Russians reign supreme

ARVIND AARON

RUSSIA cast away the doubts of its waning strength in the game by winning the 35th Chess Olympiad by a comfortable one-point margin.

The FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov giving away the Hamilton Russell Cup to the Russian team.-ARVIND AARON

The nation, which had lost to the Rest of the World recently and its World Team Championship title to Ukraine last year, showed the world that it is still powerful by winning the Hamilton Russell Trophy for the sixth straight time.

The Olympiad was held at Bled, Slovenia, from October 25 to November 10. Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia till 1991 and Bled is a little town with a population of less than six thousand people.

The town, a 20-minute drive from Italy and Austria, has a beautiful lake with the icy Alps in the background. The venue presented a fine location and was welcomed by most participants who opined that it was the best Olympiad in recent times. Many strong teams such as England, Ukraine and the United States were slow to start with.

The second seeded Hungary, which shocked Russia 2.5-1.5, finished runner-up and seemed content with the silver medal. The team never seemed to put up a challenge against the Russians in the last two rounds. Ninth-seeded Armenia scored three big victories in the last four rounds to take the third place.

The men's event is held on four boards and each team has two reserves and a non-playing captain. Drug testing, new time control and the resort venue at Bled in early winter were the new features of this Olympiad. The results of the testing will throw more light on a new beginning in the sport. The new time control produced a few good games.

There were 135 teams in the fray, an all-time record beating the previous best of 127 recorded at Istanbul 2000. The Olympiad started in 1927 and is held every second year. The FIDE Congress was also held alongside and its President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, and his team (including India's P. T. Ummer Koya as Vice-President) were elected unopposed for another term of four years. Ilyumzhinov is the President of FIDE for the last seven years and is the biggest sponsor of chess events.

India had a mediocre event finishing 29th, five placings below its start rank of 24. The team left New Delhi on October 24 in an upbeat mood, hoping to find a place in the top six.

But defeats in the last two rounds, largely attributed to the dropping energy levels and the form of some of the key players, left the team way below the eighth place it got last time. The only high point of the Indian performance was the completion of the third Grandmaster norm by Surya Sekhar Ganguly when he drew with Josif Dorfman of France in the 12th round on November 7. His six points from nine games made him India's eighth GM.

Powered by World No. 1 Garry Kasparov's brilliant 7.5 points from nine games on the top board, Russia had no problems in winning the event, securing 38.5 points from 56 games. The team scored half a point more than the previous edition, but played it safe in the last two rounds - 2-2 against both Israel and Yugoslavia with draws on all four boards - to clinch the title. Overall, Russia won 10 matches, drew three and lost one to Hungary. It never managed any 4-0 sweeps but scored big 3.5-0.5 wins against major teams such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany. Russia took the lead in the sixth round and never looked back.

The closest any team came was Hungary in round nine when it upset its formidable opponent. Kasparov and Alexander Khalifman, who failed at Moscow in September that led to the failure of the team against the Rest of the World, were the heroes of the Russian victory. Kasparov was the best player on view clocking a rating performance of 2933 while Khalifman won a silver medal for the second best performance on the third board.

World No. 1 ranked Judit Polgar was the only woman to play in the men's event. She picked up two medals, one silver for helping Hungary to the runner-up prize and a bronze for the third best performance on the second board. She played on the second board behind Peter Leko, the Hungarian challenger to classical world champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Sasikiran (6/11) continued his wonderful play on the top board for India in his third successive Olympiad. Due to his own high rating, he may be losing a few Elo points but he continued to inspire his team-mates. He took a few risks that helped him win against Zapata and Torre but he lost to Kasparov and Korchnoi without offering much resistance with the white pieces. Trainer Evgeny Vladimirov had a lot of faith in Sasikiran as he made him reject many draw offers. India repeated its 3-1 win against the United States, thanks to Sasi's win against Kaidanov on the top board. The Chess Olympiad offers a variety of styles to play against and Sasikiran gained valuable experience, playing against seasoned players such as Adams besides legends Kasparov and Korchnoi. Had there been greater support from the team, Sasikiran would have continued to play better.

Harikrishna (3.5/10) was not in the best of form and Vladimirov gambled with him longer than he should have done. He tried to break the jinx of draws with a bishop sacrifice against a low-rated Bolivian and paid for it in the sixth round. Again, against Nigel Short, his sacrifice seemed generous and the entire Indian team was under pressure after his second defeat. His loss to Kiril Georgiev showed that he was less experienced of the two and when experienced players know that you are not in form, they are eager to defeat you.

