The American squad starts play Thursday in the 42nd Chess Olympiad in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku laboring under an unusual burden — sky-high expectations.
The U.S. has not reached the podium in the biennial event since 2008, and the country’s last gold medal came in 1976 in Israel, when the Soviet Union and other Eastern European nations boycotted the event.
But anchored by three young stars in the world’s top 10 — GMs Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So — the Yanks sport an average rating of 2740, second only to Russia. Defending champion China, Ukraine and the host Azerbaijani team are also expected to be in the mix, but the powerful Armenian team, which won gold in 2006, 2008 and 2012, is a no-show owing to continuing political tensions between Yerevan and Baku.
Both world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Russian Sergey Karjakin, his challenger in the title match in November n New York City will be playing for their countries, though it’s unlikely they’ll square off in Baku.
GM Irina Krush and new U.S. women’s champ IM Nazi Paikidze will anchor the women’s team, but they can expect a tough time getting past three-time defending champion Russia and a high-powered Chinese team.
Not surprisingly, four of the five all-time best individual performers in Olympiad history are world champions, led by Latvia-born Soviet star Mikhail Tal, who lost just twice in 101 games. The only outlier among the top five may be a surprise to some — American GM Isaac Kashdan, a key member of the storied U.S. teams that took home four straight Olympiad golds starting in 1931. Today’s game comes from the 7th Olympiad in 1937, where Kashdan went 13-1-2 playing third board for yet another victorious U.S. team.