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Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Not as grand as it seems: India’s historic showing at Chess Olympiad, explained

More than being a definitive sign of India’s emergence as a chess powerhouse, the performance shows the potential it has to be one. The showing could be a catalyst to a happy end result.

Written by Sandip G , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: September 2, 2020 9:13:07 am
Chess Olympiad, Chess Olympiad final india, Chess Olympiad final results, Nihal Sarin, Vishwanathan anand, Koneru Humpy, indian express, express explainedThe biennial Chess Olympiad, the world’s pre-eminent team tournament, is to the game what Davis Cup is to tennis, a celebration of team spirit. (Photo: Twitter/ @FIDE_chess)

India’s first-ever entry into the final of the Chess Olympiad is surely an attestation to its rising stature at international level. But caveats accompany the glory. The feat is surely historic, but India is still far from matching the performance of the chess super powers such as Russia, China, or the USA.

What’s the relevance of the Chess Olympiad?

The biennial Chess Olympiad, the world’s pre-eminent team tournament, is to the game what Davis Cup is to tennis, a celebration of team spirit.

But like its tennis equivalent, the Chess Olympiad isn’t considered the pinnacle of greatness in the game. Rather, it’s an attestation of a country’s depth in talent — it’s an irony that Norway is barely a force despite boasting world champion Magnus Carlsen.

World No. 5 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France or Anish Giri of the Netherlands did not reach the knockouts. Also missing were the American pair of Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, ranked No. 2 and No. 18 respectively in the world.

In the past, Viswanathan Anand has skipped the Olympiad to focus on the World Championship.

For these reasons — chess, like tennis, is primarily an individual pursuit — the Olympiad doesn’t carry the same lustre as a World Championship or the Candidates. In the past, chess greats have prioritised Linares and Tata Steel to the Chess Olympiad.

With 163 teams in the fray, it’s the largest chess tournament in the world, but not the biggest. The game itself has intrinsically celebrated individual glory more than team triumphs. The only time when the chess Olympiad was keenly followed was during the peak of the Cold War. Not surprisingly, the USSR have won it the most frequently (18 times), and even after its splintering, Russia have claimed the gold medal on six instances. Erstwhile Soviet states like Armenia and Ukraine have managed to breach Russia’s monopoly in the last few years.

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What is the format of the Olympiad?

The sheer number of participants in an Olympiad makes only the rapid-format viable. The classical format will be too long drawn out, while the blitz feels inadequate for a tournament labelled as “Olympiad”.

The format has further reduced this term due to the online mode of participation — it is played over 15 minutes, and with a five-second increment per move, as opposed to 25 plus 10 in the earlier editions.

It has also made structural changes – such as norms that at least half of the team should comprise female and junior players. Until this year, it was usually the four best players plus a reserve. FIDE’s rationale is that it brought more diversity, although it irked several teams which had a disproportionate gender ratio like the USA and Iran. So in effect, the Olympiad has juxtaposed the usual Olympiad, a women’s Olympiad, and a youth Olympiad, which the chess world feels has diluted the competence level of the tournament.

The addition of the junior segment benefited India when they encountered China. The ultra-tough contests between the senior men and women ended in draws. But India’s juniors proved they are better than China’s, as R Praggnanandhaa overwhelmed Yan Liu and Divya Deshmukh sneaked past Jiner Zhu to hand India a 4-2 win.

Also in Explained | ‘Armageddon’, the penalty shootout of the chess pieces

How should you put India’s dream run in perspective?

This is an ideal time for a reality check. Although five-time World Champion Anand did trigger a chess boom in the country throughout the 90s and the noughties, no Indian player has looked good enough to be called a fitting successor. There have been glimpses of talent, but none with the world-beating potential of Anand – which only enlarges the halo around him.

WGMs Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli endured mixed tournaments — they were solid against China but cracked under the relentless aggression of the Armenians. There, though, is hope for the future, as both Praggnanandhaa (who lost just one of his games) and Deshmukh have put in strong performances. So has Nihal Sarin, who has been in fine form this year.

India has enjoyed slices of luck as well – for example, in the quarterfinal against a formidable Armenia. Haik Martirosyan lost Net connectivity and lost time when he was to make his 69th move against Nihal Sarin. The FIDE sternly states that if a player’s Internet connectivity is lost, for two minutes or less, they will not only lose the match, but also be banned from the tournament. Armenia appealed to FIDE on Sarin’s win, but it was rejected.

At the time Martirosyan lost connection, the match was on a knife’s edge. An angry Levon Aronian tweeted:“In our match against India Haik Martirosyan lost on time due to disconnection from http://chess.com. We proved that our connection was stable. It was a problem with access to http://chess.com, not on our side. All we asked for was to continue that game from the same position and same time. Is it too much to ask?”

So, rather than seeing the achievement as a definitive sign of India’s emergence as a chess powerhouse it would be helpful to see it as an indicator of the potential it has to be a powerhouse. The result could thus be a catalyst to the end result.

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