What it takes to be an Olympian

by Diana Mihajlova
7/29/2014 – Sometime in April WGM Nino Maisuradze, the reigning French woman champion, learnt that she had not been selected for the French Women's Olympic team. In a state of disbelief she vented her frustration publicly, not expecting the barrage of comments and criticism it provoked. Diana Mihajlova, who knows Nino as a kind, intelligent and dedicated chess player, describes the situation.

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What it takes to be an Olympian

By Diana Mihajlova

While the forthcoming Olympiad has been battered with colorful controversies, another incident, of a different type, has broken a debate on the social networks – a national champion has been overlooked by the selector in the composition of the national team. It may be about an individual case but it is also of a larger general interest that opens up questions about a professional and moral scrutiny.

WGM Nino Maisuradze, the reigning French woman champion, sometime in April learnt that she had not been selected as a member of the French Women's Olympic team. As the Olympiad is looming, still in a state of disbelief, she vented her frustration publicly, not expecting that it might provoke a barrage of comments. Her indignation is further strengthened by the fact that since becoming a French citizen in 2009, she has been regularly a member of the French national women’s team due to her achievements, even though she was not an actual champion.

A Georgian by birth, Nino has been living in France since 2003 and has been playing under the French flag for the last six years. While a resident of France, but still playing for Georgia, she already marked her impressive play by winning first place (women) at the 2008 Paris Championship (leaving behind Aleaxandra Kosteniuk). Soon after starting playing under the French flag, as a new member of the French women national team, at the 2010 Mitropa Cup, she won a gold medal for best result on the first board. The same year she was part of the Olympic team at Khanty-Mansiysk. The following 2011, she became the French woman vice-champion. The same year, at the European team championship in Greece, the French team finished fifth (beating Ukraine in last round). Their best result was the last Olympiad, in Istanbul 2012, where the French team reached 7th place. Last year, she played for the French team at the European Team Championship in Poland. Also, 2013 saw her as a woman champion of France. However, since becoming a champion, as if by curse, she is no longer part of the national team.

Nino (middle) with chess friends from her fatherland, the Georgians IM Lela
Javakhishvili (left) and GM Bela Khotenashvili, at the Gibraltar Open, 2014

Nino earned the title of a woman grandmaster in 2009 and is currently at 2317 rating points. She is ranked fifth among the active women chess players in France, after Marie Sebag, Almira Scripchenko, Sophie Milliet and Pauline Guichard. One would think that on the basis of this, Maisuradze would have been part of the national team, considering that the Olympic women teams are composed of five members. On the top of it she is also a reigning woman champion.

However, the French selector for this year’s Olympiad, GM Matthieu Cornette chose to exclude the French woman champion, from the national women team. The reason he gave Nino about why she is not selected is:"‘because the others play better than you." However, she has met on the board, on various occasions with all selected team members beyond GM Sebag, and the results show otherwise.

Pointing to the fact that Nino clinched the Champion title by a "mere" victory in the final tie-breaks of blitz games against, coincidentally, the fifth selected competitor, is a petty argument. The tie-break sessions of rapid and blitz games are a legitimate "make or break" point, which can decide even the World Champion in any sport.

The French Women Team at the 2012 Olympiad in Istanbul, with their captain GM Matthieu
Cornette: from left: Bollengier, Collas, Maisuradze, Cornette, Skripchenko, Milliet

Another consideration that has been floating in the air is that Nino experienced a drop in the rating sometime around the time of the selection. But, this is also a poor consideration on the basis of which to strike off a legitimate champion. The fluctuation in the rating is a natural occurrence in the life of a professional sport person. In spite of everything, at any one time, she was and she is higher rated than at least two of the selected competitors. That it was just a temporary ‘slip up’, has been confirmed by the fact that, in the meantime, she has re-bounced and has strengthened her performances, notably at the recent French team Championship, the French Highest League TOP-12, where in a strong competition she was the player with best score: 8,5/10, a 2514 performance and achieved her second IM norm.

