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China’s chess babes turn giant killers

Published: 
Thursday, August 28, 2014
DOUBLE ROOKS
China’s young lions celebrate their victory at Tromso.

Perhaps nothing symbolises the emergence of China on the world stage as the brilliant and startling victory they scored at the recent Chess Olympiad at Tromso, Norway. 

A comparative performance in the sporting annals of international team competition would be difficult, if not impossible, to find. To begin with, China, fielding a team of eager youngsters, clearly helped to end the historic dominance which the Russians, Armenians and Ukrainians have exercised over the celebrated mind game during the last two decades. China, with none of its players over 22, emerged the only undefeated team among the Olympiad’s 176 participating countries. 

They won eight matches and drew three for a total of 19 points, finishing two points clear of the opposition.

If the “big guns” of this premier world contest saw China as providing just a novel threat, that the country of Confucius was just investing in its youth, “blooding” its bright young players, well they must have received quite a shock in the process. Over the chessboards at Tromso, the oriental babes proved to be giant killers. 

According to commentators, China’s consistency brought them the gold medals by a comfortable margin. And their feat as the seventh seed was all the more remarkable because they left three of their five highest ranked players at home, going for form rather than reputation.

Chinese Chess Federation secretary Tian Hongwei said his country had now achieved three of the four targets they had set after joining the international chess world in the 1970s. All that remains, he says, is a Chinese player winning the individual World Championship open title. Now, after their history-making performance in Norway, all the incentives China need for achieving such dominance are in place. It is no coincidence, in fact, that a 20-year-old international chess star has emerged at Tromso who will surely see such an “assignment” as his personal destiny. 

On China’s third board, Yu Yangyi scored 9.5 points, the highest score of any Olympiad player. He won the third board gold medal and advanced his rating to the elite 2700 level. His 15-year-old teammate, Wei Yi, also scored several wins in key matches. Their success has fully justified China’s gamble of placing its hungry young lions on the lower boards, a strategy used by the United States in the 1930s and the USSR in the 1950s.

Second place in the Open was shared by four teams scoring 17 points each : Hungary, India, Russia and Azerbaijan. Hungary won the tie-breaker for second place, claiming the silver medal, while India ranked third to win the bronze. Russia, who were once again clear favourites before the tournament, finished in fourth place. The all-conquering Russians, still bothered by a form crisis, rallied in the last few rounds but were denied the bronze medals by India’s late surge. Indeed, for a team seeded only 19th, India’s performance was also a surprisingly splendid one. 

As a result, some chessistic prophets see the centre of gravity of the sport shifting eastwards with India also playing a progressive and signal role. Some speculators even claim that India’s loss - the fact that Vishwanathan Anand stayed out of the battle at Tromso - was China’s gain, as the presence of the ex-world champion leading India’s combatants would have made a world of difference, lifting them perhaps out of their third place behind Hungary.

In contrast, the once all-conquering Russians had a sad time at Tromso. Their top board and ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik made several blunders and the country’s other world top-20 GMs also surrendered vital points.

The Russian women, however, kept their flag flying for the third consecutive time, scoring ten wins and one loss for a total of 20 points. China, led by women world champion Hu Yifan, tied for second place with 18 points but gained Silver through the tiebreak.