The U.S. — much like the erstwhile Soviet Union, and later Russia — carries an aura of invincibility leading up to the 44th Chess Olympiad. Without a doubt the strongest contender for gold in the Open section, USA is made to look unstoppable in the absence of Russia and China.
With Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Levon Aronian — ranked fourth to sixth in world rankings — along with 14th ranked Leiner Dominguez Perez and 26th ranked Sam Shankland completing the line-up, it appears almost futile to look beyond this U.S. combination for the gold medal. Remember, this air of invincibility is despite World No. 11 Hikaru Nakamura opting to stay away. Mercifully, in sports, favourites do not necessarily walk away as winners. Even the best can have an off day and in a format of this kind, an outcome of a key contest could decide the colour of the medal or even keep a formidable-looking side off the podium.
Azerbaijan, India ‘A’ and Norway could pose a challenge to the U.S. But, let us not take anything away from the mighty top seeded combination.
For Azerbaijan, the form of top-ranked Shakhriyar Mamedyarov could be a concern but this trusted soldier, along with Teimour Radjabov, provides a sense of assurance on the top two boards. Rauf Memedov and Gadir Guseinov on the two lower boards could well prove to be the ‘strikers’ the team will look up to.
For the first time, India is seeded to be among the medallists. On several occasions, India has played the Olympiad without spearhead Viswanathan Anand, but this time, the five-time World champion dons the role of a mentor for the home teams. With P. Harikrishna striking form and Vidit Gujrathi providing the confidence on the second board, a lot can be expected from the in-form debutant Arjun Erigaisi on the third board. This rising star has done well against those rated 2600+ and his form could prove to be the cutting edge India needs to pull off key matches. S. L. Narayanan and the seasoned K. Sasikiran are expected to provide solidity, when required, on the lower boards. N. Srinath, the youngest among the five Indian coaches, is attached with this team.
Though 11th seed India ‘B’ is not among the medal favourites, look out for some excitement each time this young side plays a top-10 team. Nihal Sarin, D. Gukesh, B. Adhiban, R, Praggnanandhaa and Raunak Sadhwani form a combination capable of embarrassing quite a few names from the higher-rated teams. Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa and Raunak have shown fine touch in recent weeks. Should Nihal Sarin and Adhiban, ‘the beast’, find their true form during the Olympiad, this could well be the team to watch out for. How noted coach R. B. Ramesh manages their workload remains to be seen.
In fact, thanks to the odd-numbered entries, India gained an opportunity to field a third team. Seeded 17th, the India ‘C’ team, comprising Surya Shekhar Ganguly, M. Karthikeyan, S. P. Sethuraman, Abhijeet Gupta and Abhimanyu Puranik, has all players rated over 2600. With Tejas Bakre as a coach, the team boasts of a fair amount of strength. But for this team to be noticed, it is pertinent for the players to strike form when it matters.
Coming back to the medal contenders, Norway enjoys the fourth seeding mainly because of Magnus Carlsen whose rating of 2864 — 92 points more than the second best player, Aryan Tari, and over 300 points more than the fifth member of the team — dramatically raises the average rating of the team. It must be said that Jon Ludvig Hammer and Johan-Sebastian Christiansen are also pretty strong on the lower boards. However, Norway could find it tough to justify its seeding.
There is very little to choose between Spain and Poland, seeded five and six. Spain looks better balanced with its top four players rated between 2702 and 2675. Francisco Vallejo Pons, seasoned Alexie Shirov and David Anton hold the key to Spain’s prospects, much like Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Radoslaw Wojtaszek on the top two boards for Poland. Again, the importance of having two strong players on the lower boards cannot be overemphasised.
This is where the Netherlands’ experience on the two lower boards could come handy. The seventh seed has Anish Giri and Jorden van Foreest but Erwin L’Ami and Benjamin Bok will have to play their part on the last two boards for the team to stay in medal contention.
Former champion Ukraine may not carry that intimidating look of the past but continues to be a potent threat to any team. Though Andrei Volokitin, a key member of the 2004 gold-winning team, is still around, the side is fairly balanced with Anton Korobov spearheading the campaign, and even the fourth strongest player, Yuriy Kuzubov, is rated 2642.
Similarly, Germany also presents a strong challenge with young Vincent Keymer leading the side with no player rated lower than 2642.
England relies on the tested quartet of Michael Adams, Luke McShane, David Howell and Gawain Jones — all rated between 2696 and 2652 — in its bid for a medal.
Overall, after the initial rounds, expect the most decisive matches among the top 20 teams to reflect a one-point winning margin. Gone are the days when even some of the stronger players were happy to draw with black pieces instead of stretching harder for a win. Watch out for some flamboyant, young Turks to make life difficult for many seasoned names. In short, fasten your seatbelts for some racy, thrilling action.