The Chess Olympiads, Part I: From Founding to Soviet Boycott
ByDr. Timothy HardingAug 29 — 8:00 AM
Image by David Eldan
With the Chess Olympiad starting this week in Baku, Azerbaijan, we begin a look back at the history of the world’s pre-eminent international chess competition.
In 1924, the Summer Olympics were to be held in Paris. A group of chess players decided to organize an international amateur tournament in order to be part of the action, even if only indirectly. Alexander Alekhine, the future World Champion, who now lived in France, was present during the organizing meetings and planned to co-author a book about the event, but it was never completed.
There were 54 players from 18 countries in that first Olympics tournament. They were assigned to nine preliminary groups, from which the winners qualified for a round-robin final. The remaining 45 contested an eight-round Swiss system tournament. Some nations had three or four representatives; others only one or two, but the aggregate scores of individual players (in both rounds) from each country decided which won the team prize.
The overall winner of the individual competition was Hermanis Matisons of Latvia, while the team honors went to Czechoslovakia (none of whose players were in the group final), with Hungary second and Switzerland third.
More significant than the results was that the World Chess Federation, or FIDE (for Fédération Internationale des Echecs) was founded at a meeting on the final day of the competition. When FIDE met for its first congress, in Budapest in 1926, it voted to establish the Chess Olympiad tournaments for teams of four. The first official one (albeit under a different name) would be held the next year in London.
The dream of the organizers of the first tournament in 1924, and of every one after, was that chess would eventually be included in the regular and official Olympic Games. Though FIDE gained recognition from the International Olympic Committee as an official sports federation in 1999, the possibility that chess will someday be part of the regular Olympics seems remote. The fact that chess is not a physical sport and the fact that many leading players are professionals – and for decades, the Olympics barred professionals – have so far been insurmountable barriers.
But there have also always been some advantages of not being directly connected with the Olympic movement. One was that FIDE could stage its competitions whenever it wished. They held four in five years (1927, 1928, 1930, and 1931) before the two-year system was adopted. There were then four more official Olympiads in the 1930s, and from 1950 onwards Chess Olympiads have been held in each even-numbered year. According to Árpád Földeák, in his book Chess Olympiads, the term “Chess Olympiad,” did not become the official title until 1952.
FIDE gained recognition from the International Olympic Committee as an official sports federation in 1999.
Sixteen national teams (with a total of 70 players) contested the first official FIDE Olympiad which opened in London on 18 July 1927. Except for Argentina, all teams were European. Russia did not compete as it was not a FIDE member until after the war.
Each nation played a match against every other in London, and Hungary emerged as winners of the Hamilton-Russell Cup (named for Frederick Hamilton-Russell, an English tycoon, who supplied the trophy), ahead of the surprising team from Denmark, while England, the host nation, finished third.
Several famous grandmasters met on the top boards, where the best individual result was achieved by Richard Réti of Czechoslovakia, whose team finished fifth. Réti played every round, winning nine games, drawing five, and losing only one for a score of 76.7%. Percentages of 70% or better were also achieved by Ernst Grünfeld for Austria (6 wins and 7 draws), Géza Maróczy for Hungary (6 wins and 6 draws), and Max Euwe for the Netherlands (7 wins, 7 draws and one loss). The venerable Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch scored 56.7% on the top board for Germany at the age of 65.
Bobby Fischer, left, playing Mikhail Tal during the 1960 Oympiad in Leipzig, Germany.
Two other players made 80% scores which contributed greatly to their teams’ success. They were Holger Norman-Hansen on second board for Denmark (11 wins, two draws and two losses) and Sir George Thomas on Board 3 for England (nine wins and six draws). Thomas actually played Board 2 sometimes as England had a reserve.
A rule prevented professionals from competing in the second FIDE Olympiad at The Hague in 1928, but left the definition of amateurism to national federations. No grandmasters competed and neither England nor Yugoslavia sent a team. Nevertheless there were 17 countries and again they all played each other. Hungary won again, with the United States (led by Isaac Kashdan and Herman Steiner) second and Poland third. A noteworthy participant was ‘Dada’ artist Marcel Duchamp, who drew most of his games on Board 3 for France; he also played in subsequent Olympiads.
Professionals were allowed back for the third Olympiad, played at Hamburg in 1930. Again it was a round-robin tournament and the number of teams increased to 18. Given the location, it was perhaps not surprising that that they were all European, apart from the United States. In the first round Poland defeated Hungary 3.5-0.5 but Hungary gradually fought back thanks to their reserve, a master named Kornél Havasi. He played White in all but one of his games and scored ten wins and four draws. How was that possible? In his book, Földeák explained that team board order was not fixed for the first three Olympiads but from 1931 the rule was adopted that teams must adhere to the board order submitted before the competition began.
