Olympiad hostilities begin Saturday (Manila time) in Spain with defending men’s champion Russia and women’s champion China the top favorites.
Even without its two strongest grandmasters (world No. 1 Garry Kasparov and No. 3 Vladimir Kramnik), Russia with No. 4 Alexander Morozevich on board one still leads with an average rating of Elo 2724 in the men’s division.
Morozevich is backed up by four-time national champion Peter Svidler, Alexander Grischuk, formerly the top junior player, and Alexey Dreev, with ex-world champion Alexander Khalifman and Vadim Zvjiaginsev in reserve. All are super GMs.
Among the women, China is the favorite with ex-world champion Xie Jun at the helm, supported by two young WGMs, Xu Yuhua and Zhao Xue, and with Woman International Master Huang Qian as reserve. Absent is past world champion Zhu Chen.
A strong challenge, however, is expected from Russia, led by ex-world vice champion Alexandra Kosteniuk, with the US, powered by ex-world champion Zsuzsa Polgar, like Xie a full-fledged GM, as the likely dark horse.
Supporting the eldest of the famous Polgar sisters are IM Irina Krush, a former US champion, and IM-elect Anna Zatonski, a former Ukrainian champion who now lives in America. In reserve is reigning US champion Jennifer Shahade.
Among the men, the 10th seeded US, made up purely of top GMs from the former Soviet Union led by reigning national champion Alexander Shabalov, is also expected to pull off a surprise.
With Shabalov are Alexander Onischuk, Gregory Kaidanov and Alexander Goldin, with Igor Novikov and former US and Soviet champion Boris Gulko as reserves.
Realistically, however, Russia’s strongest rivals are Ukraine, Israel and Armenia.
Veteran super GM Vassily Ivanchuk leads the Ukrainian team, backed up by ex-world champion Ruslan Ponomariov, Alexander Moiseenko and Andrei Volokitin, with Pavel Eljano and 14-year-old wunderkind Sergey Karjakin as reserve players.
Bled Olympiad runner-up Hungary has been downgraded to No. 15 in the absence of world No. 9 Judit Polgar, the strongest-ever female player in the world, who gave birth to a son in August.
Besides the US, one likely dark horse for a leading position is India, led by ex-world champion Viswanathan Anand, currently No. 2 in the world.
The Philippines, which finished 39th in Bled, is seeded 41st (lowered one rung from 40th because of the late entry of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 37th) overall and No. 5 among Asian countries, behind China, India, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
By MANNY BENITEZ
TODAY Chess Columnist