Away from those working almost round-the-clock to give the world a memorable Chess Olympiad in July-August this year, there were a few handpicked young and not-so-young men and women preparing hard to make it all worth it for the host.
Recently, the Indian men’s and women’s teams had a 10-day preparatory camp in the presence of former World championship finalist Boris Gelfand at Chennai’s Leela Palace. The Russian, who represents Israel, tested the players with various tricky positions, shared his wisdom and more importantly, ensured the group worked as a team.
Viswanathan Anand, as the teams’ mentor, spent a day with the players and left them asking for more. He discussed many of his games and shared what he thought at various stages of the select games.
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One afternoon, Sportstar got Anand, men’s Team ‘A’ coach N. Srinath and women’s Team ‘A’ coach Abhijit Kunte to discuss various topics including the team’s prospects.
Anand, your thoughts on the Chess Olympiad coming to India.
Anand: It was a very unexpected event. First of all, the event was supposed to be in Moscow. Due to geo-political developments, suddenly the possibility opened up for a country to bid for, and the Olympiad became available. Full credit to the All India Chess Federation (AICF) and especially to the Tamil Nadu Government for moving so fast, giving all the guarantees and clinching it.
Unexpectedly, I would say, it’s a pleasant surprise it landed in Chennai. It’s a major global sporting event and it’s nice that it will happen here in what is, at least, the centre for chess in India. On top of that, we have this bonus that exactly at this moment, we have so many young, promising new players. We get the opportunity to field the second team and we have the luxury of two teams, both men and women. So, a lot of nice coincidences happen at the same time.
Can you elaborate on the reasons why you opted not to be part of the team as a player?
Anand: I had already made up my mind that I would not play the Moscow Olympiad. I don’t think you could suddenly play just because the venue changed. I didn’t feel like playing before and I just stuck with that. I’m genuinely excited that so many of our youngsters will get a chance to play. It’s not like I was really holding up lots of spots. You are holding one. I think I’d already decided not to play and it’s very exciting that they get this break. It’s nice that for many of them, their first Olympiad will be the one they’re playing at home. It’s the first Olympiad in India. I’m happy and, of course, I want it to be a success.
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Abhijit, how do you feel about India hosting the Olympiad?
Abhijit: This is the second time I’ll be coaching the Olympiad team, the first being in 2012. Playing the Chess Olympiad in India was a dream. We always felt that it should come to India. I think it was a great initiative by the AICF and the Tamil Nadu Government. Getting the Olympiad in just 10 days after bidding and completing all the formalities, it’s unbelievable. I think it’s a great thing and a moment of immense pride for all the players in the country.
Playing at home also means dealing with the enhanced levels of pressure of expectations. How do you think the team will deal with it?
Abhijit: I think we have only one woman player, that’s R. Vaishali, in the team from Chennai. So I don’t think the pressure will play so much of a part. Other teams are also equally strong like Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, China etc. It’s a tough competition. Recently, the Indian team did very well. The women’s team became the first from India to claim a silver in any World team championship, for men or women. Of course, that was a knockout format and the Olympiad is going to be played on the Swiss format. In 2012, we finished fourth. This time, we want to do better. Of course, it also depends on how teams like China and Russia play.
What’s your take, Srinath?
Srinath: It’s pretty exciting for me, personally, being in this situation, with the Indian team and having the Olympiad in Chennai. As far as the prospects are concerned, India has done pretty well, in the last three Olympiads. We won the bronze medal in 2014 (in the Open section). In 2016, we were leading after we won the first six rounds and we ended up fourth. So we have won a medal once and we have been right up there. We have always been contenders. I think the team we have right now is also one of the strongest teams we have fielded in the Olympiad. So I’m quite upbeat about the prospects for the team.
Anand, how do you look at the two men’s teams?
Anand: I like to joke that if we had moved Arjun Erigaisi to Team ‘B’, then we would have a junior team — the obvious personal connection is that they’re all in the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy (WACA). Having said that, it’s fantastic that so much fresh talent is representing India. The recent performances of R. Praggnanandhaa... He did well in Wijk aan Zee and then followed up with great performances on the Online Tour. He didn’t gain rating points because he’s been playing these private events but his performance level has been appreciating. Then you have D. Gukesh’s phenomenal rise and Arjun’s sensational performances this year. Both have gained a lot of rating points. Both are in the top-70 of the world. Nihal Sarin had a slow patch, but he opened the month by beating (Shakhriyar) Mamedyarov in the league. It shows that his level is still there. He needs just the right breaks. So its just a very nice, young and exciting team. I think that’s the extra shot that we have in there. I don’t know if we will get a third team. May be.
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What about the prospects?
Anand: As for our prospects, first of all, we should acknowledge that the U.S., at its full strength, will be the favourite. It’s not like I don’t fancy Indian teams to compete against that. I think for the rest, we have a good team, you still have to win the medal, nothing is given to you.
Abhijit: I think, without doubt, we have a good chance with Team A. Even our Team B — where we have Mary Ann Gomes, Soumya Swaminathan, Vantika Agarwal. Padmini Rout, Divya Deshmukh and Vantika Agarwal — has a great amount of experience. But it depends on how things actually work out during the tournament and how other medal contenders fare. It is very important how you fare against the strong opposition. If you’re not able to secure a draw or win against them, then it’s very tough to get the medal. It is not about beating the weaker opposition and then losing to strong opposition.
Given the unpredictability of the Swiss format, how do you suggest a way to the medal bracket?
Anand: This format is unpredictable, with match-points and game-points. In match-points, there will be clutch matches, and you’ve got to pull through. The stronger your team is, the hungrier your team is, the odds improve to win at least one clutch match and then may be, both clutch matches. But you are right. It’s funny that when you play a strong Olympiad, you have to do well, but it comes down to one or two moments. That’s the nature of sport. Even in tournaments, it’s the same phenomena. On that day, and that moment, you have to be there. And there’s no getting around it. It’s enough for any one weak link to collapse and it spoils the entire team in the match-points, unlike a board-point. So it’s important. And nowadays the tendency between top teams to go for 2.5-1.5 results is quite high. It’s quite rare and usually caused by one board collapsing but then the other boards risk a lot and you get a 3-1 result. So, we have a stronger team on average, which means we will survive the clutch points better.
Abhijit: I remember in 1998, when I played my first Olympiad, we played with Russia B and held them. That was big news.
Srinath: I think times started changing since 2018. We were facing teams like Russia on equal terms. I don’t think we were worse on any of the boards. I think we felt comfortable with the black pieces. We may have had some pressure with the white pieces, one or two games. Times have started changing. And so I think, we can go on equal terms with any team on any day.
What about the pressure on the almost-teen Team B in the Open section?
Srinath: To be honest, I think, the pressure will be similar to the one they face against competition of such intensity (in tournaments). I think, especially when you are younger, you have some kind of tunnel vision. You tend to look at very specific things. So, I really don’t expect them to be affected by things outside of chess so much.
Things can happen within the chess part of it. They are having certain kinds of experiences for the first time. But I really don’t think they will be looking too much into what other people are saying on social media or the general expectations. I don’t expect these factors to affect the juniors so much.
Anand: The spotlight will be there and some people can react negatively. Hopefully, they’re able to shut themselves out. We know it’ll come down to some crucial matches later. It’s nice to see they’re never bothered about pressure. But it will be the first time and they have no warning. So, I hope they will pay attention.