He’s been sporting a T-shirt this week that reads “Make mistakes,” but Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen doesn’t aim to make any during the Chess Olympiad that’s getting underway in Tromsø this weekend. It nonetheless can’t be taken for granted that Norway’s team at the Chess-OL will win gold, just because Carlsen is on it.
It’s clearly an advantage, of course, to have Carlsen, the reigning Chess World Champion and top-ranked player in the world, on the team. “The others know that some new things will come from us,” Carlsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday. At least part of the advantage is purely psychological, Carlsen said.
Norway is also hosting the Chess Olympiad in its popular northern city of Tromsø, so the team Carlsen heads has a sort of home turf advantage. There are 181 nations competing, however, and as newspaper Aftenposten pointed out this week, competition is as tough as it can get. Norway is far from being favoured.
“Four years ago, I said in an interview that it was completely unrealistic to think that a Nordic country would ever get into the top 10 at a Chess-OL,” Carlsen’s personal coach, Peter Heine Nielsen, told Aftenposten. “Now I think Norway can manage that, and that alone shows how far Norwegian chess has come. But to actually win a Chess-OL, or qualify for a medal, that’s still unrealistic.”
The countries with much deeper roots in chess are the favourites instead: Russia, Armenia, Ukraine and Belarus. Armenia won at the last Chess-OL in Istanbul in 2012 and Ukraine won in 2010, with Russia placing second both times. Armenia and Ukraine have alternated as winners since Russia claimed its last victory in 2002. At that point, either Russia or the Soviet Union had won every Chess Olympiad in a row since 1980 and many before that as well. Russia, aggressive in many areas these days, will clearly be seeking revenge in Tromsø.
The team representing Norway at the event known locally as “Chess-OL” is exactly the same as in 2008 in Dresden: Carlsen, now age 23; Simen Agdestein, age 47; Jon Ludvig Hammer, age 24; Leif Erlend Johannessen, age 34; and Kjetil Aleksander Lie, age 33. It was a sensation when they all beat China, ranked third in the world at the time, but they otherwise ended in 21st place.
Since then, Carlsen went on to become the top-ranked player in the world during the past four years and then won the Chess World Championship last year. “We’ll be sitting next to each other during the matches, and when you’re playing with a world champion, you don’t want to disappoint him,” said Hammer.
“They’re great folks, the whole gang,” responded Carlsen during a press meeting on Norway’s southern coast at Kragerø this week, where the team spent time warming up for the Olympiad at the other end of the country in Tromsø. “We have to overplay in relation to our rating if we’re to do very well, but I think we can manage that if we have the right attitude and mood.”
After opening ceremonies Friday evening, the action gets underway Saturday afternoon. Norway also has other teams assembled including three all-women teams, which may or may not get the nod to participate on Saturday. The Chess-OL, which has attracted 1,500 of the world’s top chess players, runs until August 14. The television audience is expected to exceed 65 million. For details, see the Olympiad’s official web site here (external link).