The Olympiad ended three weeks ago but thanks to the publicity generated by Vasily Ivanchuk failing to take a drug test the event is still very much in the public eye. That there was no way for him to actually fail the test short of gulping down anabolic steroids on a regular basis is another matter as is FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov's zero tolerance for late arrivals to the games. Yes, the old rule was you had 60 minutes to arrive before you were forfeited -in Dresden it was zero seconds. FIDE Deputy President Georgios Makropoulus and others pointed out that this was neither fair (some teams like the US were staying less than a minute from the hall and others five miles away) nor practical but Kirsan's argument was when do you see a sporting event start with players absent. One of the world's best known organizers and arbiters, Stewart Reuben, mentioned that in over 50 years "he had only once forfeited a player other than after one hour and hardly even then." He pointed out poor Bill Hook, the oldest player in the Olympiad who won four games in Dresden by default, three because of late arrivals by his opponents. The last round match between Azerbaijan and France for a place in the top ten was ultimately decided when GM Tkachev showed up for his game a few minutes late and was forfeited.
Fortunately most of the Olympiad was decided at the board and not away from it. The big news was the well-deserved repeat victory for the Armenian men who were led by top board Levon Aronian but supported by tremendous performances by Vladimir Akobian 8/11 (2813 performance) and Gabriel Sargissian 9/11 (2869 performance). The latter had the best overall result in the Olympiad repeating his sensational performance at Turin 2006. The Armenian team was flown home on the Armenian presidentĘs personal jet and met by a huge reception at the airport in Yerevan . The five team members each received from the government $25,000 and a new BMW. Fourth board Tigran Petrosian, who replaced 2006 team member Karen Asrian who died tragically in 2008 at the age of only 28, also received another prize given to all the members of the team that won in 2006 - an apartment in a nice area of Yerevan. It helps when the President of the country and the chess federation are the same person!
Israel, the only team to defeat Armenia in the event, was second, medaling for the first time in an Olympiad after a near miss in Turin where they shared third but lost on tiebreak. The bronze medal winners in Dresden , repeating their performance from 2006, but against much stronger opposition (7 of 11 opponents rated in the top 16), was the United States . This was my eighth time as US Olympiad team captain but I can't recall anything similar to the last round or the sprint down the stretch reminiscent of Dave Wottle at the 1972 Olympics.
A tough 2.5-1.5 loss to Russia in round 8 put us around number twenty with three rounds to go and with match points rather than game points used as the primary determiner it looked almost impossible to medal. Things got better with a 3.5-.5 victory over an Indian team averaging 2650. A 2.5-.1.5 victory in round 10 over host Germany , who had been playing remarkably well, left us placed for a very fine performance in Dresden . Still, when we saw our last round pairing, winning a medal was not our first thought. Up to that point the second seeded Ukrainians had not lost a single match and out rated the US team on average by 56 points a board. Tied for first with Armenia , a last round victory might well allow them to repeat their victory in 2004 in Calvia. Instead the unthinkable happened as the US team won 3.5-.5. The victory lifted us team to a tie for third with Ukraine and the bronze medal on tiebreak.
The US team had very balanced scoring with the top three boards - Gata Kamsky, Hikaru Nakamura and Alex Onischuk - all scoring 6.5 from 10. US Champion Yury Shulman had 5 from 8 on board four and reserve Varuzhan Akobian 4 from 6. All team members performed above their ratings but special mention has to go to Gata Kamsky who was sensational the last half of the Olympiad. Five rounds into the Olympiad, Gata met with Topalov to iron out the details of their match, an endeavor which was successful thanks to a great extent to Emil Sutovsky, Gata's second and manager. Once this burden was lifted from his shoulders Gata played out of this world scoring four and a half points from his last six matches against opposition averaging 2725. His victims were Svidler, Sasikiran and in the last round Ivanchuk who he crushed.
The US team really was a team and this could be seen in the efforts of the bottom two boards. Yury and Varuzhan were both struggling to find their form the first half of the tournament but never let their disappointment and frustration keep them from having a positive outlook. Going into a platoon system for the middle stretch of the event where they each played two games then stepped aside for the other guy; they both spent much of their free time preparing other players. Between the last free day (after round 10) and the start of the last round Varuzhan must have spent at least 10 hours preparing Yury and Alex.
The US team played phenomenally well with the White pieces but did it in different ways. Hikaru took theoreticians Harikrishna and Khenkin out of their comforts zones in rounds 10 and 11, defeating both his opponents with 1.g3. Hikaru has now scored 5.5 from 6 in the last three rounds in his two Olympiads- a good guy to have on your side at crunch time! Four years ago in Calvia Alex led the US team to fourth place defending board one like a rock. One important key to our success was having a world class player like him on board three. He was very difficult for most teams to match up against, especially when he was White (5.5 from 6!).
Dresden marked the third consecutive time the US team has overachieved at Olympiads. This was the norm back in the 1980s and 1990s when the US always finished in the top five and often medaled but disasters in 2000 and 2002 didn't welcome the new century in a positive way. This changed at Calvia ( 4th place, seeded 10th) continued at Turin (third place, seeded 7th) and into Dresden (third place, seeded 10th out of 146 teams) where 23 teams had average ratings over 2600.
The US Men were not the only American team to perform well - the women had a sensational event winning the bronze medal The team of Irina Krush, Anna Zatonskih, Rusa Goletiani , Katerina Rohonyan and Tatev Abrahamyan with Michael Khodarkovsky as captain and Grandmaster Gregory Kaidanov as coach, were seeded seventh (out of 114) going into the event and became the only the second ever US womens team to medal. Irina Krush defended the first board ably against the world's best which allowed her teammates to get better match ups further down and they really responded. Anna Zatonskih earned a gold medal for the best performance on board two with 8/10 while Rusudan Goletiani earned a silver medal for scoring 9/11 on board three. Anna narrowly missed a GM norm while Rusa made what looks to be her last IM norm.
Both teams qualified for the 2009 World Teams Championships which will be held in Turkey for the men and likely China for the women. The US finished third in the battle for the Gaprindashvili Cup (highest combined match points for combined men and womens teams) behind Ukraine and Armenia .
Special thanks go to the Kasparov Chess Foundation, official sponsor of the 2008 Olympiad teams, and to the USCF and Frank Berry who also helped get the team to Dresden . Thanks go also to Jerry Nash at the USCF for making early arrangements for the US team to stay at the Maritim hotel. This was most helpful!