Did China deserve more to win than the USA?
What separated the Gold from the Silver?
When the smoke had cleared at the end of the final round in Batumi, and it was evident that the tie-break system had favoured China over the USA, Caruana Fabiano tweeted – in a gesture of sportsmanship – :
I hate the tie-break systems used in the chess world! It seems un-natural to me that in a game where the individual is supposed to be king because he makes his/her own moves, that ultimate success in any given tournament should be decided by some random players’ game. (Which is what the Bucholz system does, for example)
Perhaps Caruana is right to attribute China’s beating out the USA solely on the good ‘fortune’ that the tie-break system creates for some, but I would like to think that there must be more to China’s winning the gold medal than this. Let’s take a look at both teams…
Some Team Forensics
Both the US team and the Chinese team had fantastic lineups. The US had a slightly higher average rating (16 pts), but it is so little that it can not be relevant to any final success.
Both teams had practically the same average age and demographics: only one player over 30; adding up the Chinese players’ ages total is 129 years, while that of the Americans is 131. No real difference at all!
The Chinese team came out of the starting block (first 4 rounds) slightly more powerfully than the US team,(13 pts vs 12 pts) but they met disaster in the 5th round against Czech Republic, losing 1-3.
But then something must have happened inside the leadership of the Chinese team, because for the remaining 6 rounds of the tournament they effectively sat out Wei Yi – who uncharacteristically had lost 2 games up to then.
Infact, Wei Yi only played twice more. Clearly the team leadership must have identified the ‘weakness’ on the team and pro-actively dealt with it. The Chinese team, in the remaining 6 rounds, won 4 matches, drew 2 and lost none. More salient perhaps, the Chinese players did not lose a single game in the last 6 rounds as they tried to catch up to the tournament leaders.
While all of this was happening, the US team found itself leading the tournament, but ever so slightly as a handful of teams were within hitting range. However, unlike the Chinese team, the American team did not identify (or perhaps they simply ignored) that Nakamura was in poor form and the team captain kept playing him.
Disaster struck in round 9 when Poland defeated them 2.5 – 1.5, with Nakamura’s loss being the culprit. Only in the following round did they sit him out.
Ofcourse, Nakamura is a great player and even when off form he plays pretty strong chess. But isn’t that why there is a reserve player on every team? Ray Robson only played 4 games during the entire Olympiad, but scored an impressive 3/4.
For some reason, the team Captain preferred playing an off-form Nakamura than give Robson – incidently the youngest player on the team – more playing time. Worth noting is that the reserve player on the Chinese team, Li Chao, played 8 games.
Ofcourse, these are only outside observations. And perhaps Caruana got it right. But what could also be a factor is that the Chinese team leadership acted immediately as soon as a problem arose (and sat out Wei Yi), while the American team Captain acted too late, once the American’s lost their lead, allowing a handful of teams – including China – to catch up.
Sometimes, the Captain is the most important element on a team’s final success. As when Viktor Plotkin captained the Canadian team in 2016 when Canada achieved its best result in modern times.
The difference between the Gold and the Silver in the Olympiad is often very, very, very little.