Chess Olympiad, women’s section: Indian women make history, but miss gold

In the absence of Russia and China, the host began as the favourite though there was very little to choose among India 1, Ukraine and Georgia.

Scripting success: The Indian women’s team had its maiden podium finish, a bronze. Ukraine and Georgia won the gold and silver medals respectively.

Scripting success: The Indian women’s team had its maiden podium finish, a bronze. Ukraine and Georgia won the gold and silver medals respectively. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the absence of Russia and China, the host began as the favourite though there was very little to choose among India 1, Ukraine and Georgia.

The suspense preceding the announcement of the final results was proving to be too long and agonising. The top two places were reserved by Ukraine and Georgia but bronze for India 1 was the point of interest. Finally, India 1 did get on to the podium and made history by gaining its first-ever medal from the women’s Chess Olympiad.

A few hours earlier, the India 1 quartet of K. Humpy, R. Vaishali, Tania Sachdev and Bhakti Kulkarni entered the playing hall as the final-round leader. A one-point lead over Ukraine and Georgia meant even a draw against USA was enough for gold, such was the tie-breaker points the host had.

But soon into the final round, Tania and Bhakti got into serious trouble. Their unbeaten record till this point looked threatened. Humpy and Vaishali did not have any decisive advantage. That meant a loss for India 1 looked increasingly evident. Eventually, a struggling USA upstaged the top-seeded Indian combination 3-1, with losses to Tania and Bhakti providing the margin.

Suddenly, from a position where a win or a draw was good enough to ensure the gold, India 1 was no longer assured of even a bronze. Though some arbiters brushed aside the fear that India would miss out on a medal, the final announcement of the medallists brought some solace to the host.

The Indian women had their first medal and the host could show a medal from both sections, which was another first.

With India 1 taking the fourth spot in the Open section and the women finishing third, the team claimed the Gaprindashvili Cup, symbol of a team’s supremacy in both sections.

Eventually, the top three seeds traded spots on the podium. Second seed Ukraine and third seed Georgia finished with 18 points and occupied the top two spots. Favourite India 1 pipped USA and Kazakhstan on tie-break points to take the bronze after aggregating 17 points.

The world saw this triumph for Ukraine in the background of the ongoing situation in that country. Though the Muzychuk sisters — Mariya and Anna — held firm on the top two boards and contributed six and seven points from 10 games each, it was the unbeaten Anna Ushenina on the third board who proved the key to Ukraine’s success.

Ushenina scored 7.5 points from nine rounds. Her match-winning effort against Germany in the 10th round truly kept Ukraine in contention for a medal. Unlike the Muzychuk sisters who lost rating, Ushenina gained 16 points following her sterling show.

For Georgia, the trio of Nana Dzagnidze, Nino Batsiashvili and Lela Javakhishvili took a day’s rest by turns on the first three rounds and then played without a break. Batsiashvili was the pick among them, scoring 7.5 points from 10 rounds, including six victories.

In the absence of Russia and China, the host began as the rating favourite though there was very little to choose among India 1, Ukraine and Georgia. Humpy was the obvious spearhead and Harika insisted on being part of the team despite being in the late stage of pregnancy. While Humpy took time to find her bearings, Harika looked solid as she drew seven games on the trot between Round 3 and 9. Effectively, this experienced duo barely gave anything away on the leading boards.

It was the trio of R. Vaishali, Tania Sachdev and Bhakti Kulkarni that provided the home team with moments of repeated joy. Though they lost a game each, their ability to consistently find winning combinations proved most heartening.

Vaishali, a debutant, contributed 7.5 points on the third board while Tania, seen more as a commentator for elite events than a player since the pandemic broke out, scored eight points. The two girls went on to collect bronze medals on boards three and four.

Bhakti Kulkarni, a reserve, won the first three rounds and made a winning return in round 10. Tania and Bhakti, however, could not maintain their unbeaten run once the team ran into USA on the final day.

Poland and Kazakhstan were seen as teams with an outside chance for a medal. Not surprisingly, the fear of India 1 came true following a 1.5-2.5 defeat in the ninth round. When India played Kazakhstan the following day, a 3.5-0.5 win for the host was truly impressive.

