COVID-19 and chess: A fun-filled session for a noble cause

Chess is perhaps the only discipline that continues to hold online competitions and events, to raise money to help the needy in these distressing times.

chess special

In these days of lockdowns across several countries, sporting activities have come to a halt. Almost every governing body in the world of sports has announced suspension/cancellation of events until the COVID-19 pandemic is dealt with, appropriately.

Given the gravity and enormity of the situation, nations, companies, organisations and individuals have come up with charities and fund-raising activities.

Obviously, given the prevailing compulsions of social distancing, competitions are ruled out. But chess remains a welcome exception. Chess is perhaps the only discipline that continues to hold online competitions and events, to raise money to help the needy in these distressing times.

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Among the lot, the fund-raiser by chess.com involving the cream of Indian chess stood out for its star value, novelty and reach.

Without doubt, over the years, the growth of information technology has helped chess like few other sporting disciplines. The technical advancement made live broadcast of every worthy tournament possible on a single mobile application. On the go, a chess lover could follow the moves made in real time.

Online chess players have gone above 35 million on the World No. 1 site, with a record five million games played in a single day, on Sunday, April 12, 2020. The single biggest reason for this spike was the pandemic, forcing people to stay indoors or seek online activities.

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In these challenging and testing times, Viswanathan Anand saw an opportunity to make a difference. He visualised a chance for the not-so-strong chess players to pay-and-play with one among India’s top Grandmasters during a fun-filled session.

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Clockwise from left-top: International Master Rakesh Kulkarni, Grandmasters Abhijeet Gupta, P. Hari Krishna and Viswanathan Anand discuss the games during the chess.com-PM CARES Fund charity online simultaneous chess event.   -  CHESS.COM

 

As it turned out, the event raised over $6,000 and made Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweet, “Innovative effort and kind gesture by our chess players. Am sure the participants would have had an enriching experience.”

In fact, the man behind the initiative Anand, was quick to respond by tweeting, “Thank you Sir. We enjoyed the challenge, were happy to contribute.”

Even after being forced to stay back in a small German town of Bad Soden after travel restrictions were imposed from mid-March following the outbreak of the pandemic, Anand did not miss out on the opportunity to rise to the occasion.

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International Master Rakesh Kulkarni, Director of chess.com told Sportstar, “Anand approached us with this novel idea of a simultaneous chess for charity and got the cream of Indian chess — P. Hari Krishna, Vidit Gujrathi, B. Adhiban, K. Humpy and D. Harika — on board. No wonder, the response from the chess lovers was simply stupendous.”

Revealing the details, Kulkarni said, “Essentially, players from around the world could ‘buy’ a game with these top GMs. A guaranteed game against Anand was worth $150 while a game against the other GMs was for $25.

“Each player agreed to play on 20 boards. This was a clock-simultaneous display, meaning both players had to complete the game within a stipulated time. Chess.com opted for the Neo-Classical time control of 45 minutes + 45 seconds increment starting from Move One. This time-control is a classic middle ground between rapid and classical chess. The stars took white in all games, as is the case in a simultaneous display. It was open to a worldwide audience, who had a FIDE or Chess.com Blitz rating of 2000 or lower.

“The top stars were shown throughout the live coverage on mute. As soon as the star player finished his quota of games, they were brought into the live show. A mini-interview of about five minutes was held with each star player.”

For the record, Anand won 18 and drew three after playing 21 opponents. Adhiban kept a clean slate winning all 18 boards. Hari, much like Anand, drew three and won the rest of 19 boards. Humpy won 17 and lost one out of 18, while Harika won 13, drew four and lost two out of 19 boards.

The job done, Anand said, “I’m obviously very grateful to all the participants who took part today and I hope they enjoyed it. Of course, we are raising money but this was also meant to be a fun day where they get a chance to play a strong grandmaster.”

Harika, too, was very pleased with the outcome of the players’ gesture. “It’s a privilege that we can play our sport from home and collect funds for a good cause. It was a much different experience than playing normal simultaneous chess, as on internet, 20 different boards pop-up and you have to keep track of it. So, it is difficult than an over-the-board simultaneous display. But the whole point was to interact with fans and collect donations.”

No doubt, in the given scenario where almost every on-field, on-court and on-arena sporting activity has come to a standstill, chess continues to grow, thanks to its internet-friendly nature.

Therefore, online charity events are likely to continue, with Anand open to the idea of being part of more such initiatives.

On the subject of the lockdowns in several countries leading chess-loving people to turn to online activities, Erik Allebest, the CEO and co-founder of chess.com, makes an interesting point.

“Since the launch of chess.com in May of 2007, the site had a pretty steady growth pattern each year where traffic increases, then flattens out during summer for USA/Europe, before growing again. We’ve grown from 20-50 percent every year since starting out 13 years ago. This month, everything changed. Basically, we are now expecting that our next 10 years of growth could happen in the next three months.”

Interesting are the numbers in the Indian context. “Usually, the highest average was of about 1,000 players from India joining this site daily. In March, it was over 8,000 every day,” revealed Ellebest.

It is obvious that not all new online-players are going to pursue chess, as actively, once the lockdown restrictions are eased globally. But leading online chess portals are hoping to retain a small per cent of these players.

Over all, in these otherwise depressing times for all social and recreational activities, chess continues to not only gain new ground but also prompting players to make a difference.