Giant chess pieces, Cold War intrigue and an Emirati gold: the story of Dubai's 1986 Chess Olympiad

The Chess Olympiad – held three decades ago this month – was one of the biggest events ever hosted by the emirate

The UAE in action against Lebanon during the Dubai 1986 Chess Olympiad. Courtesy Dubai Chess

In 1986, a wave of revolutions was building to sweep across eastern Europe, toppling Soviet-imposed regimes.

But in Dubai, the Soviet Union’s chess team showed little sign of the fragility that would soon mark its implosion.

Soviet grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov were in town for the 1986 Dubai Chess Olympiad – where teams from 108 countries battled it out at the World Trade Centre for the chance to be crowned the world’s best.

A special Dh1 coin minted for Dubai's 1986 Chess Olympiad. Courtesy Mark Nammour

The event was convened by the world chess federation, Fide, and it was one of the largest ever hosted by Dubai. A lavish opening ceremony took place at the Central Military Command Stadium. The arena has since been demolished but it sat close to where the Burj Khalifa stands today.

This ceremony featured a parade, fireworks and a giant chessboard, while a pearl-diving boat with a crew singing sea shanties came through the grounds. Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid, the former Ruler of Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, current Ruler of Dubai attended.

"More than 1,000 years ago, the Gulf had first known of the chess game," Sheikh Butti bin Maktoum, head of the organising committee, told the audience.

"A number of great Arab players mastered the game and left their fingerprints on the international chess board. The UAE, represented by Dubai, is pleased to embrace the chess world."

The city then was built around the Creek. Giant chess pieces were placed around major hotels and buildings, a production of Chess on Ice took place at Al Nasr Leisureland, while a special Dh1 coin was even to commemorate the event.

"Advertising for the event was everywhere, all over TV and radio," Mohamed El Husseiny, 61, executive director of Dubai Chess told The National.

Emirates provided free air tickets for competing countries which boosted attendances.

Dubai Chess Club even produced a brilliantly evocative promotional video for the tournament. The shaky film montage, perhaps rather surprisingly, doesn't feature any chess but instead shows a Dubai frozen in time with wind towers on the Creek, camel racing and four jet-skiers holding UAE flags. The video was called Back in Dubai and was set against the soundtrack of Sal Davies' famous song of the same name.

What took place at the World Trade Centre from November 14 to December 2 was two weeks of quality chess, Cold War controversy and Emirati heroics.

America, through Syrian-born Yasser Seirawan, inflicted the only defeat of the tournament on Kasparov – who has since gone on to become a vocal critic of Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin. England were also highly regarded. But defeat to Spain, marred by allegations that Soviets were offering advice to their opponents, dented their chances. Organisers claimed the controversy was unsubstantiated but the loss was a disaster for England.

By the end, England came second, while the Soviets took gold by half a point after crushing Poland 4-0.

Nigel Short represented England at the Olympiad. A chess grandmaster who was just 21 at the time, Short looks back fondly on Dubai 1986.

“I played in a huge number of events and a lot of these become like James Bond films and merge into one,” says Short, who is now Fide vice president.

“But Dubai sticks out. It was an unusual destination and, at the time, an exotic one,” he says.

“They had spent a lot of money. Good hotels, good food and good playing conditions. A lot of details had gone into it.”

Notable, too, was the impact the Olympiad had on the game here. The UAE Chess Federation had only been founded in 1976 and the game was then played by a handful of Emiratis.

But by 1981, Saeed Ahmed Saeed had won the U14 world youth chess championship in Mexico. Named the 'Arab computer', his exploits boosted the game and by the time of the Olympiad, about 200 Emiratis were playing.

More success lay ahead with women’s player Farida Al Karim claiming a gold medal in 1986 for best individual performance.

“It was the first Emirati gold medal in an Olympiad,” says Mahdi Abdulrahim, assistant general secretary of the UAE Chess Federation, then an 18 year old match arbiter.

“Chess was expanding around the UAE and people were encouraged to try out this new game. The Olympiad was viewed as a big success.”

Thirty-two years on, there are 16 chess clubs around the UAE and thousands of Emiratis play the royal game.

There are two Emirati grandmasters, including Salem Saleh, and younger players are also coming through the ranks. Rouda Alserkal was crowned the under-9 world school chess champion in April. These achievements all owe a debt of gratitude to those few weeks in 1986.

Castor Abundo was deputy Olympiad director in Dubai 1986

"Today the UAE is a leader in Arab chess. The president of the Asian Chess Federation is from Al Ain. The president of the Arab Chess Federation is from Sharjah," he said.

El Husseiny agrees: “It was like a revolution for chess. All clubs improved.”

The UAE now hosts Formula One, major tennis tournaments and one of the world’s richest horse racing events. A chess tournament may seem quaint and, to some extent, it has been forgotten. But the Dubai 1986 legacy lives on in the memories of those who competed, organised and helped put UAE chess on the map.


Read more: 

Don't change that dial: twenty years of Channel 4 FM