England have been confirmed as one of the 10 finalists in next month’s world team championship in Astana, Kazakhstan, where China, Russia and the US are expected to fight it out for the gold medals.
Last year, England finished fifth, the squad’s best performance since 1998, at the 184-nation Batumi Olympiad which was a qualifier for the world teams.
China won the Olympiad in 2018 and the US in 2016, while Russia is the longtime superpower which has recently unleashed new global talent with the victories of Daniil Dubov, 22, in the world rapid and Vladislav Artemiev, 20, at Gibraltar.
Their top players were ready to prepare seriously for the world team at Moscow’s Aeroflot Open, which began this week with China’s 19-year-old Wei Yi as top seed and Dubov as one of his main rivals. But after just an hour’s play at the Cosmos Hotel the opening round was aborted due to one of the many bomb scares currently affecting Russian cities.
Too bad for those whose painstaking opening prep was revealed to their opponents in that first hour. There will be a double round on Saturday to catch up, with the morning round, live online and free to watch, starting at 6.30am. Aeroflot is a tough event, and when round one was replayed on Wednesday with a faster time limit both Wei Yi and Dubov were held to draws.
Also in progress is the Champions Challenge at St Louis, where the possible US team members for Astana, led by the world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, are meeting high-class opponents in four days of rapid and blitz.
England’s world championship team is the Olympiad quartet of Michael Adams, Luke McShane, Gawain Jones and David Howell.
The 2650-rated Nigel Short and Matthew Sadler were unavailable, so the veteran Jon Speelman doubles as reserve and analyst but will only play in an emergency in the nine rounds from 5 to 14 March.
Russia and some other nations like their players to prepare for a team event at a training camp, but the individualistic English have always opted for competitive tournaments. A few weeks ago Howell, who tied third, Adams and Jones all scored well at Gibraltar so are in good form.
McShane is an amateur who plays less, but he will be in action this weekend at Ireland’s traditional Bunratty international open.
The 35-year-old may be given a brief not to lose on second board so as to improve the chances of Jones and Howell scoring match-winning points. An analysis at the 2018 Olympiad, where McShane was also board two, showed that he performed better against stronger opponents.