Soviets boycotted the event in Israel, and 1978, when Hungary were first.
The golden generation at their zenith hated to lose a single game. When Botvinnik was beaten by Austria’s Andreas Dückstein in 1958, bad light was blamed and the Munich organisers had to install a special lamp at the world champion’s board. When Mikhail Tal fell into a prepared variation against Jonathan Penrose at Leipzig 1960, the USSR’s only loss, he blamed Paul Keres, who had been caught by the same plan a few weeks earlier but had omitted to tell his teammate. There was a darker episode at Dubai 1986, where Soviet trainers gave advice to England’s Spanish opponents during the games.
But from 2004 onwards Russia, though top-seeded every time, have failed at seven Olympiads in a row. Armenia have won three, Ukraine two and China and the US one each. The Americans are the reigning Olympiad champions and will be hard to dislodge. Their top-10 trio of the world title challenger, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura are backed up by the reigning US champion, Sam Shankland, who this summer had a 62-game unbeaten run.
Russia is taking the Olympiad very seriously, and Vladimir Putin himself visited the team training camp in Sochi this week to wish the open and women’s teams success.
England, with Michael Adams, David Howell, Gawain Jones, Luke McShane and Nick Pert, are seeded eighth. On paper this implies an outside medal chance, but the silver years of 1984-88, when England were bested only by the USSR, are a distant memory. England’s players will count it a success if they match their seeding.
Monday’s opening Olympiad round starts at midday, and all England’s matches will be shown free and live online at chess24.com.
Iran’s young team, though ranked outside the top 20, may surprise. Many chess fans link Iranian chess only with its 1979 revolution ban on the game, which lasted nine years before it was lifted by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and with the recent controversy over the mandatory hijab for female players.
At last week’s world junior championship in Turkey two of Iran’s teenage grandmasters finished high up, while the third, Parham Maghsoodloo, won the title in truly impressive style. The 18-year-old, who said “ It’s good to play for a win and be a fighter,” works on chess 10-15 hours a day. He has jumped 44 places in the live ratings, is poised to become Iran’s first ever 2700-rated GM and hopes to challenge Magnus Carlsen in 2022.
This game clinched the junior crown with a game to spare. White controls the centre with his d5 knight, systematically opens up the black king and finishes off with a forced mate.
Parham Maghsoodloo v Maksim Vavulin
1 Nf3 c5 2 e4 d6 3 d4 Nf6 4 Nc3 cxd4 5 Nxd4 a6 6 h3 e5 7 Nde2 h5 8 Bg5 Be6 9 Bxf6 Qxf6 10 Nd5 Qd8 11 Qd3 g6 12 0-0-0 Bh6+ 13 Kb1 Nd7 14 Qa3 Nc5 15 Nec3 0-0 16 h4 b5 17 f3 f5 18 Be2 Bg7 19 g4 hxg4 20 fxg4 fxg4 21 Rhg1 Rb8 22 Bxg4 Bf7 23 h5 gxh5 24 Bf5 Kh8 25 Ne2 Bh6 26 Qh3 Rg8 27 Rxg8+ Qxg8 28 Rg1 Qf8 29 Ng3 Rb7 30 Nf6 b4 31 Ngxh5 a5 32 Nh7 Bxa2+ 33 Kxa2 Rxh7 34 Bxh7 Kxh7 35 Qg4 Qf7+ 36 Kb1 Ne6 37 Nf6+ 1-0
3585 (by Einar Kudsen, Skakbladet 1925), 1 Qh5. If Re5 2 Qd1 mate. If Rf8/f7/f6 2 B(x)f6 mate. If Rf4/f3/f2/f1 2 B(x)f4 mate. If Ke5 2 Rc5 mate.