[imagefield_assist|fid=1820|preset=frontpage_200x200|lightbox=true|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=200]During round three of the World Team Championship in Bursa, Turkey, CCSCSL Executive Director Tony Rich got the chance to sit down with U.S. Team Captain and International Master John Watson for a candid interview about the chances of his young team, his background and the history of American chess.
The interview is available as a podcast on the front page of our Web site, but we have also transcribed the interview here for your enjoyment.
To access the podcast directly, click the link here!
Transcribed by Erica Kelly
Tony: So I’m here today with John Donaldson, International Master and captain for the American team at the World Team Championship. Thanks for joining me today, John.
John: Thank you, Tony.
Tony: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself just to start? You know, where you’re from and what you do.
John: Well, I first started playing in 1972. Like many people from my generation, it was the Fischer-Spassky match that got me interested. I was living in Tacoma, Washington, and I had just turned 14 years old. Seems kind of a little old by today’s standards, but I had some friends that were playing and we saw there was an announcement in the paper for the Tacoma club and we went down there. In retrospect, I think I was very fortunate. I made a lot of friends -- friends that I continue to have even now after all these years. And the Tacoma club just had a really warm and inviting atmosphere and I really enjoyed it. And so that’s how I started playing. I played throughout the northwest my first couple years. And the player that all of us sort of aspired to beat was Yasser Seirawan. None of us were really too successful at doing that, but a couple of us, like my friend Eric Tangborn and I, became International Masters. So it was pretty good for an area that didn’t really have any real tradition of strong players before that.
[imagefield_assist|fid=1822|preset=fullsize|lightbox=true|title=Yury Schulman, John Donaldson, Hikaru Nakamura, Varuzhan Akobian, Robert Hess, Ray Robson and Alexander Onischuk at the opening.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=403|height=268]
I graduated from the University of Washington and shortly before graduating, about a year before I finished, I decided I would try to become a professional player. Or chess professional might be a better way to describe it, because I never really supported myself from prize winnings from tournaments. It’s been sort of a combination of writing and teaching and working for chess magazines, and also my last job for the last 11 years, since October of 1998, I’ve worked for the Mechanics' Institute Chess Club in San Francisco, so I consider myself pretty fortunate.
Tony: So you said you graduated from the University of Washington. What was your degree?
John: In history.
Tony: In history. And ... you said a year prior to graduating that you wanted to become a chess professional?
John: I did because at a certain point I was in the school of education and my idea was to be a high school teacher, and then I discovered that every summer I was going off to play in Europe and that I really enjoyed it, and so I just decided that the last year that I might as well just take history classes and then try to visit the places that I had studied.
Tony: Very nice. Did you intend on becoming a Grandmaster or were you even trying to become an IM?
John: By that point I was working for Player’s Chess News, and I was doing some coaching, and I didn’t really go to Europe very often and, you know, it’s hard to say. My peak USA rating was 2601 and that was in 1990. And that just about put me in the U.S. Championship then. But of course, in 1990 American chess was nowhere near as strong as it is now. I mean a lot of very fine players immigrated to the country in the early 1990s and that kind of changed the whole dynamic there. I have two Grandmaster norms, but they’re relatively recent. One was in Lindsborg. It was in 2002 or 2003, and then I made another one six months later in Stratton Mountain, Vermont, in a tournament that Bill Goichberg organized. And so my FIDE rating then was around 2470. So it would have been smart to concentrate all my energies and try to make the last norm. But a lot of different things came up and I kind of got distracted. And then I didn’t play very much for several years and then when I started playing, just sort of infrequently, it was with increasingly depressing results ... I haven’t given up hope but you know, it would have been a lot better if I had just concentrated on finishing the job.
[imagefield_assist|fid=1750|preset=fullsize|lightbox=true|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=375|height=250]Tony: So you’re known within U.S. circles for your representation to FIDE on behalf of the United States. How did you start with that role with FIDE?
John: Well, actually I’ve never had a long relationship with the USCF in representing FIDE. The job I took was as zonal president, and I took it when Robert Tanner retired. That was about 2006 ... and I kept the position until maybe a year and a half, two years. The only actual FIDE event that I represented us at was the Dresden Olympiad, and I accepted that position as zonal president under very specific parameters. That it would be like a technical position, that my job would be to make sure that players that where playing for titles would receive the titles that they were due, that our players would learn about when FIDE events were going to be held in a timely fashion. And that it wouldn’t be anything beyond that. So one of the things I was happy I could do was assist in getting our players to go to China for this series of mind sports Olympiad they had, which was like blitz and rapid games and stuff like that. Because all too often the United States doesn’t have a lot of representation in FIDE events, and I thought it was important that we should, both to give our players a chance and also because we are a part of the chess community.
