The second of our-two part series on the history of the Olympiads picks up in the late 1970s and continues through the last Olympiad, in Norway in 2014.

A Soviet boycott of the 1976 Chess Olympiad because the event was held in Haifa, Israel, had opened the door for the United States and allowed it to capture its first team gold medal since the 1930s. But, the general expectation was that the Soviets would return to the top of the podium in 1978 when the Olympiad was in Buenos Aires.

Order would be re-established, with the Soviet Union as the perennial gold medalist, but not in 1978. In a major upset, Hungary took top honors, edging out the Soviets, despite losing their head-to-head match, 2.5-1.5. Hungary won because, aside from that one match, the team played brilliantly losing only three of their 56 games, while the Soviets lost five games and a match to West Germany, which was led by Robert Huebner. The United States finished third.

The Soviets were handicapped in the competition by not having the services of Anatoly Karpov, the World Champion, who was recuperating from his narrow victory over Viktor Korchnoi in the World Championship match, which had ended just before the Olympiad started and had covered 32 games.

(Korchnoi did play, representing his adopted country, Switzerland, and achieved the best result on Board 1: 9 points in 11 games, earning him an individual gold medal.)

Karpov returned for the Olympiad in Malta in 1980. Among others on the Soviet team, he was joined by a 17-year-old making his Olympiad debut: Garry Kasparov. Despite the Soviets’ formidable line-up, the team started slowly and only caught up with Hungary in the 12th round. At the end, the Soviet Union and Hungary had identical results, but the Soviets took home the gold because they had superior tie-breaker points.

The Soviet team reasserted its former dominance at the 1982 Lucerne Olympiad, winning by 6.5 game points in the largest field so far for the competition: 92 teams, including two from Switzerland, the host nation. Only the Dutch managed to blemish the Soviet record, drawing their individual match.

The 1984 Olympiad at Thessaloniki, Greece, was memorable for me because I played second reserve for Ireland, scoring 50 percent. Nearly 90 countries participated and the diversity of the event can be illustrated by the fact that Ireland met Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Israel, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Bangladesh (whose team included a strong female player), as well as seven European teams — but none from the eastern bloc, perhaps because they were all too strong for us.

Both Karpov and Kasparov were absent, because of their first World Championship match (the one that would ultimately be suspended with no result), but they were hardly missed as Alexander Beliavsky, the top board for the Soviet team, began with six straight wins and helped lead the Soviet Union to yet another team gold. In Round 9 he lost to Georgian émigré Roman Dzindzhichashvili, which enabled the United States to record an historic, 2.5-1.5, win over the Soviets, but it was not enough to deny them the gold.

England had a great run from 1984 - 1988, winning the team silver in three straight Olympiads. 

The outstanding performance of the 1984 Olympiad was by England’s John Nunn playing on Board 2, who scored 10/11 to win an individual gold and lead his team to silver. It was the beginning of a great run for England, which would win the silver at the 1986 and 1988 Olympiads, finishing only 1 game point behind the Soviets in 1986. By the 1990 Olympiad, England slipped to third and have not won a medal since (though in 1994 and 1996, they were only relegated to fourth place because of tie-breakers).

After winning the boycotted Olympiad in 1976, the United States was a consistent force in the competitions throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s. From 1978 to 1986 Olympiad, the United States won the bronze medal five consecutive times and, in 1990, it took the silver.

The 1990 Olympiad in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, was the end of an era. It was the last time that the Soviet Union would win gold because it was the last time that it would appear in competition. By the 1992 event, in Manila, the Philippines, the countries that had made up the Soviet Union, many of which had very strong chess traditions, were competing as individual states.

In addition, many formerly Soviet grandmasters and masters, suddenly freed of their political allegiances, began emigrating to Israel, the United States and other western countries, greatly strengthening the national teams of their new homes.

The new world order greatly affected the results at the 1992 Olympiad. Russia won ahead of Uzbekistan and Armenia, while three other former Soviet republics finished in the top ten. Uzbekistan’s silver might seem surprising, but most of their players were ethnic Russians. A united German team competed for the first time since 1939. There was no team from Yugoslavia/Serbia because of United Nations sanctions, but newly independent Croatia finished seventh.

The 1992 Olympiad was the first of six successive wins by Russia, showing that, at least at first, the break-up of the Soviet Union had not changed everything — its team retained a nucleus of grandmasters who had benefited from the excellent Soviet training system. The 1998 Olympiad, which was held in Elista, Kalmykia, the capital of the home of World Chess Federation’s president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, had to be shortened to 13 rounds because the playing venue was not quite ready when the players arrived. The United States nearly pulled off a huge upset, as it led almost throughout. But in the last round China held them to a draw and they were overtaken by Russia and lost by 1 point.

The 2000 Olympiad in Istanbul, Turkey, was held during the World Championship match between Kasparov and his former protégé, Vladimir Kramnik. Russia adjusted, however, winning gold behind Alexander Khalifman, the reigning World Champion according to FIDE, and Alexander Morozevich. The victory was not without drama as Russia lost twice – to Hungary in Round 3 and to Bulgaria in Round 9 – something that would have been unthinkable in the Soviet era. Germany, led by Artur Yusupov, a Russian emigré, made a run at gold, but after a loss to Bulgaria in Round 11, the Germans had to be content with silver. One of the most remarkable performances of the Olympiad was turned in by Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, who played Board 1 in every round and never lost, leading his team to the bronze.

The last Russian team gold medal came in 2002, which was also the last time Kasparov played an Olympiad. 

