India’s dream of a podium finish in the women’s Chess Olympiad could well become a reality at home. Though seeded No. 1 in the absence of China and Russia, India will have to tread very carefully to beat a very strong field while watching out for threats all along.
Playing at home has its advantages but on the downside is the challenge to deal with the mounting expectations. The talk of medals dominates most conversations around the players and that’s where coaches Abhijit Kunte and Swapnil Dhopade have a huge role to play.
With the host having the right to field a minimum of two teams, India ‘A’ has the creamy layer with K. Humpy, mother-to-be D. Harika, R. Vaishali, Tania Sachdev and Bhakti Kulkarni forming the team. Humpy’s presence at the top is most reassuring. The coach will have to take a call on Harika’s services depending on the importance of the match and equally, how she feels on a given day. Debutant Vaishali brings an exciting dimension with her dynamic style. A former medallist Tania, playing her seventh Olympiad, has the expertise and the experience to deal with challenges of the lower boards. Bhakti’s form could play a very important part should any of the top players show signs of struggle.
India ‘B’, seeded 12, will be watched with interest since the team presents a strange mix. Rising stars Vantika Agarwal and National champion Divya Deshmukh find themselves in the company of vastly experienced trio of top-rated Padmini Rout, Soumya Swaminathan and Mary Ann Gomes. Going by the inconsistencies in performances in women’s chess, this combination could prove to be quite a handful for the opposition provided the team settles down quickly with an effective combination. With this team carrying lesser weight of expectations, expect this team to pull off some high-scoring victories in the initial rounds.
There is very little to choose between former champions Ukraine and Georgia, two nations who have done fairly consistently in the competition.
Led by the former women’s World champion Mariya Muzychuk, Ukraine has won a medal in every Olympiad since 2012. Winner in 2006, the team almost regained the gold in 2018 but lost out to China on tie-breaker and finished with a silver.
Mariya’s sister, Anna is the second strongest player in the squad. Anna, only the fourth player in women’s chess to reach 2600 in rating, is a former World championship runner-up and winner of the world rapid and blitz titles. Anna Ushenina is another former women’s world champion in the team. With two other players also rated over 2400, this Ukraine combination should be seen as a co-favourite for the gold.
Four-time winner Georgia, placed just three points behind Ukraine in average ratings of the players, is the other serious contender for the gold. Top ranked Nana Dzagnidze, Lela Javakhishvili, Nino Batsiashvili and Meri Arabidze are rated between 2531 and 2426. This is a fair indication of the team’s capabilities.
One team that is likely to test the big three is the young combination from Kazakhstan. Seeded four, Kazakhstan presents the trio of 2017 World junior girls champion Zhansaya Abdumalik (age 22), 2016 World junior girls’ winner Dinara Saduakassova (25) and the reigning World women’s blitz champion Bibisara Assaubayeva (18). Like some of the Indian boys during the past two years, these Kazakh girls have done well in the shorter-format online events and have caught the eye of the world elite. Look out for this team.
Poland is one of those teams which can prove most dangerous, if taken lightly. The fifth seed has Alina Kashlinskaya rated over 2500 while Monika Socko is next at 2416. The possibility of Oliwia Kiolbasa and Maria Malicka coming hard at the lower boards looms large.
France continues to rely on the experienced duo of Marie Sebag and Sophie Millet. Much like Poland, France too expects to strike on the lower boards through Pauline Guichard, Anastasia Savina and Andreea Novrotescu. Clearly, France has the combination that most teams fear.
Matching France’s strength is Azerbaijan with Gunay Mammadzada leading the way. The team, with two International Masters, three Women Grandmasters and their rating spanning from 2455 to 2344, can be expected to go far.
USA, seeded eight, has Irina Krush, Carissa Yip and the vastly-experienced Anna Zatonskih but looks beatable. Germany can prove to be a handful but Elisabeth Paehtz needs a lot of support from her teammates to threaten any of the higher-ranked teams.
Former World champion Antoeneta Stefanova leads the Bulgarian charge. Nurgyul Salimova looks capable on the second board but thereafter, the team lacks the depth to appear as a serious challenger.
Unlike in the Open section where there are far more teams in serious medal contention, the women’s field has a few teams that are clearly way stronger. But what makes the medal-race in the women’s section interesting is the lack of consistency among most teams. Draw-offer is a rarity and usually, finish-till-the-finish is the way to follow.
Do expect some of the established teams to hold sway but do not rule out surprises along the way.