Tony: And did you find that work satisfying?
John: I did find that part of it quite satisfying. I did go to one qualification committee (QC) meeting, and I have a lot of respect for the person that is head of the QC, Mikko Markkula of Finland, because he’s facing a lot of difficult challenges. He’s pretty much depending on the federations to police themselves, and they don’t always do [that]. Just to give you a couple examples, there’s a player Afromeev from Russia; he’s about 2650. He’s not a Grandmaster because he wouldn’t dare apply for the title because the guy is probably a low master at best. He is the one that said he would make his dog an International Master if he wanted to.
So, you know, there’s [also] that guy Crisan from Romania that is over 2600, and he played in one Grandmaster tournament and scored one out of ... I think he scored a half out of nine. And he couldn’t draw with a Philidor rook-and-pawn endgame, something you would expect an expert to know how to do. For Grandmasters, it's nothing to even think about ... there’s quite a few examples like this where there's really flagrant violations ... at that meeting there was a player from Canada, Valerian Adam, and he was 65 years old and he played in Canada for 30 years and his highest rating was about 2300. And then all of a sudden he plays in like four or five tournaments. Bing, bing, he makes several IM norms in a row. His international rating is like 2420 and ... there's really not much that Mikko can do if the federations sign off on it. Unless there’s like a smoking gun, he’s kind of helpless. So that was kind of depressing in a way. Also, I mean, FIDE is probably like a lot of international organizations. There’s just, you know, a lot of stuff going on.
Tony: All right, well, on to other subjects. I guess I will ask you a little about U.S. chess in general. What advantages, and I guess disadvantages, do you see with the current situation of chess in the United States, and where do you see it headed?
John: Well, I see some real positive things. First off, what you guys are doing in Saint Louis is fantastic.
Tony: Thank You.
John: I mean, organizing these U.S. Championships, organizing these Women’s U.S. Championships ... the World Team Championship. I mean, it’s really, really important. And it would really be kind of sad that at a time now when we have more young American talent and native born talent coming up. It would be pretty painful if we didn’t give them opportunities to show their skills and develop them further. So I’m very grateful for what’s going on in Saint Louis.
I’m also very impressed by Greg Shahade. He basically, from the ground up, built this U.S. Chess League. He also has this U.S. Chess School where a lot of youngsters from around the country that didn’t have opportunities to work with top players have been granted this privilege, and it's has been good for the top players to be able to have a chance to give back their knowledge. So it’s a real win-win situation. So I have been very pleased with both of these developments. There’s a lot more opportunities for youngsters to make, and older players, to have chances to make international title results. You can think of Chris Bird in New England, you can think of Danny Rensch in Arizona, there's Jon Haskel down in Florida, the Marshall Chess Club has organized several tournaments. It used to be that you had to play in Europe. When I made my IM norms, the only opportunity to do it in the United States was Lone Pine. And so I got to play one year, it was in 1980 or '81, I played like seven GMs in nine rounds. It was quite good. But the rest of my norms, I made one in Lugano and I made another one in Switzerland. I made another one in Greece. Pretty much all the international tournaments, you know, that’s where you had to go if you wanted to make norms.
Tony: So how difficult is it today, for a U.S. player to receive an international title?[imagefield_assist|fid=1769|preset=frontpage_200x200|lightbox=true|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=200]
John: Oh, it’s much simpler. It’s much, much easier. I mean, there’s no real comparison. In addition to these organizers I’ve mentioned also, Susan Polgar has her Spice Cup Tournaments. There’s also University of Texas at Dallas holding another event. So there’s actually quite a few events going on. And there’s also several Canadian organizers, especially in Alberta. So, it's definitely a much better situation than it was 10 years ago, much less 20 or 30. I think that’s not really the major difficulty that American chess faces right now. The principle problem we have is that the U.S. Chess Federation has had a lot of tough times for quite awhile. When I joined, of course in '72 that was at the height of the Fischer-Spassky boom, and the federation's financial situation probably has you know, never been as good as that. But it was quite good. And then when Fischer didn’t defend his title a lot of those members turned out to be, somewhat ...
