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On Chess: The history of the United States in Chess Olympiads

the 2016 U.S. Chess Olympiad team. From left to right, Alex Lenderman (coach), Hikaru Nakamura, John Donaldson (captain), Sam Shankland, Ray Robson, Wesley So, and Fabiano Caruana.
Mike Kelin | Chess.com
The 2016 U.S. Chess Olympiad team. From left to right, Alex Lenderman (coach), Hikaru Nakamura, John Donaldson (captain), Sam Shankland, Ray Robson, Wesley So, and Fabiano Caruana.

The biennial Chess Olympiad, the most important competition in the chess world outside the World Championship, has been held continuously since 1927, interrupted only by World War II. American teams have participated in 38 of the 42 competitions and won six.

Although the United States didn’t compete in the first event held in London in 1927, it quickly made its mark, finishing second at The Hague in 1928, and fourth in Hamburg two years later. That set the table for an incredible streak from 1931 to 1937, which saw the Americans win four consecutive Olympiads, the second longest run of success in the event’s history, eclipsed only by the Soviet Union from 1952-1974 and the Soviet Union/Russia from 1980-2002.

The American teams from the 1930s, led by player/captain Frank Marshall, benefited from the Great Depression as many of its best players, including Isaac Kashdan, Sammy Reshevsky and Reuben Fine, were effectively chess professionals having limited job prospects elsewhere. Unlike the Olympics, chess has not made a distinction between amateurs and professionals since the early 1930s. The U.S. run of success ended in 1939 when the United States failed to field a team — no one could have guessed at the time it would be almost 40 years before the Americans would again emerge triumphant. That Olympiad was held in 1976 in Haifa, Israel, and was boycotted by the Soviet Union and its East Bloc allies. It would be yet again another four decades before the United States would finish first.

There were plenty of close calls the next few decades as the U.S. entered the last round at Buenos Aires (1978), Dubai (1986) and Elista (1998) with a chance for gold, but came up empty-handed. The drought was only broken in Baku, Azerbaijan, last year when the American squad of GMs Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland and Ray Robson topped 169 other teams to finish first.

Like the gold-medal winners in the 1930s, this team was young with most of the players in their early 20s. Unlike those teams of the past that were composed almost entirely of New Yorkers, the 2016 players came from all over the United States, with two from St. Louis. Another similarity is these teams had three players rated in the top 10 in the world.

The United States has never finished first with a future world champion playing for it. Bobby Fischer represented the United States in four Olympiads (1960, 1962, 1966 and 1970), but his teams never finished higher than second.

Winning a Chess Olympiad is difficult, repeating even harder — only three countries have done so the past 90 years. The 2018 United States Olympiad team will face a stiff challenge in government-supported teams from Russia and China that not only enjoy year-round support, but also the incentive of large cash bonuses and more if they win the Chess Olympiad. The geopolitical battle will extend to the chessboard next fall when Tbilisi, Georgia, hosts the 43rd Olympiad.

See a full exhibition of these historic U.S. Chess Olympiad moments at the World Chess Hall of Fame. The exhibit opens with a special event from 6-8 p.m. Friday, with guest appearances by the 2016 Gold Medal Olympiad team and team captain John Donaldson.


International Master (IM) 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 Grandmaster (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.