The premier team competition in chess, the 180-nation Chennai Olympiad, ended on Tuesday with a shock result. Uzbekistan, average age 20 and seeded only 14th, edged to gold ahead of the three-time winners Armenia and India’s teenagers, while the top seeded United States finished out of the medals.
India’s Gukesh D, 16, and the Uzbek Nodirbek Abdusattorov, 17, stood out as fast rising talents destined for the world top. The pair took gold and silver for the first board, leaving the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, with the bronze. Carlsen scored an unbeaten 7.5/9 but still dropped rating points, as he has done in every team appearance for Norway since 2007.
Silver medallists Armenia are the great chess team specialists, already winners of three Olympiad golds. Their success was notable after what could have been two crippling setbacks. Their longtime star Levon Aronian transferred to the US, while official support in Yerevan has sharply diminished.
Uzbekistan already has a $4m annual budget for chess and this will increase in 2026 when Tashkent plays host to the Olympiad, following Budapest 2024.
Its teenage stars were likely inspired in their early years by Rustam Kasimdzhanov’s victory in the 2004 Fide world championship. The loser on tie-break then was England’s Michael Adams – if he had won there were plans for a match with Garry Kasparov. A historic missed chance for English chess, perhaps.
England’s David Howell won gold on board three with 7.5/8 and a performance rating of 2898, the highest of the entire Olympiad, but his team failed at the final hurdle, losing 1.5-2.5 to outsiders Moldova in Tuesday’s 11th and last round and ending up 14th when a win would have placed them in the top six.
Howell, from Seaford in Sussex, is a former prodigy who qualified for the adult British championship at nine and became England’s youngest ever grandmaster at 16. Now 31, he has become a popular commentator for the Meltwater Tour online circuit and has just cooperated with Carlsen in an instruction course Grind like a Grandmaster. He has overcome what used to be chronic addiction to time pressure and one of his best wins at Chennai shows his subtle use of his favourite bishop pair.
In England’s all-time lists, Howell’s result is matched by John Nunn’s 10/11 gold at Thessaloniki 1984, while Murray Chandler twice totalled 9/11, at Dubai 1986 and Novi Sad 1990. Comparison is hard, since Nunn and Chandler played in silver medal teams which met the USSR and USA giants, while Howell scored higher but against mostly middle ranking opponents.
There was almost a second British Isles gold when Ireland’s Conor Murphy reached 7.5/8, only to lose in the penultimate round. It was the finest Olympiad performance by an Irishman, more significant than the long ago victory by Brian Reilly against the world ranked Reuben Fine at Warsaw 1935.
Murphy still came away with a grandmaster norm. At 23, the Cambridge maths graduate and leading light of Charlton CC in south-east London has the potential to become Ireland’s best ever player.
The big losers in Chennai were the United States, who in the absence of Russia (banned) and China (Covid and visa issues) were odds-on favourites. World top-10 players Aronian and Fabiano Caruana were undone by the energy of the Asian teens. Round eight, when the US lost 3-1 to India 2, seemed like a new version of the infamous 1945 radio match against the Soviet Union.
US chess strategy in recent years, masterminded by Rex Sinquefield and the globally renowned St Louis chess club, has been to encourage established star players to transfer to the US and so build a highly rated national team. What occurred in Chennai shows the limitations of this approach. The ambitious and fearless Uzbek and Indian teenagers look to be the future of chess.
Ukraine took the women’s Olympiad gold when India, who had led all the way, faltered in the final round. Georgia won silver, India bronze. England finished 32nd, but it was a promising performance with real hope for the future. Lan Yao, Akshaya Kalaiyalahan and Zoe Varney are all in their early 20s and can progress to higher levels before the next Olympiad at Budapest in 2024.
3828: 1…dxe4 2 Qxf7+! Kxf7 3 Bc4+ Kf6 4 Nxe4+ Kf5 5 g4+ Kxe4 6 Re1+ Kf3 7 Re3 mate or 7 Bd5 mate.