Tony: Kind of fairweather fans?
John: Fairweather fans, and they were gone. But then things got better again. I was on the USCF executive board from 1990 to '93. And at that time the federation was actually in a very good financial situation. But two things changed there. One was that their book and equipment sales, which were bringing in a couple million dollars a year, became compromised. It was partly because of the Internet. It was also ... because they were selling a lot of dedicated chess computers at a time when there wasn’t software that could play strong. And so they could sell those machines for like $500 to $1,000, and there was a big markup. So it was free money more or less. So the federation did pretty well. It might not have been as lean and mean as it could have been, but there was enough fat around it that it was quite okay. And then I think the situation got that they didn’t really see what was happening with the Internet. And in retrospect, there were probably a lot of businesses that didn’t see what was going to happen. The result was that not only did they not make the sort of money that they wanted to make from book and equipment sales, they were actually losing some, when you consider their staff and the cost of their building and stuff like that. So all that was quite sad.
But there were also a lot of self-inflicted wounds as well. I can think of a couple cases where they had lawsuits. There was one where there was an executive director that wasn’t there for too long, and some of the policy board members sort of spoke on the record when they shouldn’t have been. And they said things that basically enabled the guy to seek compensation and receive good compensation. So, things had gotten progressively more difficult. They had to sell their building in New York that they had paid off. It was kind of like their rock. And then they moved to Tennessee. And they’re doing what they can, but it’s very difficult. This recent lawsuit was extremely ill timed. The federation wasn’t in the position to have to deal with it. It’s still not resolved so probably better to not say too much about it, but as I understand it the legal costs are over half-a-million dollars. And that probably represents probably more than half of what the federation had in liquid assets. So, it’s quite sad. It is kind of odd because, I don’t know if odd is the right word, it’s just that there’s this strange sort of juxtaposition. On the one hand you have more good players playing in the United States than ever before. We have Hikaru Nakamura. We’ve never had, with the exception of Gata [Kamsky], well, and [Bobby]Fischer, we’ve never had a 2700 player. And you know, in an ideal world, we would have a series of tournaments for him and the other elite players playing in the United States, but that doesn’t really materialize, so he pretty much has to play exclusively in Europe except for the U.S. Championship.
Tony: Well it’s really interesting, though, I’ve noticed that a lot of the top players in the U.S. are not native-born Americans. Why do you think that is, and is that something that you anticipate improving? Do you think there will be more U.S.-born chess players that become very strong?
John: Well, of course the key question is to become a very strong player, you know, you’re not going to just do it in a couple years. The younger you are when you get stronger, the more time you have to develop before the critical moment comes. Which is basically [when] you are about to enter college or you’ve graduated from college and, now what are you going to do? And, of course in the United States there’s a lot of people that earn a living from teaching ... supplemented by playing and writing. There are very few that earn it just playing. Perhaps Hikaru and Gata are the only ones on that respect. So it’s a question of are they willing to make it a profession. That’s what it really comes down to. And if you look at the situation, we’ve lost some very promising players along the way.
In the 1980s and 1990s the U.S. Olympiad came to almost essentially very similar players throughout. There were some players in the '90s, composition changed because players came from Europe, from former Soviet Union but for the first part they were the Benjamins, the DeFirmians, the Seirawans the Christiansen's , and later the Yermos and the Kaidanovs, and the Shabalovs ... But the players that would have been the natural ones to kind of finally push them out of the way as they got older, because these guys are still playing in their 40s, were players like Ilya Gurevich, who was a World Junior Champion ... who was 2600 FIDE back 20 years ago practically when there were not so many players over 2600, and he did that when he was still, if not in his teens in his early 20s. Patrick Wolff won several U.S. Championships and he stopped playing. Both those guys actually did play for the U.S. once in a match against Armenia. But they never actually played for the national team in an Olympiad.
Tony: So it seems like it’s kind of difficult to support oneself or one's family through chess alone, whether that be in tournaments like you said or even in writing or doing lessons and things like that. How difficult is it?