Nothing went wrong for Ganguly in Bled till he got the final GM norm. The 19-year-old, who is employed with Indian Oil, played a brilliant game against Mark Paragua of the Philippines. However, once he was assured of the GM title, he played one very nice game and a very bad one. Ganguly (7/11) was India's best performer this time and what a turnaround! He had a very poor outing at Istanbul and Salov refused to try him more as the team was successful there. His game against Christiansen left the American so confused that he thought he was making a draw only to lose.

Kunte (5.5/9) was not fully tested on board four and was given only nine games. He should have won more points but he was too defensive and cautious. He won two games and drew seven to remain undefeated. Ramesh (5.5/10) started very well but finished with two defeats that let the side down and spoilt his own GM norm chances. Thipsay (3.5/5) was the second undefeated player in the team. After he missed a simple technical win early in the tournament against Norway, he fell out of favour of the trainer and was given just five games.

Had Anand been in the team at the top, a place in the top five would have been certain. Vladimirov overworked players who were not in form such as Harikrishna as he wanted to win games while Kunte played risk-free to ensure draws. A fall from eighth place to 29th is a concern on the home training and scheduling of events like the World Cup.

Overall India was less stable this time losing three matches 1-3. At Istanbul the team never lost beyond 1.5-2.5. India won seven matches, drew two and lost five to tally 31 points. Had it won the last two rounds by minimum margins, the placing would have been eighth to 12th. With many major events staged in India between Istanbul 2000 and Bled 2002 it is a surprise that the placing was so low. R. B. Ramesh and Thipsay replaced Devaki Prasad and Dibyendu Barua from the previous team.

India beat Wales 3.5-0.5, beat Colombia 3.5-0.5, lost to Russia 1-3, beat Norway 2.5-1.5, lost to Lithuania 1-3, beat Bolivia 3-1, beat the Philippines 3-1, beat United States 3-1, beat Czech Republic 2.5-1.5, lost to England 1-3, drew Macedonia 2-2, drew France 2-2, lost to Switzerland 1.5-2.5, lost to Iceland 1.5-2.5. Both Switzerland and Iceland who beat India in the last two games were lower rated teams.

Ukraine had two strong players in reigning world champion Ruslan Ponomariov and Vassily Ivanchuk. Sadly, the duo never managed a meeting with the Russians or a visit to the top board. The Dutch and the Englishmen were slow to start with and by the time they moved up, the event was over. Israel was one team which could have played better. Boris Gelfand joined the team in the eighth round directly after winning a tournament at Cap d'Age in France. Armenia, which won the bronze medal scored two meritorious draws against Russia and Hungary.

The Russian team had several good performances. Kasparov won a gold medal for the eighth time and is only behind Tigran Petrosian who has a record nine gold medals. Kasparov is a changed man now, totally different and talking in favour of FIDE. Asked how it felt to be on the right side with FIDE, he said he never fought FIDE, but was only against the bad policies of the people in FIDE. He said the new time control would help him and he was against the anti-doping experiment and said that he would not have taken up the test had his name appeared in the random lot.

It was sad that Hungary did not try harder in the end when it was certain it was heading for silver. Leko missed a one-move win against Kasparov and had he played it, Hungary would have won by a bigger margin. After that encounter in round nine, Russia pulled ahead with big wins against China and Germany to re-establish itself in the event after round 11. About China, Kasparov said it was strong but still not like some of the other teams. About playing and beating Ye Jiangchuan, he said, "It was not the first time, I played him in Asia versus Europe at Batumi last year."

Kasparov, who was the best player in terms of rating performance, at 2933, received a special award. He drew with Leko, Akopian, Gelfand and beat the rest. The Russian team scorers in board order: Kasparov 7.5/9, Grischuk 7/11, Khalifman 7/9, Morozevich 7/11, Svidler 6/9, Rublevsky 4/7.

Russia also won the Nona Gaprindashvili Cup as it had won the men's event and finished second in the women's section. The next best was Georgia, which came fourth in both sections. Gaprindashvili, a former women's world champion presented the cup herself.

Right from 1992, Russia never really struggled to win the Hamilton Russel Cup and it was no different this time. With so many top stars, the Olympiad winner is always anybody's guess. At the start of the event, Russia said it did not have Bareev and Kramnik but looking at the line-up, it was clear it did not need them. Russia won the title with 38 points last time with Sakaev in place of Kasparov. With Russia almost assured of the title every time, the fight is always for the second and third places. This time Hungary took the silver medal quite easily. "This is the third best Olympiad among the 10 that I have played," said Nigel Short.