Poland took gold, by half a game point, but would also have won if the modern system of counting match results had been in force. Hungary finished second with Germany third.
Alekhine, who was now World Champion, played for France, winning all nine of his games, but avoided the toughest opponents. Three other top boards scored over 80% while playing every round: Akiva Rubinstein for Poland (13 wins and four draws), Salo Flohr for Czechoslovakia (14 wins, a draw and two losses), and Kashdan for the United States (12 wins, four draws and a loss). Other noteworthy participants were Savielly Tartakower (Board 2 for Poland), Frank J. Marshall (Board 2 for the United States), and Mir Sultan Khan, who was Indian but played Board 1 for England.
At Prague in 1931, the number of teams rose to 19 with most leading grandmasters representing their countries. The United States (Kashdan, Marshall, Arthur Dake, I.A. Horowitz and Herman Steiner) scored the first of a run of victories with Reuben Fine making his first appearance, this time on Board 3. Poland finished second.
Entries fell to 15 in 1933, played at Folkestone in England, where the Americans won comfortably, Czechoslovakia coming second. The outstanding individual performance came from the Czechoslovak fourth player, Karel Opočenský, who went undefeated with ten wins and three draws.
An Olympiad played at Munich in 1936, to coincide with the Olympic Games in Berlin, was not part of the official series.
Twenty teams competed at Warsaw in 1935 with Argentina returning to the competition; there was also a Jewish team playing under the flag of Palestine. The United States made it three in row, despite losing their first two matches, to Sweden and Hungary. The performance of their fourth board, Dake, was outstanding: 13 wins and five draws, resting only for one match. Among stars of the future making their appearance were Mojsze (later Miguel) Najdorf (Board 3 for Poland) and Paul Keres of Estonia. For the first time, Alekhine played every match, scoring seven wins and ten draws, but France could only finish tenth. Euwe, his nemesis in the world championship match later that year, was absent as the Dutch sent no team to Warsaw.
An “extra” Olympiad played at Munich in 1936, to coincide with the Olympic Games in Berlin, is not counted in the official series. Nazi Germany was not a member of FIDE and the event clashed with the major international tournament at Nottingham. Although the United, States, Argentina and England were missing, 21 countries including Brazil participated. As the tournament was for teams of eight instead of four, this was the largest chess event until the 1960s in terms of participants; 1680 games were played. Eventually Hungary won, ahead of Poland and Germany.
The next FIDE Olympiad was in 1937 at Stockholm, when the United States (led by Sammy Reshevsky for the first time) came first ahead of 19 teams without losing a match — they drew two. Hungary were runners-up. The best results on the top boards were achieved by Flohr for Czechoslavkia (78.1%), Keres (73.3%) and Euwe (73.1%). There was no French team.
The shadow of war hung over the 1939 Buenos Aires Olympiad, the first to be played outside Europe. For the one and only time, José Raúl Capablanca, the former World Champion, represented Cuba, scoring seven wins and nine draws without loss. This was also Alekhine’s last Olympiad and he too was undefeated, scoring nine wins and seven draws. When Cuba played France in the 12th round of the final, Capablanca chose to avoid a last duel with his old rival.
With ten Latin-American teams, including the hosts, there were too many entries to play a round-robin. Instead the 27 teams were divided into four preliminary groups, with the top four in each qualifying to compete for the Hamilton-Russell Cup in the main final.
On Sept. 1, the day after the preliminaries concluded, Germany invaded Poland and two days later Britain declared war on Germany. The English team (which finished third in Group 1) withdrew and returned home and their place in the final was left vacant.
In the final, six matches including those of France, Palestine and Poland against Germany, were not played and scored as 2-2 draws. Germany eventually won the Olympiad with Poland second and Estonia third. Several chess masters had their lives transformed by missing the outbreak of war. The five members of the German team, led by Austrian-born Erich Eliskases, made the wise decision to remain in South America. He, the Polish second board, Najdorf, and Czech third board, Jirí Pelikan, eventually became Argentine citizens and were leading players for their adopted country after the war.
Although the Olympic Games were revived in 1948, it was 1950 before another FIDE Olympiad was held, at Dubrovnik in Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia). For the first time, teams could bring two reserve players — which was fortunate because the event, according to Földeák, was played during a heatwave. Sixteen teams (including Greece for the first time) contested a round-robin and the host nation, led by Svetozar Gligorić, won, with Argentina (led by Najdorf) second and West Germany third.