John: It, of course, always depends on: What do you consider a living? Are you talking about making a 100,000 a year? 75, 50, or 25,000 a year, because in Europe, in places like the Czech Republic or similar countries like that, which are you know western Europe but don’t have the high standard of living ... just that guaranteed money right there might be enough to live on. But in the U.S., if you live in New York, $25,000 isn’t gonna do it. And of course if you have a wife and if you have children then you know, you’ve got a bigger nut you’ve got to cover. So, what I can say is that before the match in 1972, Fischer was probably the only chess professional in the United States. Even Reshevsky had to work for some insurance company or some accounting job or what have you. And that’s why, in fact, the American Chess Foundation was funded ... in part to allow him to play and compete for the world title and not lose money in the process, if you will.
After that, the '72 match changed things a lot ... I would say now the money that people earn from writing isn’t huge, but there’s so many more opportunities to earn money here and there. Chess players seem to be pretty well diversified. So you could be a Joel Benjamin or you could teach, both in schools [and] individuals, you could also be doing commentary work on the ICC, you could also be writing articles for Chess Life. There’s a whole variety of activities you could do. And together, they make things right. But having said that ... if your goal is to make big money, unless you become an elite player, it isn’t a very likely scenario. You know, you could also be like an administrator of a scholastic program overseeing a huge enterprise. There’s those people like Sunil [Weeramantry] and Shernaz Kennedy that have programs like that and they probably do quite well as well. In th e Bay area we have Elizabeth Shaughnessy that does that. But I don’t think that’s why people, strong players get into chess. I mean, they obviously want to play.
[imagefield_assist|fid=1770|preset=fullsize|lightbox=true|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=341|height=512]Tony: Well it seems like they are kind of torn. The brilliant minds that make up the very strong chess players could apply their talents to another field where they make significantly more money or they can do what they love and play chess and make less money at it. It seems like a very difficult decision to have to make.
John: Right. I remember Peter Biyiasas once told me that he would only take a job if he earned twice as much as he earned from chess or more. And the feeling for him was that the travel, you know, choosing his own hours, being his own boss all of that.
Tony: Doing what you love.
John: Yes. But he did eventually find that job working for IBM. And he was gone, so go figure.
Tony: Well kind of along those same lines it seems like chess in the U.S. is supported by one of two financial sources. One being amateur chess players, you know, paying their entry fees in tournaments, buying lessons with the stronger chess players, but the second is mostly benefactors. You have wealthy individuals who decide that their passion for chess is enough that they want to give back and support the chess community. But you don’t see a whole lot of commercial support or sponsorship in the U.S.
John: No, I think you have hit it. You explained it just correctly. What we have in this country are patrons. We don’t have sponsors. And if you look at that, that has a long tradition. There was Professor Rice in the early part of 1900s. Marshall had Thomas Emery. The American Chess Foundation basically were supporters of Reshevsky in the mid-50s. Always it was his patron model. ... More recently we had America’s foundation for chess, the Berry Brothers and now we have your organization and Mr. Sinquefield. And that seems to be the situation up to this point has worked best -- that you find individuals that really love chess and would like to give something back to the game. And you know, that’s pretty much the model.
In Europe it’s a different situation. It depends on the country but many places, like for example in Holland, they have a famous tournament every year, the Corus Tournament. [It] used to be the former Hoogovens Tournament. It was run by a steel company. They get a lot of publicity in the Netherlands. They have a lot of chess columns in all the newspapers. They want to be seen as a company that gives something back to the community, and chess is really popular there. It’s really in the public eye. I’m afraid in the Unites States that, while there’s a lot of interest in chess and a lot of youngsters playing, it doesn’t occupy the same place in society that it does in Europe. And [it may be] that’s because there are more things that fight for leisure time and interest in the U.S. ...
But having said that, you look at the United States now and there are so many more children playing than ever before. And you know you see Harris polls stating that 40 or 50 million Americans know the rules to the game. So, people definitely know something about the game. One thing that really has changed a lot though in the last 30 years, which I have mixed feelings about, is that ... a lot more of the contact is via the Internet, rather than face-to-face. In some ways that has been really good. If you lived in isolated areas where there was no club, all of a sudden you had this great, wonderful Internet community. But having said that, I still think of the club I belonged to in Tacoma and all the personal friendships and sense of camaraderie. Because at the end of the day, there are only a few players in the world that will become world class players. For most of us, the reasons we play are [that] we enjoy playing the game and the friendships that we make and that sort of thing. To that extent I see fewer and fewer clubs in the United States that meet. Part of that is there are just more things competing for people’s attention than there was 30 years ago. But still, I miss that aspect.
