View from The Pack: Australia at the Baku Olympiad

by ChessBase
9/17/2016 – An event such as the Baku Olympiad will generate enormous interest, great games, and historic moments, but have you ever wondered what it was like from an insider's point of view. We don't mean from the perspective of an on-site reporter, but rather one who had to make the tough decisions each and every day: the captain! What follows is an article by Manuel Weeks, the captain of the Australian team, as he dealt with the decisions and worries that might decide his team's fate. A fascinating account with games and quizzes.

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View from The Pack: Australia at the Baku Olympiad

Report and photos by Manuel Weeks

The Baku Olympiad is over and I thought it would be interesting to see the event from the point of view from a “middle“ team, Australia which is ranked 45th in a field of of 179 teams. The team does not have any real chess professionals and we are certainly an eclectic mix. David Smerdon will soon be a doctor of economics while Zong Yuan Zhao is already a medical doctor. Moulthun Ly is a graphic designer who has his own online chess magazine. Max Illingworth is a respected chess coach and writer who still tries to find the time to play in some chess events. Every team should have a “wonderkid” and ours is 15 year old Anton Smirnov whose rating must be around 2500+ as we speak.

For most teams there is no real possibility of medals although there are “categories” but until the last round it really is not relevant with the lottery of a huge Swiss tournament. What goals do such teams have? I believe the first is to have an enjoyable and successful chess tournament, in which success really means playing as many strong countries as possible. A chance for our “part-time” chess professionals to test their skills against the best the world has to offer. This is not to say that our players have not achieved various things already in the chess world, after all four are now grandmasters and the fifth is a 15-year-old IM with a live rating of 2500 odd. We still feel we can be a danger to everyone!

If you are a middle or lower ranked team there is a strong possibility you may lose financially as most countries do not have a rich federation that will pay the players or even pay for flights. This is how special this Olympiad tournament is: a true festival of chess that many people are willing to come, take two weeks of their holiday time from work to be in the same room with famous grandmasters. The wonderful feeling of being in the same room with people who share your passion for the game of chess from all over the world. There are players whose best chess days are over and they are approaching the twilight of their careers but the Olympiad gives them one final chance to show what great talents they are. Eugenio Torre is 64 years old, playing in his 23rd Olympiad (a record), but every time I went to his board he was winning; I look at Alexander Beliavsky and he is still playing board one successfully. These two by themselves make the tournament special even though their countries are not in line for medals. They are not on the stage with photographers clambering to take a photo in the first few minutes but they represent their countries with pride and show many far younger players that chess is not about clicking at their computer every morning for hours.

The Olympiad is often series of up and downs, and in our case we played down to Oman, up to Croatia, down to Barbados and up to Norway, down to Albania then up to Brazil. I will describe some of the highlights of our team. No real prizes for guessing that the match with Norway with World Champion Magnus Carlsen would be a big moment for Australia. Our board one GM David Smerdon believes he can draw with anyone as long as he has the white pieces. David is an extroverted, likable, intelligent young man who can talk to anyone and is always happy to act up for the cameras.

Imagine that in an early round, David Smerdon was in the exhibition hall and did this!

Then a few rounds later he actually gets to play Magnus Carlsen one on one!

A small example of his Twitter feed before the game

How did the game go? Well, David has been playing the c3 Sicilian ever since he started playing chess seriously, so we are talking 20 years of playing this little pawn move! When the moment came and Magnus started to ponder I could not resist taking the photo!

The game was exciting and as everyone now knows, ended in a draw. Not only this but he got to have a post-mortem with Magnus and as both David and Yuan explained afterwards, they found him to be a wonderful ambassador for chess not only in analysing, but in the many requests that happened on the way out for photos and pictures from admirers and fans in the spectator section.

David Smerdon - Magnus Carlsen

People always ask how a team captain decides on team composition, since some teams have huge gulfs in rating between their top player and their fifth while others have very balanced teams. I believe most captains will tell you they try to not have any pre-conceived ideas and try to be objective. You want to give everyone a fair number of games, to let them play against a very strong team, to let them play a team they should win against to raise their confidence.  While most captains try to balance out the colours, there are cases where you might know someone is far better with white than with black and therefore try to give him more whites, though you will then have to justify that to the rest of the team. Another example decision would be if one of the players seems a little out of form, in which case you try to bring him back in a match against a weaker team to build his confidence.  