A new era really began in 1952 when Helsinki was the venue, starting about a week after the close of the Olympic Games in the Finnish capital. The 25 teams were divided into three qualifying groups followed by A, B and C finals.
The Soviet Union sent its first team to the 1952 Olympiad, held in Helsinki.
For the first time the Soviet Union sent a team (Keres, Vasily Smyslov, David Bronstein, Efim Geller, Isaac Boleslavsky, and Alexander Kotov) who were strong favorites. They were held to a draw in three of their matches. but eventually the Soviets took the gold medal, with Argentina as runners-up.
For the next forty years (with one exception) the Soviet Union almost only had to turn up to win the Olympiad, although they occasionally suffered upsets in individual matches as, for example, in 1956 to, Hungary, and in 1964 to West Germany (1 to 3). In total, the Soviets captured the gold in 18 Olympiads.
Since the Soviet Union was usually a lock for gold, the real competition was for silver and bronze. The following is a list of the silver medalists:
In 1956, Bent Larsen of Denmark emerged as a new star, scoring 11 wins, 6 draws and only one loss, earning him the grandmaster title. At Leipzig in 1960, Jonathan Penrose of England became the first player to win a game against Mikhail Tal since the latter became World Champion.
Also at Leipzig, Bobby Fischer led the American team for the first time, scoring 10 wins, 6 draws (one being a lively skirmish against Tal) and two losses. It was at Varna in 1962, at the height of the Cold War, that Fischer played his only game with Mikhail Botvinnik, who had regained the world title from Tal in 1961. The game drew a great deal of attention and was a titanic battle. Fischer found a brilliant refutation of the Russian’s opening preparation and won a pawn, but a couple of inferior moves led to a rook endgame just before the adjournment. The Soviet team, led by grandmaster Geller, analyzed through the night to find a way for the champion to save the game, which he duly did after 68 moves. Botvinnik later wrote about the game, “With a face as white as a sheet, Fischer shook my hand and left the hall with tears in his eyes.”
As the years went by, the number of entries rose. There were 34 teams at Moscow (not including the United States, which did not play for political reasons), and 40 in Leipzig.
The one and only game between Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Botvinnik was at the 1962 Varna Olympiad. The game was drawn.
There were 50 teams at Tel-Aviv, then 52 at Havana which was organized on a lavish scale as a propaganda exercise by the government of Fidel Castro. Cuba paid for the air travel of all the visiting teams and provided each of them with a chauffeur-driven car during the event. Both Castro and government minister, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, were keen chess players and enjoyed playing with the visiting grandmasters. The event ended with a giant simultaneous display by numerous masters against 6,480 opponents.
The matches between the United States and Soviet Union always attracted special interest. At Havana, the Soviet Union was originally awarded a win by default because Fischer refused to play until after sunset on Saturdays. The Americans protested that they had been promised a postponement and eventually the match was played on a free day when Fischer drew with Boris Spassky. The Soviets won the match, 2.5-1.5, with the margin of victory provided by Tal’s win over Robert Byrne.
In 1968, Fischer refused at the last minute to play the Olympiad at all because he considered the lighting inadequate. The weakened American team lost to Denmark in the preliminaries and could only score half a point against the Soviet Union in the A Final, ultimately finishing fourth.
Siegen 1970 was the first time that the United States team included both Fischer and Reshevsky, who were bitter personal rivals. This was also Fischer’s last Olympiad. He made a good score but lost to Spassky, who was now World Champion, which probably contributed to Spassky’s underestimating his rival when preparing for their 1972 World Championship match. The other games in the match ended in draws, so the Soviets once again beat the Americans, 2.5-1.5.
After 74 teams played at Nice in 1974, FIDE decided that future Olympiads should be played under the Swiss system.
The sequence of Soviet victories finally ended in 1976 for political reasons because the Soviet Union refused to play as the Olympiad was held in Israel. Several Arab nations and several eastern European countries also boycotted. Col. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ruler, financed an “anti-Olympiad,” held in Tripoli, in which 34 teams competed. The very fact that El Salvador won the tournament shows that few masters competed and how weak the competition was. The real Olympiad, held in Haifa, was the first played under the Swiss system, although the boycott meant that only 48 nations participated. For the first time, there was also a Women’s Olympiad, which was organized as a round-robin. In the absence of the Soviet Union and many other chess powerhouses, the United States (even without Fischer) were top seeds and eventually won by half a game point over the Netherlands.
After nearly four decades, the United States had finally returned to the winner’s circle.
Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favorable critical reviews.