Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Against Chess Olympiad

In international competition, more than anything else, things always seem to get the weirdest when Israel is involved. Whether it's their doing or the doing of someone else, contingency plans and special arrangements always pop up out of the woodwork.

*In international soccer, Israel was moved from the Asian confederation, their natural location, to Oceania and then Europe because their neighbors in Asia refused to play them, nearly leading to Israel qualifying for the 1958 World Cup by default.
*Palestine has to play their home games in Qatar using expat players because Israel won't let their homegrown players out of the country to play games of their own (leading to Palestine having to forfeit a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Singapore after 18 players were refused permission to travel) and sometimes actively targets Palestinian soccer players in the broader conflict.
*In the Olympics, Iranian athletes will immediately withdraw from their events if they are placed against Israeli athletes (whatever their official excuse may be). And it isn't just the Olympics, and it isn't just Iran.
*Every four years, someone will pressure the IOC to hold a moment of silence for the Israeli team that was killed at Munich 1972 (which itself can be included here), and every four years the IOC will say no.
*The Maccabiah Games, an Olympic-style competition, are a thing that exists, open to Jewish athletes and Israelis regardless of religion, and is held every four years in Israel. (And every four years, Israel dominates the medal count.)
*I've already spoken at length about the Games of the New Emerging Forces, started in part to Israel being ejected from the Asian Games in Jakarta.

But this behavior isn't limited to purely athletic endeavors. Of all things, chess also has a competition for national teams, called the Chess Olympiad. There are doping tests and everything, and in 2004 they actually had an effect as two players from Bermuda and Papua New Guinea refused to submit to a test, which is counted as an automatic fail. As in any international competition, there is a host. This year's Chess Olympiad, held earlier this month, was hosted by Tromso, Norway. China won.

The way it works (at least in the 'open' section, the main event), is, every day of the competition, each four-man team is paired off against the members of another four-man team. (In 2014, there was also a deaf team, a blind team using Braiile to play, and a physically-disabled team.) The host gets to enter two teams and, if there's an odd number of teams, they get to enter a third as well. In each round, teams are paired off according to their points scored during the tournament (a team win is worth two points, a draw one point, a loss gets nothing), except in the first round, when they're paired off according to the ratings of their individual players. If by way of withdrawls they have an odd number of teams, the last-place team gets a bye, though no team can have more than one bye. The goal in each round is to pair teams as closely as possible in score (tied in match points whenever possible), except in the first round, when the ratings function as seeds. Teams must play new opponents in each round, so it can happen that mismatches wind up occurring.

The tl;dr version: Round 1 features the top teams engaging in a ritual slaughter of the dregs of the chess world; from that point on, winning puts you against better teams later on; losing gets you scheduled against worse teams. So as an example, the eventual champion Chinese (out of a field of 177), was scheduled to play the following over the course of the tournament to play, in order:

Guatemala (eventually finished 96th; China won 4-0)
Albania (60th; China won 3.5-1.5)
Hungary (2nd; China won 2.5-1.5)
Russia (4th; China tied 2-2)
Netherlands (12th; China tied 2-2)
Egypt (23rd; China won 3.5-0.5)
Serbia (16th; China won 3.5-0.5)
Azerbaijan (5th; China won 3-1)
Ukraine (6th; China tied 2-2)
France (13th; China won 2.5-1.5)
Poland (15th; China won 3-1)

So. Now that we're clear on how this works. In 1976, Haifa, Israel was selected to host. Until then, the tournament had used a format of preliminary round-robin groups and a final group, but with the number of entries growing by the year, the current format was in use starting in Haifa. Now, this was going to be Israel's second hosting gig- Tel Aviv hosted in 1964- so you'd think this wouldn't have caused much of a ruckus. But then, in 1964, Israel, because of the group-stage system, had been segregated from nations that would object to their participation. Israel had been grouped with Hungary, Sweden, Scotland, France, Ireland and Luxembourg. Iran was present, but grouped with the United States, Poland, England, Norway, Turkey and Portugal. And no other nation that had a particularly gigantic issue with Israel was in the field.