Nino at the Top-12 French Team Championship in St Quentin, May 2014

It is understood that the selector has a free hand in making the selection according to his conviction, for the best of the nation and its teams, and in the best sporting spirit. However, it is odd that the reigning champion should suffer the axe, unless she has shown a particular drop in results or a slack sporting attitude, none of which is the case of Nino.

One can easily detect that she is obviously shaken by what she considers an injustice, when she says: "I’m not a pretentious chess player. I know that a lot of people are better than me. But I also know that a lot of people aren’t better than me."

Not pretentious: Nino at Le Cap d'Agde 2013, during the rapid
closed tournament ‘Karpov Trophy’

As Facebook becomes more and more a part of our lives I need to mention that it was there that this debate first caught my attention. Among the many pro and contra arguments provoked by this incident, on the theme "Does the national champion have an automatic right to represent the nation at the Olympiad?" I read with dismay that Nino has to take a further insult: she suffers the accusation from some corners because she has dared to announce the simple fact that this year, even though a national champion, she has not been selected for the Olympic team. Further, moral grounds are being waited upon her – she should have kept silent, because disclosing the fact may demoralise the selected players?! Ah, well, how much a snubbed champion has still to bear?

In a subsequent personal correspondence, Nino laments her predicament: "Just before the Olympiad my rating is 2317. The selector’s fourth choice is a 2284 rated, fifth choice is rated 2303. I’m better rated, I am still the current national champion, I am better titled than the fourth board, and I feel really silly sitting at home, having no right to play."

I met Nino at the 1st Open in El-Haouaria in Tunisia, two years ago and have enjoyed a company of a kind, intelligent and dedicated chess player. Her ambition appears subdued and modest but she is serious about her chess profession and has shown remarkable results.

WGM Adina Hamdouchi, Diana Mihajlova and Nino Maisuradze at the First El-Haouaria Open, Tunisia 2012

It is a common occurrence that chess federations stage national championships and urge their members to participate, even imposing penalties for the ones that choose not to, as a way of making easier and more transparent the composition of the national team. Often these championships are a measure of clearing out the uncertainties about players that are close to strength and rating and their results are taken as decisive for the selection of a national team.

It has been a common sense that the winner of a national championship would have earned automatically a place in the national team. Or, maybe not?

The French national champion, Nino Maisuradze, is presented to French
President, François Hollande on his recent visit to Tbilisi, Georgia

To exclude the national champion is to take a liberty too far: it is to challenge the ‘sacredness’ of the meaning and the role of a "champion". Since antiquity, and the creation of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, the champion was a revered figure representing a nation at international competitions.

Should the national champion be part of a national team "by its very essence?" The answer would not be a straight "yes", as exceptional incidents and circumstances may warrant otherwise. However, in the neat, small community of women’s chess, where all basic criteria and results are readily visible, and where, apart from the title, the reigning champion is fulfilling the majority of the other prerequisites, the case of WGM Nino Maisuradze’s removal from the Olympic national team should raise eyebrows.

Nino and her husband, Brazilian GM Alexander Fier

The French woman team for the 2014 Olympiad is composed of GM Marie Sebag (2480), IM Sophie Milliet (2406), WGM Pauline Guichard (2375), IM Silvia Collas (2302) and WIM Mathilde Congiu. Naturally, no one is shedding doubt on the worthiness of the actual selectees. However, Nino has been made to swallow a bitter pill, for no apparent reasons. None the less, she humbly says: "I still wish our teams good luck." And so do we, but the debate persists open: is not the reigning national champion deign to be part of the national team?


Addendum: We showed a preview of this article to friends in France and got the following reaction:

So ChessBase is publishing an article to defend Nino? Amazing! Well it's Nino's choice to make a fuss about a Championship she won twelve months ago. She played in the French team inbetween, and had 40 rating points less than everyone at the moment of the selection. The ratings fluctuate every month. At the moment of her selection she was at 2255. How could the selector guess she'd make +70 rating points immediately after the team was announced? I think that the French Captain was looking more at the results for the period from January till May. Anyway this will make big noise in France! Developments will be interesting.

We would be interested to know your opinion in the discussion section below...

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


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