The main goal of every captain is to keep the team in harmony for the two weeks, to create a bond between the players even if they might not be good friends normally. If everyone is still in good spirits in the second week then it is easier to have a good result. I went to an excellent lecture by FIDE senior trainer Mikhail Gurevich and he talked about the legend of Boris Postovsky, the famed captain of many winning Soviet Union teams. Gurevich talked about the mantra of Postovsky, loosely translated from Russian “save the people”. I took that as “everything for the good of the team”. The players have to understand and trust the captain is doing everything for the good of the team while trying to keep individuals on track for their own personal goals. I have seen teams play the same four players for the majority of the Olympiad but the reserve knows it is for the good of the team. When a player receives his third black in a row he must understand and trust it is for the “good of the team”. Chess players are not like footballers, and team sport is not natural to them. It is my eleventh time as captain of the Australian team and every day I was getting requests from my players that have never occurred before (Max!).
A match like Australia versus Brazil is crucial for teams like ours since Brazil are slightly higher ranked but still within reach and every country believes they are underrated! The match ups looked like this.

There were two outstanding games from the Australian point of view. David Smerdon took the hot pawn in the center, defended actively by giving up the exchange and then took over the initiative.  The ‘baby’ of the team, Anton Smirnov, played a wonderful sacrificial game that should be played through but he was also the first person to say he got the move order wrong and his opponent could have drawn. It makes an excellent tactical puzzle among the many other combinations played at the 2016 Baku Olympiad.

Australia - Brazil

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For final placings it is all about the final rounds and for teams like Australia it can just be the last two that are critical since the yo-yo effect is still in play. Basically win against the country you are supposed to and finish with one big upset and everyone will call it a great result, finish with a draw and a loss and it is called an average tournament. The long battles in the early stages are quickly forgotten, bringing to mind the truism “you are only as good as your last result!”

In the second week the teams start to get cabin fever. You can have a buffet meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, only leaving the hotel for the playing venue, but after a while you realise you could be anywhere and you have not seen anything of the city in which you are in. Dragging the team out for dinner is always appreciated afterwards but beforehand there are mutterings of, “I lost, I want to go and stay in my room” or “I need to analyse my game” but anytime you leave the hotel, especially in a city like Baku where it is summer, walking along the water can make you forget about the chess mistakes that have seemingly been going around in your head for hours.

The Australian team was lucky to make friends with some of the young local volunteers who were very helpful with all the typical little problems that occur, and kindly accepted to join us for the occasional dinner. The advantage of having local people who can speak the language, recommend restaurants and act as a guide cannot be emphasised enough. No less important is that by becoming good friends with the Australian team, it made it more interesting to learn about them and their local culture and make the trip more memorable for the many chess players who may never visit Azerbaijan again. It also helps to talk to people who do not understand that you lost your game today while representing your country and you now feel like a patzer! Basically you need to escape the chess world for a few hours.

An enjoyable evening out with the Australian team and some of the volunteers, our new friends

For many middle teams the possibility of gaining a GM or IM norm is always important, and sometimes it affects team selection. You might understand your GMs should play more, but you take into account the fact that younger players are playing well and are in line for the coveted GM norm. On our team we only had one player who was in line for GM norms, our 15 years old “scary junior” Anton Smirnov. For many countries who do not have that many grandmasters, who do not have a history of chess culture, every new grandmaster is special, and having young grandmasters helps lead the way for others. It is no coincidence that Australia has added two GMs to its roster in the last year and two others now have two GM norms.

IM Anton Smirnov (2482) Pts: 8.5/10 Perf: 2740
Amer Said Salim Al Maashani
b 1
Brkic Ante
b 1
Poon Yu Tien
b 1
Tari Aryan
w ½
Barbosa Evandro Amorim
w 1
Bartel Mateusz
w ½
Bozinovic Bogdan
b 1
Ismagambetov Anuar
w 1
Edouard Romain
w ½
Barcenilla Rogelio
w 1

Not bad for a 15 year old! Anton’s story is interesting since his father comes from a Russian background and I played him when he was a 2200 player in a local tournament in Australia many years ago. As his son learned to play chess and became stronger, the father himself started studying chess again and became an IM himself in order to better teach his son! Anton has had grandmaster coaching for years now but the contribution of his father cannot be underestimated since Australia is not exactly a hub of high level chess activity.

