The United States made history with its victory in the 2016 Chess Olympiad held in Baku, Azerbaijan, its first success in the biannual team event in 40 years.
It nearly repeated this triumph two years later in Batumi, Georgia, tying for first with China and Russia, but finishing second to the former on tiebreak.
The men's team of Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Hikaru Nakamura, Sam Shankland and Ray Robson, with Alex Lenderman serving as team coach, led nearly the entire event defeating such powerhouses as Azerbaijan, India and Armenia. In the end, the team was upset by an overachieving Polish squad near the end of the 11-round tournament, which ran from Sept. 24 to Oct. 5.
Caruana, who makes his home in St. Louis, will face World Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway in a match for the title in London this fall. He is hoping to become the first American titleholder since Bobby Fischer. His performance in the Olympiad was auspicious as he scored an undefeated seven points in 10 games to win individual silver on board one.
Caruana and company were not the only Americans to shine in Batumi. The women’s squad, seeded 10th before the Olympiad, fought for a place on the podium the entire event, even tying gold medalist China, before a last-round loss to Ukraine dropped it into a tie for fourth. The Americans were led by seven-time U.S. Women’s Champion Irina Krush and Jennifer Yu who won medals for their individual performances.
Yu, 16, is one of a number of rapidly improving teenage girls who are changing American chess and look set to challenge the long domination of women’s chess by China and former Soviet republics.
Chess Olympiads are held in two groups, an open section, in which all can participate, and a women’s category. This reflects the fact that more than 90 percent of worldwide chess competitors are male. This imbalance is particularly acute at the adult level, but is changing among kids.
The 43rd Chess Olympiad attracted a record turnout of 183 teams from around the globe, from giants like Russia to small island nations like Nauru and São Tomé and Príncipe. Among major international sporting bodies, only FIFA, the governing body for soccer, has more members, which is fitting as both activities are universal, requiring only a minimum of equipment, making them accessible to all.
Home to major players, competitions
Two organizations are responsible for turning the United States into an international chess powerhouse: U.S. Chess, the governing body for the game in this country, and the St. Louis Chess Club.
It’s no accident two members of the U.S. Olympiad chess team (Caruana and Robson) live in St. Louis and two of the strongest collegiate teams (Webster and Saint Louis universities) are in Missouri.
The U.S. and U.S. Women’s Championship have been held in St. Louis since 2009 and the city has hosted the Sinquefield Cup, the strongest annual competition in the world since 2013.
International Master John Donaldson has served as director of the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room in San Francisco, California, since 1998. He worked for Inside Chess magazine from 1988 to 2000 and has authored over 30 books on chess to-date. Donaldson earned the IM title in 1983, has two norms toward the coveted grandmaster title, and has captained the U.S. national chess team on 15 occasions, including to the 2016 gold medal in Baku — the first gold for the U.S. team since 1976.