by Ian Rogers
The Australian teams for the Chess Olympiad to be held in Azerbaijan in September, have been selected with no great surprises but three unlucky candidates.
Australia’s Olympic teams are chosen by five selectors working independently ranking the candidates in order of playing strength. The selectors are sent the players’ complete results for the past year or more and analysing the data is a time-consuming task.
In years past, the Australian Champion was more or less guaranteed a place in the open Olympiad team (and no player tying for first place in the Australian Championship had ever missed out either).
However in 2016, with GMs Zhao Zong Yuan, David Smerdon and the consistent Moulthun Ly fairly sure to take the first three boards, 19-year-old Australian Champion Bobby Cheng (below) needed to find favour above three of Max Illingworth, Anton Smirnov, James Morris and Justin Tan, all of whom had achieved 2600+ performances in recent times.
Illingworth, with his new Grandmaster title, would have been a certainly when he was challenging for board 1 five months ago but recent modest form and a rating crash had put his position in some doubt.
Anton Smirnov, who debuted so brilliantly at the Tromso Chess Olympiad in 2014 at age 13, had not progressed as fast as expected but like Ly had put in plenty of good performances, including at the last domestic event before the selections began, the O2C Doeberl Cup.
James Morris’ application hung on his absolutely sensational Doeberl Cup win. Morris did have a Victorian Championship win and a good Australian Masters performance as well. The selectors had to judge whether the Doeberl Cup win as this a sign of a good player reaching new heights or a one-off.
Justin Tan (below) was a wild card. Two years ago the 19-year-old Victorian did not even bother to apply for selection for the Australian Olympic team, believing he had no chance.
Tan had not long earlier retired from a promising gymnastics career – “chess gives me fewer injuries” – and had relocated to England to take his final years of school at Woodbridge in Suffolk.
The attraction in studying in England was that the Woodbridge School offered a pathway for budding chess professionals, under the mentorship of former Australian Masters Champion Adam Hunt.
Tan was offered plenty of time to travel to tournaments in Europe and he made the most of his opportunities, securing his International Master title at the Bunratty Classic in Ireland in 2015.
During this period Tan had no regular coach but worked with a number of top players, notably Slovakian Grandmaster Lubomir Ftacnik.
Grandmaster level performances remained elusive, Tan missing out by half a point in the English club competition, the 4NCL.
However, with exquisite timing, – shorty before the Olympiad selectors were to decide, – Tan, 19, took the first step to becoming a Grandmaster by finishing an undefeated second in the Colin Crouch Memorial tournament in London, behind Jahangir Vahidov of Uzbekistan.
Tan scored his best victory in London against local player Alistair Hill in the following game.
Opening: Sicilian Defence
Predicting which way the selectors would jump was an impossible task given that the Australian Chess Federation sacked four
of the five selectors of the successful Tromso 2014 Open team.
When the selections were announced last week Cheng found himself ranked only 8th by the selectors, his Australian Championship and Ballarat wins insufficient to sway enough votes.
Tan was placed seventh, with Morris the other player to miss out.
So the Australian team for Baku is:
In contrast, the Australian women’s team for Baku almost selected itself given the unavailability of long-time team stalwarts Irina Berezina and Arianne Caoili.
In 2016 the Australian women’s team is led by debutante Heather Richards, finally available to play for Australia after refusing to pay an exorbitant fee to the World Chess Federation for a fast transfer from her country of origin, England. (Richards, currently working in Gladstone, has been living in Australia for a decade.)
Richards is followed on board 2 by former SA Champion Giang Nguyen, 20-year-old Emma Guo, veteran Biljana Dekic and debutante Alex Jule.
How the Australian team will fare in Baku will depend on the vagaries of the Olympiad scoring system – match points, which is extremely poor for sorting out the middle teams in a big field. However with a little luck and match wins in the final two rounds, a top 30 finish is not impossible for either team (though the Open team are probably dreaming of something even better).