Anton’s wins over GMs Barbosa, Ismagmbetov and Barcenilla were his most impressive. The wins all contributed to Australia winning close matches against tough opposition. When you have a player in form in a team event what do you do with him? Give him white as often as possible and hope he keeps winning! The rest of the team will not mind if the said player keeps delivering and helps the team’s overall performance. Again, it is all about the team!

Anton Smirnov's highlights

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As you look through the team lists online you will see a lot of famous names as captains who not only contribute as analysts, but are the managers of their teams. There is also a group of unsung heroes in many top teams that are not on the team lists, who you never see in the tournament hall, and when you are told they are in Baku, you exclaim that you had never seen them. These are the coaches, the trainers. The reason you never see them at the tournament hall is because that is when they tend to sleep! They find out the pairings in the evening, make databases of each possible opponent, they know the composition of their own team and the next day they try to help the team prepare. After the games they are always willing to go over the game and be used as a sounding board to see where something went wrong, where something can be improved. On the Australian team it was GM Darryl Johansen who did this and the hope is that not only were the players a little bit better during the event but left Baku as slightly better chess players!

Team Australia inside the venue

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Some teams have long drawn out team meetings to decide who plays, others are just decided by the captain. I do not wish to give away too many secrets but I will describe the last round selection of the Australian team who was to play the Philippines after losing to the might of France led by MVL. Although the Philippines were supposedly slightly lower rated than Australia, on board three had the incredible Eugene Torre who had jumped from a time machine to his best years and was on an extraordinary 9.0/10 and a 2800+ performance while board one was playing above 2600.

In the Olympiads, Board One is really a completely separate tournament, and while every team has a monster on board one, you cannot expect a large plus score from them. For example, consider that David played Magnus Carlsen, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Radoslaw Wojtaszek, Ivan Saric with Alexander Fier at 2634 being the fifth lowest rated player. Add in two more “normal” GMs and you can see how draining it can be to simply hold the fort on board one and still try to represent your country with pride. Still, David was going into the last round after suffering three losses in a row and was not sure he should play. Max Illingworth, our board five in a very even team, had a wonderful second half of the Olympiad and was the highest second performer on the team and had just drawn impressively as black against the French “engine room” Laurent Fressinet. You could also add that Zong Yuan Zhao had only a draw from his last three games, Moulthun was not in his best shape, and Anton might be on a high after securing his double GM norm, the tricky question beckoned, who to “rest”?

While the complete answer is still complicated, the simple version is this: give your players in form white and hope that someone will draw as black! Zong-Yuan Zhao had played himself into reasonable form and only those on the inside will know that the only reason he had overreached in an equal position against Mazé from France, eventually losing, was because he knew the team was losing by one game and a draw was not enough to save the match. Yuan took significant risks to change the fate of the match, and even though unsuccessful and costing a few Elo points, had no regrets about his decision, after all the team was what mattered!

In order for Yuan and Anton to be white it meant David and Moulthun would play as black and Max would rest. There were other factors and possibilities, nothing is written in stone but thankfully Yuan won and our own “engine room”, Anton Smirnov, continued his winning ways. The last round can change everything in appearances for final rankings. Australia did not lose or draw a game to a team below them in seeding and had defeated two teams above them. Unfortunately, even so, losing in the last two rounds to France and the Philippines would have resulted in an average overall event. Instead, the team won the last round and the team finished in equal 24th place which is an excellent result for Australia. There were still a lot of sweaty palms as the games were being played and the final win was not achieved until David made his heroic draw.

The last round

Select games from the games list below the board

I hope this has given a little insight into a team from the pack of the Olympiad. I am sure there are many wonderful stories many other teams could tell as well. I can only finish by mentioning everyone who helped this Australian Open team: our Head of Delegation Cathy Rogers who worked tirelessly solving admin problems, Darryl Johansen who suffered with me as co-captain and coach, the wonderful volunteers who became our friends and showed us around Baku (Aydin, Ida, Khadija and Nara), and most importantly the players themselves who represent three generations of Australian chess. David Smerdon and Zong Yuan Zhao as the old men (31-30!), Moulthun Ly and Max Illingworth as our new GMs and our future GM young Anton Smirnov who was our star performer. I cannot begin to describe how well everyone got on and supported each other, as ever it was an honour to be captain.

Team Australia with their captain, Manuel Weeks


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