Astana to host World Team Championships

by Antonio Pereira
3/3/2019 – The Open and Women's World Team Championships will take place on March 4th-14th in Kazakhstan's capital, Astana. Both events will be nine-round single round robin tournaments. The open section will have Russia and China as the clear front-runners, while the women's meeting is much harder to call in advance, with rating favourites Russia having to contend against strong squads from Ukraine, China, Georgia and India. | Photo: Official site

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Big names, big absences

The line-ups present at this year's open section of the World Team Championship create a distinctive landscape going into the ten-day competition. Russia and China are sending their top competitors, while Azerbaijan, India and especially the United States have submitted rather limited line-ups, with big names failing to attend. This will not change the general trend seen at this event in the last fifteen years, however, as China and Russia won five out of six times — only Armenia cut the streak by winning the 2011 championship in Ningbo.

China took gold in Khanty-Mansiysk 2017 | Photo: ugra2017.fide.com

Top seeds will be Russia, who took silver in the last edition — played in Khanty-Mansiysk — despite sweeping the United States 4:0 in the final round. Expert coach Alexander Motylev will command five of the top-8 rated players from the transcontinental country. In fact, this top-8 includes retired superstar Vladimir Kramnik, while Peter Svidler and Nikita Vitiugov will also be absent.

Only Ian Nepomniachtchi was part of the team that got second place in 2017, which speaks volumes about the embarrassment of riches seen in Russian chess. On the other hand, if we compare this line-up to the one seen at last year's Olympiad, only two substitutions have been made, with current national champion Dmitry Andreikin and Gibraltar winner Vladislav Artemiev replacing Vitiugov and Dmitry Jakovenko. Sergey Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk complete the squad. 

Will Artemiev make a difference in the Russian team? | Photo: Niki Riga

Only 1.2 rating points behind Russia — if we average the players' ratings — are the defending champions from China. They ended up undefeated in Khanty-Mansiysk and only lost once in Batumi (against the Czech Republic). Ding Liren, Yu Yangyi, Wei Yi and Bu Xiangzhi will all arrive in Astana to fight for gold, while Ni Hua will substitute Li Chao, who was part of the team both in Khanty-Mansiysk and at last year's Olympiad.

Given the absence of Norway among the qualified teams and of Caruana in the United States' line-up, Ding Liren is the only 2800-player in the field. He will have world's number 11 Yu Yangyi on the next board, who had a good showing a month ago in Gibraltar, only losing against Artemiev on first board in the last round.

Ding Liren with Russia's top board Sergey Karjakin in the background | Photo: Lennart Ootes

While it is clear that Russia and China have big appetite for success, Azerbaijan, India and United States will be using this as a chance to give some lower-rated — albeit very strong — players an opportunity to represent their countries. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Teimour Radjabov will be absent for the Azeri team; none of the players that composed the United States' team in Batumi will go to Astana; and India will be lacking Anand, Harikrishna and Vidit.

England will include a surprise on board five, as 62-year-old mathematician and chess writer Jon Speelman will be part of the team. The author of Sundays' Agony columns was fourth in the world rankings in January 1989. 

Full list of participants

Who will prevail among the women?

In 2017, Russia and China also ended up first and second in the women's category, but in reverse order compared to the open section. However, the Russian team was rather dominant in this case, getting a three-point advantage over their chasers in the final standings. 

The defending champions will arrive in Astana as the rating favourites, putting forth the exact same line-up from two years ago! And that should surprise no one, as four out of the five representatives are among the top-12 in the ratings list. The only difference is that Alexandra Kosteniuk and Kateryna Lagno will trade places on boards one and two, as the latter has gained traction in the last semester, getting second place at the World Championship knock-out tournament and winning the World Blitz Championship in Saint Petersburg at the turn of the year.

Lagno is the highest rated participant among the women | Photo: Lennart Ootes

China, on the other hand, will be missing Ju Wenjun and Zhao Xue in Astana — Hou Yifan is semi-retired while studying in Oxford — which allowed Ukraine to arrive in Kazakhstan as second seeds, with the Muzychuk sisters returning to the team (in this event) after not having participated in 2017 — the siblings had a great showing in Batumi, propelling their team to second place.

The hunt for the podium will be hard-fought, as Georgia, India and Kazakhstan have enough fire power to upset any of the favourites. A lot of eyes will be set on the locals, who have 19-year-old Zhansaya Abdumalik, 22-year-old Dinara Saduakassova and 15-year-old Bibisara Assaubayeva as their top boards. 

Full list of participants

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Antonio is a freelance writer and a philologist. He is mainly interested in the links between chess and culture, primarily literature. In chess games, he skews towards endgames and positional play.
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daftarche daftarche 3/4/2019 10:26
Sokolov is not playing for Iran. He has been coaching Iran national team for a few years now.
royce campbell royce campbell 3/3/2019 10:40
DId I miss an article? When did Sokolov switch from Netherlands to Iran?
Beanie Beanie 3/3/2019 09:38
Also absent, it seems, is Borat.
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