A grand ceremony marked the opening of the Chess Olympiad in Chennai. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance, the programme saw the history of Tamil Nadu and the best of its cultural traditions on display.
It almost seemed like a change of guard. Viswanathan Anand, the country’s first Grandmaster, handed the Olympiad torch to R Praggnanandhaa and D Gukesh almost as if passing the baton to the younger generation to keep India’s fortunes in the game going.
Elaborate arrangements were part of the preparations for the Olympiad. While the convention centre at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Mahabalipuram made up one playing hall, another was constructed in the parking lot of the premises to accommodate over 500 players.
The namma Chennai photopoint on Marina beach saw a special addition from the Chess Olympiad - the mascot Thambi. The spot and the mascot fast became crowd favourites but are currently behind construction barricades put in place for the metro rail work along the arterial road.
Napier Bridge also donned a 64 squares-inspired look ahead of the Olympiad. The bridge soon became the subject of drone-shot films of the area and also saw increased footfall, with Chennai residents flocking to the 153-year-old bridge to get the perfect selfie.
Chess mania gripped not just Chennai but the state too, with artists joining the hype too. U.M.T. Raja, a Coimbatore-based goldsmith known for his miniatures made a chess-themed one with 500mg gold to celebrate the 44th Chess Olympiad.
The venue was packed with dignitaries on day 1 of the Olympiad with the Union Sports Minister Anurag Thakur in attendance to make the opening move. The rush on day 1 posed challenges to the security forces, who then made restrictions around the playing area tighter to ensure the space was distraction-free for the players.
Chess does not come across as a very spectator-friendly sport. However, with passes being made available for students and a general interest in the game in the city, crowds were seen making their way into halls to watch players of their choice battle it off across the 64 squares.
Understandably, one of the biggest draws of the Olympiad was Norway’s Magnus Carlsen. The world champion landed a day later and was seen in action first on day 2, much to the delight of fellow participants and fans.
It was not all work and no play at the Chess Olympiad. The photo props stationed along the entry walkway for the players saw participants get creative with their poses.
The India A side, which eventually finished with a bronze medal, also featured a heavily pregnant Harika Dronavalli. The ace Indian chess player was in good spirits enjoying her games and also checking out the action across other boards when she was scheduled to play.
The Olympiad was also a great opportunity for many countries to showcase their native fashion. Mohamed Ali Dima from Djibouti has the photographers interested with his attire. “Veshti” was the word going around, with camera persons and spectators trying to identify his assemble with what was familiar to them. Dima’s outfit even caught USA’s Wesley So’s eye who then joined him for a photographer.
Puerto Rican player Natasha Santos Morales’ braille board stood out in hall 2. The second-highest rated female player from her nation, Morales was happy to oblige press and spectators’ questions on how the board worked and her own story of excelling in the game.
Children were a key part of the Olympiad experience. Many young children matched experienced Grandmasters move for move in Chennai and were a press favourite. Among them were Scotland’s Frederick Waldhausen Gordon and Palestine’s Randa Seder, who was also the youngest player at the Olympiad this time.
Players also got a rest day in the middle of the Olympiad to unwind and visit local attractions.
Arrangements were made for students from Madurai to visit the Olympiad venue and witness the action live.
A standout feature in the visitor’s expo area was this photo wall with images of female chess players from around the world, many of whom were participants in this Olympiad. This turned out to be a popular photo point for teammates, officials and fans alike.
Poland’s Oliwia Kiolbasa finished with a gold medal in board 3 and was an imposing figure throughout the Olympiad. She was on a nine-game winning streak. She finally dropped points in round 10, when she drew with Lela Javakhishvili of Georgia. She was finally beaten by Ukraine’s Anna Ushenina in round 11.
Finishing with a gold medal on board one, D Gukesh was easily the pick of the Indian teams combined in this Olympiad. He enjoyed a 8/8 winning streak before he let the pressure get to him. He followed Oliwia Kiolbasa’s trajectory of a draw and a loss - a draw to Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov followed by an entirely avoidable loss to Uzbekistan’s Nodirbek Abdusattoro . Gukesh finished with eight wins as he drew his final game against Germany’s Vincent Keymer.
The Uzbekistan men’s team won gold in the open category and seemed in high spirits at the press conference right after their final round, despite two of their main players, including Nodirbek Abdusattorov, not being present to address the media.
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