Many twists and turns in India's Olympiad victory

By becoming the joint champion, India has proved yet again that it is a force to reckon with at the highest level.

For the members of the Indian chess team, sitting in front of their computers at homes spread across the country, the evening of August 30 proved unforgettable. It was the day they made history, by jointly winning the online Chess Olympiad, but they had to go through an emotional roller-coaster.

Take the case of Koneru Humpy, for instance. The evening had begun rather well for her, after she logged in from her Vijayawada residence. She got an excellent position against Kateryna Lagno in the first match of the final against Russia. She looked certain to win, and the full point would have given India the victory in that first match.

The format of the knockout stage of the online Olympiad required a team to win at least one of the two matches. If both are drawn, there would be a tie-breaker, called Armageddon — something like sudden death in football.

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So in the final, if Humpy had won against Lagno, India would have won the match as well, as all the other five games — featuring captain Vidit Gujrathi, P. Harikrishna, Dronavalli Harika, R. Praggnanandhaa and Divya Deshmukh — were all drawn.

But, with victory in sight, Humpy erred. The game ended in a draw. That meant the match was tied 3-3.

In the second match, Humpy’s rival was Aleksandra Goryachkina. That game didn’t go well for her. She spent most of the time defending an inferior position and lost in the end. On the computer screen she saw that her teammates Divya Deshmukh and Nihal Sarin had also lost. That meant India lost the second match 1.5-4.5 (one point for a win and half for a draw).

Humpy was disappointed that what had been a great campaign for the team, and her personally, ended on such a sad note. Only the previous day, she was the hero when she won the nerve-racking Armageddon against Monika Socko in the semifinal against Poland to take India to the final.

Her disappointment didn’t last for long, though. It soon emerged that Divya and Sarin lost their games — to Polina Shuvalova and Andrey Esipenko, respectively — for no fault of theirs. There were internet connectivity issues. And if India had got 1.5 points from those games, the second match would have also been tied 3-3.

The Indian team management lodged a complaint that the players were logged out of Chess.com — the tournament’s host — because of a massive Internet outage.

FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich said that Russia and India would be declared the joint champions. A few minutes after he made the decision, Humpy received the happy news on her phone. The evening ended on a happy note, after all.

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“Yes, it was such a strange day, but I think we deserved to be the champions,” she told Sportstar. “And we should appreciate the Russians, who could have claimed that they had won the second match and thus the gold.”

It indeed was a truly fine show by the Indians in the tournament, in which they had begun as the seventh-seeded team. Russia was the top seed and the favourite.

To become the joint champion is a great feat indeed, though it never was beyond this talented bunch of players. In the league stage, India had given early warnings when it upstaged third seed China, one of the great forces in world chess.

In the quarterfinals, India had defeated Armenia. But it ended in controversy, as Armenia withdrew from the event as its protest to replay the game between Nihal and Haik Martirosyan was rejected by FIDE.

The Armenian had lost on time, but the team management said the Internet was disconnected at the end of Chess.com. But Nihal was slightly better in that position and could have at least got a draw, which would have been sufficient for India to win the match.

The Indians probably would not have imagined that they too would be at the receiving end of such an incident just two days later.

It certainly wasn’t the best way for the tournament to end, but there is no denying the fact that what the Indians achieved is remarkable. The Chess Olympiad, the history of which dates back to 1924, is the most prestigious team competition in the game. It was for the first time that it was being held online, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Olympiad had been held separately for men and women in the past. There is also a Youth Olympiad for the age-group players. But, the online Olympiad required every team to have men, women and junior players, as FIDE wanted diversity. It also meant the men’s, women’s and youth Olympiads were rolled into one.

But the presence of men such as Ding Liren, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk, Levon Aronian, So Wesley, Teimour Radjabov and Viswanathan Anand and women players such as Hou Yifan, Koneru Humpy and Ju Wenjun ensured the tournament was of top quality. Yes, it would have been ideal to have separate competitions for men, women and age-group players, but in these pandemic times that isn’t easily done.

As many as 163 countries participated. By becoming the joint champion, India has proved yet again that it is a force to reckon with at the highest level.