Armenia have a narrow lead over the top seeded US at halfway in the 180-nation, $10m Chennai Olympiad, an event which is already unique and in the record books. Its stunning ambiance, eager fans, and opulent playing conditions reflect India’s ambition to make August 2022 a landmark moment towards its goal of surpassing the three established chess superpowers, USA, Russia and China.
The state of Tamil Nadu and its chief minister, MK Stalin, approved a $10m budget which dwarfs any other chess event in history, Familiar name? The politician was born in 1953 and when Joseph Stalin died four days later the baby’s father decided what to call his son.
Besides more than 1700 players, the Olympiad has thousands of support staff, ranging from arbiters and live board technicians to anti-cheating friskers and medical personnel. Hundreds of children from all over India are being provided every day with free food, travel and accommodation to visit the Olympiad and to talk to the former world champion Vishy Anand. Chess is already a major Indian sport and with the stimulus from Chennai it could take off further, as it did in Russia in the 1930s.
Every game from both the open and women’s Olympiads is relayed to major chess websites. Play begins at 10.30am daily (five hours earlier for next Tuesday’s final round) and is free to watch on chess24.com with grandmaster commentaries and an evaluation bar which shows at a glance who is winning.
After six of the 11 rounds, leading scores were – Open: Armenia 12 match points (17.5 game points), United States 11(16), India 2 10 (19), Uzbekistan 10 (19), with England 14th on 9 (16.5). Women: India 12 (18.5), Azerbaijan 11 (18.5), Romania 11 (16.5), with England 34th on 8 (14).
Armenia v United States tops the bill in Friday’s seventh round, a moment for Levon Aronian, formerly Armenia’s star player who transferred to the US after decreased funding for chess. Aronian will probably be benched for this match, while the former world No 2 Fabiano Caruana was defeated by Uzbekistan’s Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 17.
The standout first half Olympiad team has been India 2, with its average age of 19 and its already iconic top board Gukesh D (as he is now invariably called rather than Dommaraju Gukesh). The 16-year-old son of a surgeon and a microbiologist has come a long way from when, at 11, he incurred Nigel Short’s displeasure.
Gukesh has been in stellar form in 2022, winning five first prizes in a row in Spain. His rating has shot past the elite 2700 mark, a feat achieved younger only by Wei Yi, Magnus Carlsen and Alireza Firouzja. He has won all his six games so far in Chennai, including his impressive win over Alexey Shirov where he encouraged the former world title challenger to launch one of his Fire on Board attacks so as to refute it by superior strategic and endgame play.
Gukesh is making a vast impression in Chennai, one that can be compared with five of the great Olympiad debuts by future world class players: Paul Keres at Warsaw 1935, Bent Larsen at Moscow 1956, Mikhail Tal at Munich 1958, Judit Polgar at Thessaloniki 1988, and Vlad Kramnik at Manila 1992.
Firouzja, aged 19 and already having been 2800+, is widely regarded as Carlsen’s heir apparent as world No 1, whether or not that also involves the world championship title. Gukesh, three years younger and already within 60 rating points of Firouzja, has the potential to surpass his rival, whose troubling moments of immaturity were exemplified last month at the Madrid Candidates.
So, Carlsen v Gukesh 2027, whether or not it is for the official world title? Place your bets.
Carlsen’s Norway are seeded No 3 in Chennai, but are currently placed a disastrous 56th with North Macedonia coming up in round seven. As the Oslo journalist Tarjei Svensen has pointed out, prior to Chennai Carlsen had dropped a total of nearly 50 rating points in his last five team events for Norway, and had not made a plus score since 2007.
The No 1 began his campaign with two long grinds where part of his strategy seemed to be to keep the endgame going until they were playing with just the 30-second increment, effectively making it rapid instead of classical. This brought a win, a draw, and a fractional rating loss. Meanwhile, Norway’s lower boards dropped whole points. Some said they should have fielded Simen Agdestein. The 55-year-old, who last month won the Norwegian championship for the eighth time, was also a striker for the national football team in his youth.
After his first two games, Carlsen switched his style, taking on hand-to-hand combat against opponents rated 300 points or more lower. He checkmated Zambia, and won a brutal Sicilian against Australia.
For the individual top board gold medal, Gukesh so far has 6/6 and Carlsen 4.5/5. A one-to-one would be a supreme Olympiad moment, like Bobby Fischer v Tal 1960 and Fischer v Mikhail Botvinnik in 1962, but this is unlikely now with Norway so far behind. It should still be a fascinating race for gold.
England’s performance has been boosted by the fine play of David Howell, whose chess has benefited by being a commentator for the online Tour. His chronic time pressure seems cured, and his 5.5/6 gives him a shot at the board three gold.
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