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On Chess: The Batumi Chess Olympiad

The 2018 U.S. Olympic team. Seated (left to right): Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So. Standing: Ray Robson, John Donaldson, Sam Shankland.
Dilip Vishwanat
World Chess Hall of Fame

The Georgian resort city of Batumi, located on the Black Sea near the Turkish border, will host the 43 Chess Olympiad. More than 1,600 players from 185 countries will compete in the bi-annual event, which is separate from the Summer and Winter Olympics.

The two-week-long tournament, running from Sept. 24 to Oct. 6, will see the United States' team attempt to defend the gold medals it won as the top finisher in 2016 in Azerbaijan, its first victory in 40 years. Perennial powerhouses Russia, China and Ukraine, along with newcomers Azerbaijan and India, are among the other top-ranked teams in an event that traces its history back to 1927.

The United States will field the same team that won two years ago: Grandmasters Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland and Ray Robson. Caruana, Nakamura and Robson all come from St. Louis, the center of chess in the United States.

Not only large countries will be in Batumi, as chess knows no geographic boundaries; it’s played around the world. Even small nation-states like Palau and Nauru will be fielding teams, with North and South Korea the only prominent absentees.

Chess doesn’t immediately come to mind as a team sport, but it can be. In the Olympiads, each country fields four players per round who compete as individuals, but have their scores added together with two-and-a-half points (one point for a win and a half for a draw) winning a match.

The competition is divided between Open and Women's sections. Some high-rated female players compete in the Open, but most will participate in the Women's section. This reflects the fact that more than 90 percent of tournament competitors are male.

Chess is a game best watched on the internet where the Olympiad games are broadcast live, often with expert, live commentary. The Olympiad attracts about 5 million viewers a day.

The Chess Olympiad does upstage its bigger rivals in several areas. The lodging and food provided for the Summer Olympics regularly make headlines for the spartan conditions and mediocre quality, but none are likely to complain in Batumi where the competitors will be housed in five-star Sheratons, Radissons and Hiltons and offered top quality buffets.

In the Chess Olympiad hundreds of teenages will participate as the rise of the internet and strong computer chess programs and databases have revolutionized and democratized the game. Players as young as 12 are now becoming grandmasters and not only from traditional hotbeds of the game like Russia and Eastern Europe. It’s not only youth who will be making their mark in Batumi. Dozens of teams will field players in their 50s and 60s because chess is a more cerebral than physical competition. More information available at https://batumi2018.fide.com/en.

International Master (IM) John Donaldson has served as director of the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room in San Francisco since 1998. He worked for Inside Chess magazine from 1988 to 2000 and has authored more than30 books on chess. Donaldson earned the IM title in 1983, has two norms toward the coveted grandmaster 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.