Tony: Where do you see chess in the United States over the next 10 years? Do you think there will be more clubs? Do you think there will be more resurgence as chess is spotlighted more and more? Or do you think we will continue this trend?
John: Well, one thing that could be a positive benefit for us already is Magnus Carlson. He has been in Time magazine twice within the last month. There’s a big article on him in one of the last issues. It’s a lot easier to market a western European champion, righty or wrongly.
Tony: There’s an American bias?
John: Yes, there is. Also I think Hikaru is coming up through the ranks very quickly. He is also not only a very strong player but he has a very attractive and crowd-pleasing style. So, I’m hoping ... the last time chess was really in the public eye was with Bobby Fischer. You are not going to be able to recreate all the various factors that contributed to that, the Cold War, Fischer’s eccentricities, his story he brought to bear. All those things were kind of unique. I think that even if Hikaru was playing for the World Championship, you wouldn’t have that quite ... but you’d still have a lot more than we do know.
Tony: So, part of the reason we are sitting here today is because you’re the captain for the U.S. team at the World Team Championship. And that’s actually happening right now in the middle of round three. How did you come to coach the U.S. team?
John: Well, it’s kind of a funny story. The United States has competed in Olympiad since the very beginning, since the late 1920s early '30s. They had a terrific run during the 1930s. So the Union wasn’t playing but still they won a huge number of events. After the second World War in the early 1950s, the United States started competing again. Sometimes with great successes, other times without. Fischer led them to silver medals in 1960 and '66. By 1974, the U.S. started to pick up and started performing better than they ever had in some of the other Olympiads.
From '74 up to the present, the U.S., usually never rated in the top three or four teams., has consistently performed excellently. We’ve won bronze medals. I’d have to add up the tally. Just my own situation being captain since '86, 10 times in world teams and Olympiads, I’ve gotten 17 medals. So, definitely American teams have been very, very successful. I think one of the reasons why it’s enjoyed this success, for the most part, American teams have had very good spirit. They get along well. Even if they may be competitors away from the event, they really come together. They share analysis. They support each other. Chess is an individual game but in these team events there’s definitely a chemistry issue that’s critical. The American teams have generally done really well in this regard.
Tony: Along those lines, how do you encourage the U.S. team along that path to maintain that closeness and that sense of camaraderie?
John: Well, I don’t think you can force it. I think one of the things that have really been helpful is that the people on the teams have genuinely been very nice people. This is the third time I’ve been involved with Yury and Alex. ... I’ve known Hikaru for quite awhile. We went to Bolivia for the Pan-American Championship back in early 2000s. Ray and Robert I’ve actually never met before this event. It’s kind of funny because I follow their careers quite closely but had actually never met them before. I’m missing someone -- Var [Varuzhan Akobian]. Var I’ve known from the last two Olympiad events as well. I had known him from playing tournaments in California. But to return to the question, how did I get this job. One other thing besides the good chemistry of the team that I think is very important. Is that I think it’s important that the players select the captain that they choose. That it’s not imposed on them from above if you will. And the U.S. Chess Federation has used different methods to select captains and their teams over the years. And I think that they pretty much have gotten it right for quite some time. First, you choose the players with some sort of objective criteria that is very transparent. I mean, ideally you want to see a formula so that somebody can just go online, they can go to the USCF MSA and they can just do calculations. Anybody can do the calculations and figure out who is playing on the team. I think that’s the way you want to have it in a country like the United States; it’s really a large country with a Democratic tradition. You don’t want to have some sort of committee. It just creates a lot of ill will.
Tony: It’s a very capitalistic view, you know. The harder you work and the better you perform the more you are rewarded by being able to go to events like this and represent the United States.
John: Yeah, so it’s very clear. But now how to choose a captain? In the past ... they basically select who they want to have as captain. That could work really well sometimes, but other times it didn’t work so well; it caused some friction. So, I remember it was in 1986. They were having the U.S. Championship, and it was in Estes Park, Colorado, in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was in the Stanley Hotel, in the place that Stephen King wrote The Shining. ... But the thing was, in 1986 the Olympiad location was very contentious. It was going to be in the Middle East for the first time. It was going to be in Dubai. The Israelis who had, many countries had been told they were going to be able to play, learned that they were not going to be able to play. So a lot of players from different countries boycotted the event. Like I think Joel Benjamin didn’t play, I think maybe Lev Albert didn’t play. One night I was going to dinner with Lubosh Kavalek and Yasser Seirawan, and in the middle of dinner, Yasser and Lubosh asked me,"John, how would you like to go to Dubai?"
