Making American chess great again


Can world class GMs ‘imported’ from Cuba and the Philippines do the trick?

When top-ranked Cuban GM Leinier Dominguez Perez moved to the United States and decided to play for America, it gave a fillip to US chess. Dominiguez is currently rated 2739. He is a former World top 10 player and a very strong Grand Master. He becomes the fourth highest-rated player in the US. The first three are Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura — Caruana has represented Italy and  So played for Philippines while Nakamura born to Japanese – American parents moved to US when he was two years old.

American chess is witnessing a fresh transformation now, with the US winning the Chess Olympiad gold for the first time in 2016 and Caruana playing the World Championship against Magnus Carlsen in 2018. Caruana’s finals against Carlsen drew a lot of media attention. It reminded many of the cold war battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Caruana lost out in the tie-breaks. But this new set of super GMs seem to have given American Chess the much needed enthusiasm.

Cross border moves

The US 2016 Olympiad team created history when it won the Gold medal for the first time. For American chess, this was a dream come true. They finished ahead of the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Russia. Russia still dominates the world since its system keeps pumping out super GMs at will. But its domination in the Top 10  diminished after players such as Anand and Carlsen started winning world championships.

But in 2016, the US team with Caruana, Nakamura and So had an average rating of 2765. That was second only to Russia which averaged 2768. Their chances got better when Caruana started playing for the US starting 2015. Till 2015, he represented Italy since he held the dual citizenship of Italy and the US. Caruana’s entry boosted America’s chances of winning the medal. It already had imported another super talent Wesley So from the Philippines in 2014. The trio of super GMs were joined by Sam Shankland and Ray Robson and the US went on to win the Olympiad gold ahead of Russia, Ukraine, China and India.

It is interesting to see American Chess move ahead on the back of immigrants while outrage against immigrants is on a high in the country. Caruana was often compared to Fischer and the cold war tussle between Fischer and Spassky was often repeated in the media. It appeared America is looking for some chess glory, a sport in which the domination is attributed to intelligence. Chess domination was seen as the intellectual upper hand the Soviets had over the Americans. Fischer was seen as their chance to redeem themselves in the battle of brains. Now that cold war is over, America is relying on their imports to garner some glory. And the addition of Dominguez is going to do US chess a huge favour.

More the merrier

But the US will have to face huge opposition from Russia as well as China. The Russian system continues to churn out super GMs though it hasn’t seen a world champion since Vladimir Kramnik. But as far as Olympiads are concerned, Russia can still pose some threat to the Americans. In the 2018 Olympiad, America was top seeded, but lost out to China. The clash for prominence between China and America could bring about interesting memories of cold war. And chess seems to be gearing up for a China – America tussle in the coming years. China, with the likes of Ding Liren and Wei Yi, could give the Americans a run for their money. But can American chess ‘import’ more talents from China, India or even Iran?

It could potentially do that. There’s tremendous amount of support for chess happening in the US now.  Dominguez was upbeat about American Chess when he decided to switch federations. He said, “It is great to see the tremendous level that the game has acquired in the U.S. and I definitely want to be a part of it.”. This new enthusiasm in American chess could attract talented GMs from lesser nations.  Countries such as India still struggle to provide proper infrastructure to chess players. Even prodigies such as Nihal Sarin, who surprised everyone at the World Blitz in December 2018, find it tough to get sponsors and manage their chess career.

Iran’s teenage talents could do well in chess with a different citizenship which would allow them to play more tournaments. Alireza, the Iranian prodigy could be a world beater one day as he showed in World Rapids. Given global political issues, Iranian players find it tough to play in big tournaments due to visa bans. Their careers could get a boost and one need not be surprised if American chess targets Iranian players to counter the Chinese threat. Many might think a wall to shield immigrants might be a way to make ‘America great again’, but to make ‘American chess great again’, they might have to extend a warm welcome to immigrants.

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