March 23, 2016

Old Reliable’s Induction into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame

by International Master John Donaldson, member of the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame selection committee

Gata Kamsky, newest inductee into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame has had quite the ride throughout the years. Kamsky immigrated to the United States in 1989 and spent nearly 20 years as the highest-rated American chess player. He won his first U.S. Championship in 1991 and made his debut on the American team in 1992 at the age of 18, playing first board for the United States in the Manila Chess Olympiad. Since then, he has represented the U.S. in an additional five Olympiads and three World Team Championships, playing on either board one or two. During this run, Kamsky won three team medals, including gold in 1993, as well as two individual medals. Now, Kamsky is being inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in honor of his numerous accomplishments in the sport.

Impressive without a doubt, but what these statistics fail to convey is what a great team player Kamsky has been. Want Kamsky to play? No problem; he will play every round if needed and has routinely been a workhorse of U.S. chess teams in the past few decades. Does the good of the team require him to play Black several rounds in a row? Again, no problem. Kamsky always puts the team’s success ahead of his own.

Many stories of Kamsky playing on U.S. teams come to mind, but the one that stands out the most is from the last round of the 2008 Olympiad in Dresden. Going into round 11, the U.S. was tied for fifth place with three other teams, which did not bode well for a chance to medal. Add the unfortunate fact that the U.S. had gotten off to a slow start, had the worst tie break of any team contending for the podium and the chance to finish in the top three looked very small–almost microscopic. This was especially true when considering the team’s final round opponent. 

Ukraine had played phenomenally up to this point in the tournament and was tied for first with Armenia, two match points ahead of the U.S. The Ukrainian team had not lost a single match and several of their players were in exceptional form. To medal, the U.S. team not only needed to beat a Ukrainian squad that outrated the U.S. by an average of 70 points per board, but beat them badly (to aid the U.S. in tiebreak). In the unlikely event the Americans would win, they would still need some luck in the other matches. The U.S. winning bronze was not even considered a longshot by any odds; it was simply a mathematical possibility.

But the longshot came through as the U.S. beat Ukraine 3½ - ½ in one of the greatest upsets in Chess Olympiad history. The man who started the rout, Kamsky, defeated Ukraine’s first board player Vassily Ivanchuk in an impressive game that energized the other American players and demoralized their opponents.

In addition to Armenia’s win over China, Israel’s defeat of Netherlands, and Russia’s 2-2 result with Spain, this victory meant the U.S. team had officially won the bronze medal. The finish was so close that just a half point less (a 3-1 score) would have meant the U.S. team would not have finished third.

The prize ceremony after the final round was especially memorable since it happened to be the first time, and still the only instance, both U.S. teams medaled. The U.S. Women’s team also won bronze that year, edging out Russia and Poland. Here is to hoping both U.S. teams are on the podium in Baku this September!

Gata Kamsky has always been a team player but, on April 13, 2016 at the World Chess Hall of Fame, all eyes will finally be on him and him alone.