The last Russian win came in 2002, which was also the last time Kasparov played an Olympiad. Since then the best the Russians have been able to do is silver (in 2006, 2008 and 2014) and they did not finish in a medal position at all during other Olympiads. An oddity of the Olympiad was that the Board 1 gold medallist was Robert Gwaze of Zimbabwe (who is now an international master). He won all nine of his games, while his team-mates scored 16 points between them from 47 games and Zimbabwe finished 101st out of 134 teams.

The first non-Soviet, non-Russian team to capture a gold since 1978 was Ukraine, which did it in 2004, once again behind Ivanchuk. The somewhat faster time control, which had also been used in 2002, probably helped as Ukraine had a young and energetic team who played above their ratings and defeated Russia in Round 4. Of note was Ukraine’s second reserve board, 14-year-old Sergey Karjakin, who had become a grandmaster at 12 years, 7 months, the youngest player ever to earn the title. Russia finished second and Armenia third, after defeating Georgia 3.5-0.5 in a controversial last-round result that led to accusations of match-fixing.

At Turin in 2006 (when only 13 rounds were played) Russia could only finish sixth, although Kramnik performed well on Board 1. They lost several games on Board 4 and were beaten in three matches. Armenia, led by Levon Aronian (who lost only to Kramnik) relied chiefly on their younger players and took gold. A new power, China, won the silver, while the United States took bronze on tiebreaks over Israel, despite losing the match between those countries.

At Dresden, Germany, in 2008, Armenia defended the title, while Israel, behind Boris Gelfand on Board 1, got some revenge by winning the silver ahead of the United States, which again took bronze. In this Olympiad, Karjakin played for Russia for the first time, having switched nationalities.

There were several important changes in Dresden that have remained the rules for all subsequent Olympiads. The most important change was in the scoring: Match points (2 for a win, 1 for a draw or tie) instead of team points became the primary way of ranking the teams. A new time control was adopted: After 40 moves for the first time control, players received an additional half hour plus 30-seconds after each move. The tournament was also limited to 11 rounds and each team was only allowed one reserve. At the same time, the Women’s Olympiad was increased to four boards to match the men.

FIDE also enhanced the importance of the event by making norms for the grandmaster and international master titles count twice if earned in an Olympiad.

The 2010 Olympiad was in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, where many other top chess events have since been played. Ukraine won gold for the second time, with Russia second and Israel third. The young Russia “B” team finished sixth, behind Hungary and China, but ahead of Armenia and some other very strong teams.

When the Olympiad returned to Turkey in 2012, Aronian once more led Armenia to victory, this time ahead of Russia (on tiebreak) and Ukraine. The Chinese had been in the joint lead until the last round when Ukraine defeated them, 3-1.

At Dresden in 2008, match points instead of team game points became the primary way of ranking the teams.

The most recent Olympiad, held in the Arctic town of Tromsø, Norway, was the largest ever. There were 1,570 registered players in total, with 177 Open teams and 136 women’s teams. The chess-mad hosts, excited to showcase their World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, had television coverage daily, facilitated by Norway playing on Board 2 every round, irrespective of the team’s standing in the tournament. Sadly for Norway, Carlsen lost two games and his team never figured in the chase for medals. On the plus side, the internet coverage was the best yet for any Olympiad, making it possible for lovers of the game worldwide to follow every match live each day with video from the playing hall and grandmaster commentary on the top matches in several languages.

At Tromsø, the rising Asian giants made their biggest impact yet in an Olympiad. China won gold and India (even without its top player, Viswanathan Anand the former World Champion) took bronze. Hungary was the silver medallist, but it was a somewhat bittersweet event for the team as Judit Polgar, the strongest female player the world has yet seen, announced her retirement from professional chess at the end of the tournament.

The upcoming Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, will have 181 teams – a new record. Four countries – Russia, the United States, China and the host nation – have teams with average ratings over 2700. Unfortunately, Armenia, the three-time champion, is not competing because of the long-standing state of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The most intriguing team may be from the United States, which last won a medal in 2008. It is the second-ranked team because it includes three of the top ten players in the world rankings: Fabiano Caruana (No. 4), Hikaru Nakamura (No. 6) and Wesley So (No. 7), who just won the Sinquefield Cup.

As usual, Russia is the top seed. Its team includes Kramnik and Karjakin, in what will undoubtedly be his final competition before he plays Carlsen for the World Championship this November in New York City.

Here is the list of top two teams since 1978. The question is who will be added to it after Baku?

1978 Buenos Aires: 1. Hungary, 2. Soviet Union. 1980 Valletta, Malta: 1. Soviet Union, 2. Hungary. 1982 Lucerne, Switzerland: 1. Soviet Union, 2. Czechoslovakia. 1984 Thessaloniki, Greece: 1. Soviet Union, 2. England. 1986 Dubai: 1. Soviet Union, 2. England. 1988 Thessaloniki: 1. Soviet Union, 2. England. 1990 Novi Sad, Yugoslavia: 1. Soviet Union, 2. United States 1992 Manila, Philippines: 1. Russia, 2 Uzbekistan. 1994 Moscow: 1. Russia, 2 Bosnia-Herzegovina. 1996 Yerevan, Armenia: 1. Russia, 2 Ukraine. 1998 Elista, Russia: 1. Russia, 2. United States. 2000 Istanbul: 1. Russia, 2. Germany. 2002 Bled, Slovenia: 1. Russia, 2. Hungary. 2004 Calvia, Spain: 1. Ukraine, 2. Russia. 2006 Turin, Italy: 1. Armenia, 2. China. 2008 Dresden, Germany: 1. Armenia, 2. Israel. 2010 Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia: 1. Ukraine, 2. Russia. 2012 Istanbul: 1. Armenia, 2. Russia. 2014 Tromsø, Norway: 1. China, 2. Hungary.


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. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.