India 2, headed by young Vantika Agrawal, came eighth to finish above its starting rank of 11th. Indeed, it was Vantika’s 7.5 points from 11 rounds and reserve player Divya Deshmukh’s seven from nine rounds that kept India 2 afloat.

For her efforts, Vantika gained an International Master norm while Divya collected a bronze for playing as a reserve on the fourth board.

Lost in the background were the steady showings of Padmini Rout — winner of an individual gold medal in 2014 — and the experienced Mary Ann Gomes. On the second board, Padmini found her form after five successive draws and then after a round’s break, scored a hat-trick of wins. However, she finished with a loss. Mary, steady as ever, scored 6.5 points from nine unbeaten rounds.

Soumya had a forgettable outing despite starting with a hat-trick of wins. She lost her last two games and was rested for the last four rounds.

India 3, seeded 16, finished 17th with P. V. Nandhidhaa on the second board scoring 8.5 from 11 rounds and collecting 33 rating points.

Though the vastly experienced Eesha Karavade did reasonably well on the top board by contributing six points from 11 rounds, the lower boards paid the price for lacking experience. Varshini Sahithi (4/7), Pratusha Bodda (5/9) and Vishwa Vasnawala (3.5/6) fared as per expectations and lost rating points in double-digits.

Overall, unlike the Open section, the results in the women’s section were far more predictable. India 1 did win a medal but was left to rue the missed opportunity to win a gold.

All credit to Harika for her unbeaten stint despite the challenges on the health front. Vaishali and Tania collected a second bronze for their individual performances while Divya made her debut a memorable one.

Pia Cramling (Sweden, board one, gold medal): At a time when medallists in chess are becoming younger and younger, Pia set a new record. The 59­year old legend from Sweden won her third individual gold medal 44 years after making her Olympiad debut. She scored 9.5 points from 11 rounds but the 34th seed Swede could not finish higher than the 40th spot. Pia, the fifth woman to gain the title of the Grandmaster, was ranked No. 1 among women in January 1984 and she went on to win her first individual gold medal in the Olympiad later that year. Pia added a second gold medal from the 1988 edition.

Oliwia Kiolbasa (Poland, board three, gold medal): Even as D. Gukesh caught the attention of the chess world by stretching his winning run to eight games, Oliwia (9.5/11) not only kept pace with the Indian teenager but also did one better. She won the first nine rounds to keep Poland’s medal prospects alive. Though the team struggled to strike much on the top two boards, Oliwia and Maria Malicka (7/9 on the fourth board) provided the cutting edge to the sixth­seeded team. Rated 2376, Oliwia performed at a rating of 2565 despite losing the final round. In fact, it was her victory over Vaishali that gave Poland a 2.5­1.5 verdict over India 1.

R. Vaishali (India 1, board three, bronze medal): “The quality of her play was very high and I have no doubt, very soon she will become a Grandmaster,” is how Humpy described Vaishali’s role for India 1. As a debutant, Vaishali scored 7.5 points from 11 rounds while moving from board three to two, whenever mother­to­be Harika took rest. It was commendable how she dealt with the pressure and for that, a lot of credit is due to her coach R. B. Ramesh. As it turned out, Vaishali and her brother Praggnanandhaa collected a team bronze and an individual bronze each. Truly a unique achievement for these talented siblings.

Final standings
1-2. Ukraine, Georgia (18 match-points),
3-5. India 1, USA, Kazakhstan (17 each)
8. India 2 (16),
17. India 3 (15)
Individual prizes
Board 1: 1. Pia Cramling (Swe), 2. Eline Roebers (Ned), 3. Abdumalik Zhansaya (Kaz).
Board 2: 1. Nino Batsiashvili (Geo), 2. Anna Muzychuk (Ukr), 3. Khanim Balajayeva (Aze).
Board 3: 1. Oliwia Kiolbasa (Pol), 2. Anna Ushenina (Ukr), 3. R. Vaishali (Ind 1).
Board 4: 1. Bat­Erdene Mmungunzul (Mon), 2. Maria Malicka (Pol), 3. Tania Sachdev (Ind 1).
Reserve: 1. Jana Schnieder (Ger), 2. Ulviyya Fataliyeva (Aze), 3. Divya Deshmukh (Ind 2).
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