But by 1976, the Arab delegation was much larger. Two years earlier in Nice, France, the field showed not only Iran but Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco, among others. This meant that there were more voices to raise objection to traveling to Israel to compete. And while Israel had been able to dodge playing Arab teams until then (with the exception of being grouped against Tunisia in the B final), with the new system, anyone could play anyone at any time.

So the Arab nations boycotted. And they took the Soviet Union with them, who also did not recognize Israel, as well as a lot of the Eastern Bloc and many Soviet allies. Given that the Eastern Bloc is the traditional geographical power bloc of chess, and given that the Soviet Union was the 12-time-defending champion, this was what you might call 'a total disaster'. The tournament went ahead, sure, but with a greatly reduced number of teams. 74 had competed in Nice; only 48 arrived in Haifa. With the Soviets out, as well as 1972 runner-up Yugoslavia, the United States- third in Nice- naturally wound up winning. Israel finished 6th.

The tournament was notable for heavy Israeli security presence swarming the grounds, just in case. The Israeli Olympic team had only been killed four years earlier, after all. They weren't taking any chances.

But there was another tournament. The boycotting nations weren't going to stand idly by and just let Israel... do things. They were going to host their own tournament. ...well, some of them were, anyway. The Soviets and the Eastern Bloc chess power base sat things out entirely, having little to prove, especially against the likes of the Arab nations, who are largely more than a little shaky in the global rankings.

Moammar Gadhafi offered up Tripoli as a host city for the alternative tournament. Not only did he offer the city, he organized the tournament himself. In pre-tournament literature, the purpose of the whole affair was not left to the imagination, as the event was titled the "Against Israel Olympiad", though it was later changed to the "Against Chess Olympiad".

Just imagine, for a moment, the mental gymnastics that have to take place before one gets around to deciding that naming an international chess competition the "Against Chess Olympiad" is a good idea. Especially considering that this is a tournament that is supposed to be hosting people who are smart enough that they are able to play high-level chess.

Politically heated as it may have been, your average person probably can't name any big-time chess players currently active, so it really wouldn't have mattered who attended. Tripoli certainly got It Didn't Matter to attend all right. Even though Gadhafi offered to pay full expenses of any attendees, not a single grandmaster showed up, which would cover something like the top thousand or so players in the world. The next level down is International Master, which covers the next couple thousand, and there was only a handful of them there. As such, things were bound to get a little screwy, and they did. They got so screwy that El Salvador of all people somehow walked off with the title, which even for this depleted field qualified as a huge upset.

Libya finished 24th in a field of 34. So there went that little bit of propaganda.

If you're wondering about whether there was some sort of revenge boycott, you wonder correctly. Though 'revenge' is a bit of a strong word, as the boycott was legitimately provoked. In 1986, hosting duties went to Dubai, who as you might expect took the opportunity to just eject Israel outright. The United States made a big show of threatening to boycott if Israel wasn't allowed back in, but seeing as the UAE wouldn't have been that broken up if the United States went away either, it didn't work. The Americans eventually backed down and sent a team, but much of Western Europe did not, and many top individual players didn't show up either. But the Soviets did show up, and that was really all that mattered, as they romped to what would be their fourth straight title in a streak that would eventually stretch to 12 as they eventually became Russia. (To recap that bit of history, from 1952-2002, the Soviets/Russians won 24 out of 26 tournaments, with one of the remaining two being a boycott... and the other a legitimate loss to Hungary in 1978.)

The hosting duties have steered clear of the Arab world ever since.

The next tournament in 2016 is slated for Baku, Azerbaijan. Immediately upon being awarded the hosting job, speculation turned to whether Armenia would attend... but that's a logistical international competitive nightmare all its own.

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