I had a look of horror on my face because I was thinking, and Lubosh caught me and he said, "I know what you are thinking. Don’t worry, we’re not that desperate." Which was, that so many people declined. They must have gone through 30 players. And now here they are saying,"Donaldson, we need you to play." But that wasn’t the case at all; they wanted me to be the captain for the team. And so I asked them you know, what sort of duties that would entail. It seemed like I could be helpful in that regard, so I signed on. And I remember the first thing I did; this was in the day before Chessbase, there was a publication called Tournament Chess. They published these bulletins of all the games from these important Grandmaster tournaments. And so what I had to do, I spent about 10 hours, and Mr. Normally, who was the owner of the Stanley Park Hotel, he very kindly gave me one of his Xerox machines, which I practically destroyed by just photocopying nonstop. I had to copy every page of every book twice. Because for one team the player was white and the other the player was black. I had these huge reams of paper everywhere. And for several days I had to cut them and then paste them on to these sheets. And then we went to the Olympiad, and it was very useful. ... I was a captain from '86 to '96. Two world teams in '93 and '97. And then the players decided there would be another person that could do the job better than I. And they were quite right. Larry Christensen got the job in 1998 and they won the silver medal, so it was really quite good. They had chances to win the gold medal. But by the time of the Olympiad in 2006, the championship earlier that year, Gata Kamsky and Hikaru came to me and asked me if I would be willing to be the captain again. The composition of the team had changed quite a bit, and I said to them that I would be honored to. It worked out very well the last two ... with a bronze in both
[imagefield_assist|fid=1772|preset=frontpage_200x200|lightbox=true|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=200|height=200]Tony: So since you’ve got a little bit of experience now with the players, [is] there any special preparation off the board or routines or other activities that you do with the team to help their chances or help them play better chess?
John: Well, one thing I think pretty much all the teams have always enjoyed is going for walks together and sort of seeing the places that we are visiting. Because there isn’t really much time to do that, we are here to play chess; we aren’t here to be tourists. But still, you like to have some impression of what’s around you. It’s good to get out and get some fresh air and what have you. Different events, different situations in what is available. Here the team usually plays a little bit of pool, and foosball in particular is a big favorite. Yury Shulman, if any of the people listening to this interview have a chance to see him at the Olympiad, will notice that he has some Band-Aids on his hand and they might think that he must have got involved [in a fight] ...
Tony: A splinter from a pawn or something, right?
John: Or perhaps he was out defending the team's honor with some local turf. But, in fact, these are foosball-incurred injuries. Yury is known as the central defender. He is a passionate foosball player who doesn’t like to lose. He doesn’t take prisoners.
Tony: Since you mentioned the team, they are probably one of the strongest teams the U.S. has had -- at least in recent history. Yet they are still about middle of the pack rating wise in this event. They are having a fantastic tournament, and they have won both of the first two matches, three to one in both cases, so how do think their outlook is given their very strong start in this event?
John: Well, one thing you pointed out is that the United States has never ever been a favorite right from the start. It’s not ever been seeded in the top three ... It’s always been a situation even in the 80s and the 90s, always the American team has performed above expectation. And I am confident, you know, knock on wood, that we are going to pull that off again. I think if we play to our full potential that a bronze medals is a real goal for us. We are missing Gata here, who would have loved to play for the team, but his event, the dates had changed at least once already and he had committed to play in Reggio Emilia.
So he wasn’t available for us. I still really ike the chemistry of our team and I think everyone is working well together. I think it’s very exciting that as recently as 2002, the average age of the team was early 40s, and now the average age of the team is closer to 20 than 30, I think it’s like 23. So that’s really a good thing. International chess has really changed. I think the only player I can see in this tournament that is over 40 is perhaps Gelfand, maybe one of the Egyptians possibly. Maybe Milos from Brazil. But there are just a few players. But we should ask Ray [Robson], because he will know for sure the answer. That’s one other thing we do often times in the evenings we have a little chess trivia. I’m impressed that some of our younger players, they not only know how to play chess well, but they know our chess history very well.
Tony: Those that don’t know history are bound to repeat it. It seems that Russia, which was the highest rated team coming into the event. Maybe they are not playing in top form. They had a very narrow victory over Brazil and then a surprising loss to Greece in round two. Do you think that is indicative of their form for the entire event and do you think that improves the U.S. team's chances?
