The opportunity to host the biennial Chess Olympiad fell into India’s lap late in February and the World Chess Federation (FIDE) announced its decision in March, and it was only natural that the chess aficionados in the country hoped to see a great show from the home-grown talents.
A medal in both sections appeared a distinct possibility considering the current playing strengths of India’s players and the absence of chess superpowers Russia and China.
When India 2 did land a medal in the Open section, it brought with it a feeling of consolation. Indeed, after the disappointment of missing the gold that seemed in India’s grasp midway through the penultimate round against Uzbekistan, the eventual bronze did not bring the joy that it did in 2014.
The initial look on the faces of the bronze medal winners made way for smiles with the confirmation of the individual medals. Teen-stars D. Gukesh and Nihal Sarin (gold medals), Arjun Erigaisi (silver) and R. Praggnanandhaa (bronze) stood duly rewarded for their consistent performances.
In fact, during the course of the Olympiad, Gukesh and Arjun crossed the coveted 2700 in live ratings to become India No. 2 and 5, respectively.
Interestingly, none of the top-10 teams made it to the podium. Overwhelming favourite USA never challenged for the gold, though it came close to challenging for a bronze on the final day. With India 1 and USA involved in a 2-2 draw in the final round, the path stood cleared for India 2 to be on the podium.
If India 2, with a starting rank of 11, took the bronze, gold and silver went to a young Uzbekistan and an experienced Armenia, seeded 14 and 12 respectively.
Uzbekistan, like India 2, had a young team. If Adhiban, 29, was the oldest member in India 2, Johangir Vakhidov, 27, was the opposite number for Uzbekistan. Other members of the team were: World rapid champion Nodirbek Abdusattorov (17), Nodirbek Yakubboev (20), Sindarov Javokhir (16) and Shamsiddin Vokhidov (20). In fact, when Uzbekistan made its Olympiad debut in 1992 and took the silver, no member of this gold medal-winning team was even born!
With eight wins and three draws, Uzbekistan was the worthy champion. Armenia (9 wins, a draw and a loss) played without Levon Aronian who turned out for the USA, but its determined show was worthy of the silver medal. India 2 (8 wins, two draws and a loss) didn’t really have a reason to complain since it lost to Armenia and drew with Uzbekistan.
The much-awaited face-off involving India 1 and India 2 never took place. A fourth-place for India 1, ahead of USA, deserved more attention but the performance was pushed into the background since India 2 did better. The below-par performances of USA and Magnus Carlsen-led Norway contributed to the title-race taking an unpredictable course. USA, whose lowest-rated player at 2720 was equal to P. Harikrishna, India’s highest in the fray, appeared the most demotivated side. Though it did enough to win most games, it never played to its reputation.
The fact that India 1 and USA — seeded two and one — had an identical record of seven wins, three draws and a loss that was matched by 48th seed Moldova reflects the degree of uncertainty in a format of this nature.
Again, Moldova’s strong finish underlined the importance of doing well in the last three rounds of a Swiss league. Moldova, 30th after the eighth round, scored over 20th seed Romania, third seed Norway and 10th seed England for a tied-fourth finish before taking the sixth spot.
Norway, with just five wins, two draws and four losses, tumbled to the 59th spot. This remains Norway’s worst finish in Carlsen’s seven Olympiad appearances. Carlsen said before the Olympiad, “We have the strongest team that we have never had and we would be in contention to win a medal. This time around I am really, really excited about that prospect.”
In nine rounds, the World No. 1 won six and drew three for a performance rating of 2803 that earned him the bronze medal on the top board, behind Gukesh and Abdusattorov. If Carlsen lost three rating points, his other four team-mates lost in double-digits. A truly forgettable performance for the Norwegians in the Open section.
On one count, Carlsen’s gut feeling came true. “I am very much impressed with the second team of India which has many of the best young players in the world. I definitely think that they have a chance to be among the medal winners.”
As it turned out, India 2 outdid India 1 and Gukesh emerged as the star performer of the Olympiad. He won the first eight rounds and added two draws from the last three rounds. He brought his fine form into the competition and proved an ideal spearhead of a young team.
Nihal, Praggnanandhaa, Raunak Sadhwani and B. Adhiban played their parts well and slowly the hopes rose from a medal to a possible gold. With India 2 raising hopes of a possible 3-1 victory over Uzbekistan, the gold medal appeared well within India’s grasp. But that was not to be.
Gukesh, from an overwhelmingly strong position, tried hard to press home the advantage against Abdusattorov in their top-board battle. In his desperation, he allowed his gritty rival some counter-play and did not see that his advantage was fast shrinking. He continued to play for a win. From the team’s perspective, even a draw was good enough to keep India 2 ahead of Uzbekistan and Armenia after the penultimate round. Tragedy struck when Gukesh overreached and blundered to lose.
The resultant 2-2 draw meant that Uzbekistan stayed one-point ahead in the company of Armenia.
It was rather harsh to hold the 16-year-old responsible for the slip-up. In the previous matches, Gukesh’s victories set the pace on most occasions for India 2 and brought confidence to his team-mates on the lower boards. Who could forget Gukesh’s emphatic victory over Fabiano Caruana in the team’s stunning 3-1 victory over USA.
In contrast, India 3 could not punch above its weight. With six wins and two draws, the team finished 31st as against its starting rank of 16.
On the top board, a winless veteran Surya Shekhar Ganguly failed to inspire as he contributed only 3.5 points from 10 outings. On the third board, another experienced campaigner Abhijeet Gupta scored 3.5 points from seven games. Younger Grandmasters S. P. Sethuraman (7.5/11) and Abhimanyu Puranik (6/8) played their hearts out. M. Karthikeyan (5.5/8) had his moments.
D. Gukesh (India 2, top board, gold medal): A string of eight straight victories had the chess world take a closer look at this talent. Performing on the biggest stage, the 16yearold Chennai boy brought down some of the better-known names. He plays all positions with equal elan and possesses a sharp eye in complex situations. He fears none and it came as no surprise that some of the world’s finest names spoke highly of his talent. Given Gukesh’s refreshing attitude to the sport and relentless pursuit to win, he surely holds the prospect of being the flagbearer of Indian chess.
Nodirbek Abdusattorov (Uzbekistan, top board, silver medal): The reigning World rapid champion is already a big name in the shorter format of the game in the premier online events. At 17, Abdusattorov has the reputation of finding moves even in the most difficult situations. He seldom offers draws or agrees to one. Much like Carlsen, he likes to grind his opponent and force errors late in the fourth or fifth hours of play. He is a new-generation champion whose uncompromising style of play has left a number of veterans severely worried about their prospects against him. Surely, Abdusattorov has it in him to break new grounds.
Nihal Sarin (India 2, second board, gold medal): Nihal produced an unbeaten performance, winning five times in 10 appearances. He also proved equal to Levon Aronian as the team pulled off the biggest upset of the competition. After a lull, Nihal straightaway found form in the Olympiad. Nihal seldom got an inferior position and that reflected his fine preparation. Four out of five victories came with white pieces, including the finalround triumph against higherrated Matthias Bluebaum of Germany. The presence of Nihal on the second board meant India 2 looked increasingly invincible. He reminded the chess world of his calibre and class with immaculate calculation and superb execution of plan.