Armenia & Ukraine are the best

ARMENIA and (below) Ukraine clinched the men's and women's titles respectively.-ARMENIA and (below) Ukraine clinched the men's and women's titles respectively.

The chess Olympiad, the biggest congregation of talent in the game with well over 1000 players from around 150 nations, provides the platform for the super powers to test their strengths once every two years, writes Rakesh Rao.

There is surely a change of guard in world chess. Russia may continue to have the services of the most trusted masters of the game, but when it comes to performing as a team, some of the other nations are proving better. The Chess Olympiad, the biggest congregation of talent in the game with well over 1000 players from around 150 nations, provides the platform for the super powers to test their strengths once every two years.

If in 2004, Ukraine snatched the gold from Russia, this time the performances of the eventual champion Armenia, China and USA knocked the top-seed out of the medal bracket in the men's section. In fact, Russia slipped to the sixth spot behind the fourth-placed Israel and Hungary. Even in the women's section, Russia and defending champion China had to make way for Ukraine at the top of the podium.

The only bright spot for Russia was the performance of Vladimir Kramnik, who returned to competitive chess after over six months and walked away with the best performer's trophy among the male players.

Not that chess in Russia is on the wane, but it is clear that some of the other leading countries are quietly growing confident of their own abilities.

However, the second-seeded Indian men did not inspire much confidence with their spiritless and somewhat spineless campaign. After a path-breaking performance in 2004, when the team finish sixth, the Indian men fared poorly to take the 30th place.

Seeded to win a medal for the first time, this was India's most disappointing performance in the Olympiad considering that much was expected of the country's strongest ever combination.

The ladies, too, could not improve upon their ninth-place finish in 2004 and occupied the 12th spot. Considering the composition of the team, not as strong as it was last time, it was a reasonably good result.

China proves a super power

Today, India is considered a super power of chess in Asia but at the Olympiad in Turin, it was China, which took that honour by winning medals in both sections. The Chinese men finished second best to Armenia, collecting their first ever medal in the Open section.

Wang Yue, on the third and fourth boards, scored 10 points from 12 games, to help his team make the medals bracket. On the top board Bu Xiangzhi, who came close to beating Anand in the fifth round, was unbeaten with eight points while Ni Hua, the first reserve, scored 5.5 points from nine undefeated games.

Aronian shows the way

The talking point of the event was the worthy performances of the Armenian men. Led by World Cup winner Levon Aronian on the top board, Armenia was the only unbeaten team in the competition and looked like a champion side even before it formally won the trophy. Aronian may have scored only seven points from 11 rounds but he was a source of confidence on the top board for his teammates. Vladimir Akopian, unbeaten on the second board with nine points from 12 rounds, was another key performer. But the man who made the difference was Gabriel Sargissian, the first reserve who ended up playing all 13 rounds and contributed 10 points to Armenia's winning tally of 36 points.

Sargissian, too, was unbeaten and won seven of the first nine rounds to keep his nation in front. When it comes to a team event like the Olympiad, it is often said that medals are won and lost on the fourth board. If last time Sergey Karjakin was the star turn for Ukraine on the fourth board, it was Sargissian this time for Armenia.

On the other hand, a team like Russia had to sweat it out on the fourth board with the experienced Evgeny Bareev struggling to cope with the pressure and his lack of energy cost Russia a medal. Kramnik's consistency at the top did not prove good enough for Russia to win a medal.

USA, headed by Gata Kamsky who finished a creditable second behind Veselin Topalov in Sofia before rushing to Turin, enjoyed its best moment in the history of the Olympiad. On its way to the bronze medal, USA even defeated Russia 2.5-1.5 in the 11th round with Hikaru Nakamura, the only non-Russian involved in the match, winning against Alexander Grischuk on the third board. USA's lone loss came against Israel in the 12th round.

Maiden title for Ukraine

Like the Armenian men, the ladies from Ukraine remained undefeated for their maiden triumph in the Olympiad.

Ukraine won the first 12 matches to emerge as the most successful team in the 13-round contest. Ukraine agreed to draw the final round against Armenia only after it became clear that a win was not required for the gold. So dominating were the performances of Natalia Zhukova (7.5/10), Katerina Lahno (8/10), Inna Yanovska-Gaponenko (7/9) and Anna Usshenina (7/10). Significantly, Ukraine defeated Russia and China by identical 2-1 margins to underline its rightful claim over the title.

Former champion Russia's trio of Alexendra Konteniuk, Tatiana Kosinsteva, Nadezhda Kosintseva played most of the matches, with Ekaterina Kovalevskaya stepping in as a reserve. The top seed was held by USA and China in successive rounds before France did the same in the penultimate round. Overall, a consistent performance saw Russia take the silver.

China may have failed to defend the title but took the bronze after former World junior champion Zhao Xue and Hou Yifan emerged as the first and third-best individual performers in the event.

China could have finished second if India had managed to take a game off Russia on the final day. But China had reasons to be pleased with its performance considering the fact that Wang Yu and Shen Yang, on boards two and three, were woefully out of form.

Zhao Xue's score of 10 points from 13 games and Hou Yifan's tally of 11 points after playing all the games ensured China's presence among the medal winners.

FINAL STANDINGS

Men: 1. Armenia 36.0 points, 2. China 34.0, 3. USA 33.0, 4. Israel 33.0, 5. Hungary 32.5, 6. Russia 32.0, 7. France 32.0, 8. Ukraine 32.0, 9. Bulgaria 32.0, 10. Spain 32.0, 30. India 29.5.

Women: 1. Ukraine 29.5 points, 2. Russia 28.0, 3. China 27.5, 4. USA 24.5, 5. Hungary 24.5, 6. Georgia 24.5, 7. The Netherlands 24.5, 8. Armenia 24.0, 9. Slovenia 24.0, 10. Czech Republic 24.0, 12. India 23.0.