John: Well, first off the thing is an event like this, unlike the Olympiad, there really is no weak teams. If you look at the Brazilian team they defeated in the first round, that team had an average rating over 2600 as did the Greeks. I can recall when I first took the job as U.S. Captain back in '86 after the first 10 or 12 teams there was a big drop off in strength. There were teams in the top half of the cross table that didn’t even have IMs on the lower boards. Now you look at the situation, and I think all but the organizing team and the Egyptians, they are all 2600-plus teams. Sure, they are lower rated than the Russian team by 100 points, but all these players have the necessary tools and skills to defeat each other. Some of them are more consistent than others.
Beating Brazil 2 ½-1 ½, it was probably the statistical result almost for Russia. Losing to Greece, okay, obviously you would expect them to beat Greece by that score, not to lose to them 2 ½-1 ½, but the Greek team is a very respectable team. They are all very good players. Times have changed. The days where Russia would have six world champions or ex-world champions playing on their team and they would lose one game in Olympiad and they would win by like 6 points, those days are gone, long gone.
Chess has become much more democratic in the sense that there’s strength all over the place. It started in '92 when the breakup of the former Soviet Union led to all these strong teams in the middle of the Olympiad. There was no Azerbaijan playing when I was captain in '86. The Indian team in ’86, Anand was a youngster, and he was playing for them. And they had like IMs for the supporting cast. Now they are all GM teams. So, chess has become, because of computers, I would say principally the information has become much more democratic and you see a much greater distribution of strength all around the planet.
Tony: So the American team won both of their first matches 3-1, so those are both nice point spreads. When I asked Nakamura how important it was to have these big victories like that where you have a lot of points in it, he said it’s not super important to him. This event is obviously scored on match points and not on game points. But the first tie break is game points. Would you agree with Nakamura that it’s much more important to win a match and game points are almost an afterthought?
John: I wouldn’t quite phrase it that way. I think he’s definitely right. Winning the match is the principal objective. To that end, you don’t take risks if you’re winning a match 2-1, you have maybe a slightly better position, but to try to win it would entail major risk. You don’t do that, you know, you just lock down a match victory. Having said that, you only have to look at the Women’s World Team Championship to see where there were like several teams that were in a dog fight to win. Match points were important but the game points actually came into play at the end. Teams that had poor game point tie breaks they had to try to win the last match, instead where a draw may have been acceptable. When it’s all said and done, here the teams are so strong that you are just happy to win the matches.
Tony: So how likely do you think it will come down to the first tie break for the US team?
John: Well, at this point I never look that far ahead. I mean, we won the first two matches, but we’re playing the Russians. Playing them is never an easy task no matter what. So, I’m pretty confident that today is Thursday, but beyond that I don’t know too much about what’s going on outside this match.
Tony: Alright, well I’m sure you have to get back in and check out how the teams doing. So I really appreciate you taking the time to be here with us. And I’m sure all of our listeners agree with me whenever I wish the U.S. team luck and great success.
John: Thank you very much. And one last thing that I would like to say is that for those that are listening to this broadcast that this event has much better coverage than any other international event that the United States has competed in. In the sense that back in the '80s people would have to wait for chess magazines to come out to find out what was going on. It was really tough. Even in Dresden, okay, they could follow the event but not from a real U.S. angle if you will. But this particular tournament they are really blessed ... The reports that you have been providing and also the reports [of] Ray's, you know, [his] game annotations are of an exceptional quality. I don’t know if he saw, but there were some comments by some of the people that went on US Chess Life and one of them was Randy Hough, and I thought that he hit the nail, he got it just exactly right. He feels as though it’s his team. We’re members of the U.S. Chess Federation, we are sponsored by the Saint Louis organization here. We want to do as well as we can. It’s nice that people back home are following these games. Obviously they can’t be here in person but we can feel their support from a distance.
Tony: I think Randy’s quote was: "Ray’s efforts are most commendable. He is helping build a sense of community. Not just within the team but amongst all the members who are following the championship online. I will be encouraging everyone in my club to check the results daily and help root our team to victory." That's definitely as good of an endorsement as you can get.
Tony: Well, John, thanks again for joining us today. We wish the US team the best of luck and we wish you the best of luck as well.
John: Thank you very much.
Transcribed by: Erica Kelly