In the beginning...
Every year the British Chess Federation organises a chess congress comprised of a number of different tournaments. In 1922 the congress was held in London and it included, in addition to the usual events, a master tournament—London, 1922, as we now know it. Capablanca, making his first appearance after winning the World Championship, finished top, followed by Alekhine and Rubinstein. During the event E. Znosko-Borovsky, a Russian master then living in Paris, announced that the French Chess Federation wanted to organise a great tournament to coincide with the Olympic Games due to be held in the French capital in 1924. All the players present were interested by this news and expressed the hope that the French would be able to fulfil their promise.
Turning back the pages of chess history, one finds that this is the earliest reference to what was to become the International Chess Federation (F. I. D. E.) and to the Chess Olympiads, which are now so closely linked with it.
The French plan bore fruit. The first world team competition took place in Paris in 1924 and was reported as the 'Chess Olympic Games.' It is not, however, counted as one of the official 'Chess Olympiads'; on the one hand it was not organised by F. I. D. E., while on the other the method of scoring was different from that worked out later.
Fifty-four participants came from all over the world and were assigned by the organising committee to nine groups of approximately equal strength. The winners qualified for the final, where they fought for the individual championship in an all-play-all tournament. The remaining forty-five competitors also played a further eight rounds, but only in one group—as in the present-day Swiss System. Furthermore, the team order was decided on the basis of the total points obtained by each nation's players in the two heats (the semi-finals and the finals). See full details of the tournament here
The standing of the 'Chess Olympic Games' of Paris as a team tournament is naturally a matter for dispute, as the majority of the nations taking part were represented by fewer than four players; moreover, players from the same country competed against each other in the course of the event. It should also be noted that the two participants 'representing' Russia were refugees living in Paris who only entered as individuals.
The year 1924 is a milestone in chess history not so much because of this competition but because it saw the formation of the International Chess Federation (Federation Internationale des Echecs) by the players present in Paris. The Frenchman Pierre Vincent was the first to put forward the idea, and it was he who took the preliminary steps towards its realisation. The first President of F. I. D. E., Dr Rueb, of Holland, was also elected in Paris, and for a quarter of a century he fulfilled this important office with great skill and diplomacy.
Several competitions were organised in conjunction with the F. I. D. E. Congress held in Budapest in 1926. On this occasion pride of place was taken by the individual tournaments, among them a masters', an open, and a women's tournament. A competition for teams of four had also been announced and six teams had entered, but Austria and Czechoslovakia later withdrew. The scores in the all-play-all tournament between the other four teams were as follows: Hungary 9; Yugoslavia 8; Rumania 5; Germany 2. This small, embryonic 'Chess Olympiad' is also only reckoned as an unofficial one.
Then, in 1927, representatives from sixteen countries assembled in London to take part in the first of the series of international team competitions which have become known as Chess Olympiads. The title itself, though widely used for many years, did not become official until 1952. The rules of the competition soon crystallised; teams consisted of four players, usually with one or, in recent times, two reserves (the word 'reserve' came to be used for want of a better one at the time; however, the reserves enjoyed the same rights as the other four members of the team).
In the first three Olympiads the board order of the players was not fixed and therefore was not necessarily identical with their strength. But since 1931 it has been the rule that the playing order submitted with the entry must be adhered to throughout the competition. If a player is rested, those below him have to play a board higher.
The final placings of the teams are decided by the totals of individual game points; if these are equal, then match points are decisive (this rule was used several times during international competitions).
In the early Olympiads the playing schedule was very exhausting, especially when the number of participating countries approached twenty. It was not unusual to have three rounds in two days, with a time limit of twenty moves per hour and with adjourned games to be finished as well. This was an additional burden for the older masters and grandmasters, as the new, young players were better able to stand the furious pace. Accordingly, as far as the actual playing side was concerned, it was a good policy to have young players in the team. The continual success of the Americans in the thirties and the advance of the Estonian, Swedish, and Dutch teams can be explained in this way.
The scores of the older grandmasters were usually rather modest ; their value to their sides lay more in their experience and reputation than in their scoring ability. If supported by the right young players, they could lead their teams to great victories—as, indeed, did Maroczy, Dr Vidmar, Marshall, and Mattison.
The sporting nature of the contest was very much in evidence in the early Olympiads. Above all, good form, vigor, fitness, and endurance were essential for success. Those players who could sum up a situation rapidly and objectively and who possessed a degree of boldness and adventure were at an advantage. Their games were decided in one session, and they did not have their leisure time, which was little enough in any case, curtailed by nerve-racking adjournments.
In this respect the situation in recent Olympiads has changed considerably. The burden on a player is much lighter now that there are two reserves and that the more suitable arrangement of one round per day has been adopted.
Although youth still has the advantage, physical stamina now takes second place to pure chess ability. A more profound knowledge and accurate, detailed preparation are necessary for success, and too risky a style is not practical, because opponents are often able to exploit the smallest advantage with the aid of adjournment analysis.
It is not our task to consider here whether the earlier or the present system serves the Olympic idea better. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and by means of lively exchanges of views in the press, experts are continually searching for a more perfect and appropriate one.
Gens una sumus! This was the motto adopted by F. I. D. E., and the series of Chess Olympiads which has lasted nearly forty years serves as positive proof of it. Over fifty nations now send their players every two years; every continent has been represented. Almost all the World Champions and contenders for the title have taken part in the Olympiads, not to mention numerous grandmasters and international masters, the 'common soldiers' of chess. Differences disappear over the chessboard; aristocrats by birth, fortune, or intellect are found side by side with those who have had to make a hard living as, for example, cabmen, fishermen, or waiters. There are players who devote most of their lives to chess and travel, while others, of amateur status, must largely confine their international appearances to the Olympiads.
As a boy of fourteen, Yanofsky was the best player in the Canadian team at Buenos Aires, 1939; at Amsterdam, 1954, it was the seventy-two-year-old Bernstein, a living reminder of chess history, who caught the attention. Even the most recent Olympiads can boast of players or captains who competed in the earliest ones. The Chess Olympiads are becoming more and more popular, but the singleness of purpose of the participants remains the same; namely, to be worthy representatives of their country in a noble contest.
/Introduction taken from Árpád Földeák's book on the Olympiads/