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On Chess: USA wins gold at Baku Chess Olympiad

From left, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Ray Robson, Sam Shankland and Wesley So
From left, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Ray Robson, Sam Shankland and Wesley So

Rio was not the only city to host an Olympics in 2016. Baku, capital of the oil-rich nation of Azerbaijan, just hosted the 42nd Chess Olympiad, over the last two weeks. The Olympiad featured more than 1,600 players from 180 countries. When the dust settled, the United States finished at the top, earning gold for the first time in 40 years.

While there were major differences between the two Olympiads, there were also plenty of similarities. Azerbaijan, a country where East truly meets West, is north of Iran and south of Russia, with the Caspian Sea forming its border to the East. With a population just under 10 million, Azerbaijan was the perfect setting for a battle royale between global and chess powerhouses Russia, China and the United States.

It was evident from the start that the organizers had done an excellent job; the players were housed in 5-star hotels, enjoyed the beautiful architecture and seemed to universally agree that this was one of the best Olympiads.

The American team consisted of St. Louis resident Fabiano Caruana, former St. Louis resident Hikaru Nakamura, current Webster University student Ray Robson, California native Sam Shankland and former Webster University student Wesley So. Seeded second into the event, team USA included three of the top 10 players in the world and was coached by Brooklyn GM Alex Lenderman and captained by California IM John Donaldson. The U.S. Chess Federation, Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis and the Kasparov Chess Foundation sponsored the strongest American team in Olympiad in history.

Just as the athletes in the Rio Olympics were offered various incentives for medaling, so too were competitors at the Olympiad. The chess-playing nations pulled out all the stops this year, offering team bonuses for medaling and sending large delegations that included coaches and captains, trainers and reserve players. Russia, traditionally the dominant chess country, had not won the Chess Olympiad since 2002. It showed its commitment to ending the drought and winning gold by holding several pre-event training camps as well as bringing a small army of coaches and support staff for their team to Baku.

The United States started strong with victories over Andorra, Scotland, Argentina, the Czech Republic and Serbia in the first five rounds.

Ukraine, in an important match that echoed the political tensions between the two countries, helped foul Russia’s bid for gold early on by taking a narrow victory against that country in round four.

By round 6 the Americans began facing stiffer competition, and sat across from the same Ukrainians. With a bit of foreshadowing, the American boys bested their eastern European colleagues by the slimmest of margins (2 ½ - 1 ½).

In round 7, the Americans routed a very strong Indian team, winning on three boards and drawing on the last. With the tension mounting in round 8, the United States was to face the top-seeded Russian team; despite its early setback against the Ukraine, Russia clambered back into the hunt. While the U.S.-Russia result was a draw, America was poised well heading into the final three rounds.

Despite the talent, national pride and monetary incentives, it seemed no other team could threaten the USA’s chances of taking top honors. Team America won their final three rounds against Norway, Georgia and Canada to finish the Olympiad with an undefeated result of 9 match victories and 2 draws.

Furthermore, the Ukrainians had an excellent Olympiad, suffering their only defeat at the hands of the Americans. With both teams tied for first, tiebreaks would be the deciding factor in which team would earn gold and which would take silver. After more than 30 minutes of calculation, the arbiters determined the Americans had earned the gold medal for the first time since 1976.

And so it is that the United States demonstrated its dominance at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku. With teammates congratulating one another on their flights back home, the chess world looks to America once again for the future of chess.

International Master John Donaldson has served as director of the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room in San Francisco, California, since 1998. He worked for Inside Chess magazine from 1988 to 2000 and has authored over 30 books on chess to-date. Donaldson earned the IM title in 1983, has two norms toward the coveted GM title, and has captained the U.S. national chess team on 15 occasions, including to the 2016 gold medal in Baku - the first gold for the U.S. team since 1976.

On Chess is provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.