It’s been a long journey to get where we are today, with a massive chess event involving 3,200 people about to start in the far north of Norway. Einar Gausel – a Norwegian Grandmaster, veteran of seven Olympiads and one of our live commentators in Tromsø – previews the event, while also looking back on the history of the Olympiad and chess in Norway.
From modest beginnings
For almost 90 years the biennial Chess Olympiad has been the pinnacle of team competitions. From a fairly modest beginning, it has gradually ballooned into the world’s fourth largest sporting event. The first official Chess Olympiad, hosted in London in 1927, was a strictly European affair, with only 16 teams competing in one section. It took another 30 years before the first Women’s Chess Olympiad saw the light of day, and it wasn’t until 1972 that both the open competition and the women’s competition fused into one event.
The 2014 Tromsø Chess Olympiad boasts a staggering 178 entries in the open section and 139 entries in the women’s section. If you take into account that each of these entries represents five people (not counting captains and coaches!) and then add the many hundreds of officials and volunteers needed to keep things running smoothly, it becomes clear that this is a truly massive gathering by anyone’s standards.
Pie in the sky?
In the not too distant past – say 10 years ago – any talk of organizing a chess event of this magnitude on Norwegian soil would have been labeled as borderline insanity. You could think it or dream it, but you definitely did not say it out loud. Although Norway has a proud and long-standing tradition of hosting international title tournaments, mainly thanks to the late Arnold Eikrem’s endless passion for our royal game, competitions exceeding 100 players were virtually unheard of outside of our national championships. Eikrem’s untimely passing in 1996 left a huge void in Norwegian chess, but part of his legacy, namely putting Norway on the chess map, paved the way for future organizers. Among these was a tireless group of inspired individuals from – you guessed it – Tromsø.
From the mid-2000s on the “Paris of the North” gradually became a popular summer destination for both professional and amateur players from a wide range of countries seeking to experience the unique atmosphere surrounding the Arctic Chess Challenge. The event’s successful 5-year run coincided with the meteoric rise of Magnus Carlsen. By the time Tromsø and the Norwegian chess federation set their sights on hosting the 41st Chess Olympiad, chess in Norway was no longer a laughing matter.
For Norwegian chess enthusiasts the fact that the Chess Olympiad will now take place in our own country is quite literally a dream come true. There used to be a time when telling people you play chess got you the same look as if you had told them that you like collecting bugs. Magnus Carlsen’s conquering of the chess world has resulted in our beloved game gaining massive attention from mainstream media, and this mammoth event will no doubt boost public interest even further.
And we could hardly have wished for a better host city than Tromsø. Oslo would probably have worked out fine from a logistical standpoint, but even Chess Olympiads have a tendency to drown and become nearly invisible when they’re held in major metropolitan areas. True, Tromsø is indeed one of the world’s largest cities north of the Arctic Circle, but it’s still small enough to allow this event to have the impact and receive the exposure it deserves.
I played my first Chess Olympiad in Thessaloniki in 1988. I was a 24-year-old IM with limited international experience, and there was a lot to take in and process, to put it mildly. The sheer size of the playing hall and the number of players had me in awe, and seeing the world’s elite grandmasters in real life for the very first time was almost surreal. Remember, this was way back in the pre-internet era, so I had basically just seen black and white photos of them in books and magazines. Nowadays, with video streams of the action, post-game interviews, tweets and what not, you sort of feel like you know everyone personally.
After Thessaloniki I had the privilege of playing for Norway in an additional six Chess Olympiads. Since we were never in the running for one of the top spots on the scoreboard, our goal as a team was usually to do better than the other Nordic countries. As individuals we were basically playing for title norms and board medals, but most of all we were having a great time away from the board. Because win or lose - seeing new places, rekindling old friendships and making new ones is a significant part of the Olympic experience.
In it to win it
Of course, there are teams who will be here on serious business. In the open section Russia, for the umpteenth time, look to be the hands down favorites on paper, but the Russian team has been struggling to find its stride after Garry Kasparov’s departure from both the team and professional chess. From 1992 to 2002 Russia won six consecutive Chess Olympiads. In the five Olympiads since, they’ve scored three silver medals and ended up outside the medals twice.
The defending champions from Armenia will once again be led into battle by world number two Levon Aronian, and it’s worth noting that they’ve won three out of the last five Olympiads. Other top contenders in the open section include Ukraine, France, USA and Hungary. Of the teams mentioned, only France has yet to win a Chess Olympiad. Or secure a medal of any kind, for that matter. This year’s French squad is, however, their strongest ever.
In the women’s section you don’t need a crystal ball to predict that this will be a race between China, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. These four teams have dominated nearly every Chess Olympiad since 1992, and there’s no reason to think that things will be any different this time around. The gap in average rating between fourth ranked Georgia and fifth ranked India is 78 points, which is quite substantial - even in today’s money.
As a chess commentator I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of exciting chess, and as a Norwegian I am, of course, keeping my fingers crossed for the home teams. Our first team in the open section, headed by none other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen, is ranked in the top 15 for the first time in history, and I would be lying if I told you that expectations aren’t high. Realistically, I don’t think Norway 1 will be in the running for medals, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them causing some damage on the top boards. Go Norway!