In general, all the players were happy with the event and the accommodation. One noticeable fact, which was not to their liking, was the small tournament hall. The organisers did not expect so many teams to participate. Hence space had to be rationed and entry restricted. The spectators were the worst hit. The event was a big one for Slovenians and it was a huge success. The President of Slovenia visited the tournament hall and also the pressroom, which was the best in 10 years. But it was situated about 100 metres from the venue and one had to walk through the woods to reach the Sports Hall. The organisers claimed a record number of hits on the tournament website. Grandmaster Miso Cebalo was the commentator and he narrated interesting facts of each day for the press in English. The Chief Arbiter was Geurt Gijssen of the Netherlands and he worked tirelessly for a smooth conduct. He also allowed 15 minutes for the photographers using flash but advised them not to remain stationery on some tables but to keep moving.

The Internet coverage of the Olympiad had its own share of mistakes and problems in transmission. The site was officially down in the fourth hour of play when many results were flowing in. This happened in almost all rounds. Then, the names of the players were interchanged sometimes. Many journalists had "ghosts" in their chessboards with missing colours or with more than two queens or sometimes without rooks. The 'live' coverage of the event was not very satisfactory for the first two rounds. Also, the journalists were not allowed to enter the hall as the arbiters felt there was overcrowding in the limited space for the players. Only after a complaint was lodged, the journalists writing for dailies were allowed entry into the tournament hall. For the first two days there was no information available in the pressroom and the organisers blamed it on those handling the Internet coverage.

For the third successive time, Internet coverage has become vital for the success or failure of the Olympiad as it involves many aspects such as aiding bulletin making, recording the moves and getting online customers on the official website besides providing information 'live' to the journalists and chess fans across the globe. India had beaten Wales 3.5-0.5 in the first round but it was recorded as 4-0 to India and it was paired against another country with four points. The extra half-point was subsequently adjusted but it must have had a minor effect at least on the second round pairing.

The next Olympiad in 2004 will be held at Menorca, Spain. For the 2006 Chess Olympiad, India, Torino (Italy) and Tallinn (Estonia) have made bids. There are some nations interested in 2008 and beyond too. Menorca is an island on the east coast of Spain and if everything goes well, Viswanathan Anand will be playing in the event for India. For the 2002 event, the AICF made a press release that Anand would lead India without getting his confirmation. The former world champion informed the press that he had not made such a statement and stayed away from Bled. Other notable absentees were Russians Vladimir Kramnik, Anatoly Karpov and Evgeny Bareev.

Kasparov, who had stayed away from previous Olympiads since 1998, participated largely due to the favour he needed from FIDE and got them too. In the re-unification plan (Ponomariov v Kasparov), FIDE world champion Ponomariov of Ukraine had asked for draw odds, which means if the match is tied he is declared champion. It was turned down and there will be a tie-break. Also, Ponomariov wanted to defend his FIDE title with the same time control with which he won the crown playing against Vassily Ivanchuk in Moscow this January. FIDE has turned down that too and he will be playing in the seven-hour control, which Kasparov wanted.

Kasparov's influence is such that he knows Ilyumzhinov is travelling with the Russian President Vladimir Putin to China next month. He campaigned for the elections of the FIDE President in the Kamlykian elections. He is in the good books of FIDE now.

The final placings:

1. Russia 38.5/56 (gold), 2. Hungary 37.5 (silver), 3. Armenia 35 (bronze), 4. Georgia 34, 5-7 China, Netherlands and England 33.5 each, 8-12 Slovakia, Israel, Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Switzerland 33 each, 13-20 Poland, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Belarus, Czech Republic, Spain and Uzbekistan 32.5 each, 21-22 Lithuania and Iceland 32 each, 23-27 Croatia, France, Greece, Denmark and Bulgaria 31.5 each, 28-36 Romania, India, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Sweden, Canada, Bangladesh, Brazil and Ireland 31 each.

Board prizes:

Board One: Robert Gwaze (Zim) 100% (gold), Alberto David (Lux) 84.6% (silver), Mohamad Al-Modiahki (Qat) 83.3% (bronze).

Board Two: Jean-Philippe Gentilleau (Mcn) 100% (gold), Yasser Seirawan (USA) 84.6% (silver), Judit Polgar (Hun) 83.3% (bronze).

Board Three: Cerdas Barus (INA) 85% (gold), Alexander Khalifman (Rus) 77.8% (silver), Alfonso Romero (ESP) 75% (bronze).

Board Four: Maher Ayyad (Brn) 80% (gold), Suat Soylu (Tur) 77.8% (silver), Tapani Sammalvuo (Fin) 72.2% (bronze).

Board Five: Jasim Saleh (UAE) 92.9% (gold), Ravishen Singh (Tri) 87.5% (silver), Elarbi Aboobaker (Lib) 87.5% (bronze).

Board Six: Collins Sam (Irl) 93.8% (gold), Byambaa Zulzaga (Mgl) 92.9% (silver), Hailu Wossenyelew (Eth) 92.9% (bronze).