Looking for its first medal in the women’s Chess Olympiad, India is cautiously optimistic about living up to the the reputation of being the top seed over the next 12 days.
Being the favourite is a fine feeling, but there is very little that separates India from former champions Ukraine and Georgia, seeded two and three.
Effectively, with mother-to-be D. Harika joining the action only in key encounters, the other team members are prepared to play most matches without her. As a result, for the better part, the top seed will be playing with the rating strength of the third-best team. What gives India its best chance to win the elusive medal is the absence of Russia and defending champion China, winners of six out of the nine previous editions.
The Indian team trained hard under Boris Gelfand in the first preparatory camp in May and more recently with the other team coaches for the Olympiad.
A late addition of a third team following the withdrawal of Turkmenistan means India has three teams among the top 16 seeds in a field of 162 entries.
The team comprising K. Humpy, Harika, debutant R. Vaishali, Tania Sachdev and Bhakti Kulkarni has the strength to go all the way. Vaishali, the youngest member in the mix, could provide the cutting edge the team needs on the third board in crucial encounters.
Ukraine and Georgia are closely matched and have the experience of being on the podium in the presence of powerhouses Russia and China.
The Muzychuk sisters - Mariya and Anna - and Anna Ushenina form the dreaded trio for Ukraine. Mariya, a former women's World champion, has played a key role for Ukraine that has won a medal in every Olympiad since 2012. Winner in 2006, the team lost out to China on a tie-breaker and finished with a silver in 2018. Anna is the strongest in the squad, while Ushenina is the other former women's World champion in the line-up.
Four-time winner Georgia should be considered a co-favourite for the title. Spearhead Nana Dzagnidze, Lela Javakhishvili, Nino Batsiashvili and Meri Arabidze form a formidable combination considering the strengths of the lesser-rated teams.
Poland, strengthened by the presence of Alina Kashlinskaya, who switched her nationality from Russia recently, could cause an upset or two. Apart from Alina, the team has Monika Socko with a rating of 2416. The two boards looking sound, Oliwia Kiolbasa and Maria Malicka could take some calculated risks.
The tested French duo of Marie Sebag and Sophie Millet provide the team with some much-needed firepower at the top. Pauline Guichard, Anastasia Savina and Andreea Novrotescu are the ones who will punch above their weight to provide support to their seasoned compatriots.
Kazakhstan, the fourth highest rated team until last week, suffered a setback with Dinara Saduakassova, rated 2435, making way for Nazerke Nurgali 2181. This made the team slip to 10th on the starting list.
The late withdrawal of former women's World champion Antoaneta Stefanova, rated 2467, has hit Bulgaria hard. The team, seeded 10th before the pullout of Stefanova, is now 15th after the inclusion of Beloslava Krasteva (2249).