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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Team captain Vidit Gujrathi looks back at India’s dramatic shared title at the Online Chess Olympiad

"There were these 15-20 second periods when the heartbeat would go through the roof," said Vidit Gujrathi, who is still reeling from the highs of leading India to its first Online Chess Olympiad gold.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Updated: September 4, 2020 8:14:07 am
Chess OlympiadAlong with trusted ally Srinath Narayan, the Indian team's captain Vidit Gujrathi saw India’s challenge through up to the gold.(Twitter/Viditchess)

Vidit Gujrathi is still reeling from the highs of leading India to its first Online Chess Olympiad gold, shared with Russia. The 25-year-old from Nasik says India showed it can win, and will work to win the title outright next time around.

Coming off a tough last season where he was coping with a yet undiagnosed health condition which resulted in him losing 10 kgs, and beginning the online swing with terrible results at the Online Nations Cup, Vidit was quick to kickstart preparations, a month before the Olympiad. Along with trusted ally Srinath Narayan, he saw India’s challenge through up to the gold.

Excerpts from a chat:

Q. Every one of the players has an internet and electricity board story associated with the World Online Olympiad. What was yours?

A. Before the Olympiad started, my internet had been down for a day while I was streaming as usual, and I’d mentioned that on social media. Several fans got in touch and sent messages, and there was especially one who contacted us through 10-15 ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and offered to install the backup. I think it was during the Indonesia match that I had a power outage and the backup kicked in.

READ | How Vishwanathan Anand stayed on chess grid despite scheduled power cut in Chennai

It was wonderful when some top IAS officers got in touch and gave us all the support needed regarding uninterrupted power and were ready to help. Me and Srinath (Narayan, the appointed coach), had contacted everyone and everyone stepped up. I was happy and it was an immediate collective feeling of all of India getting us to the win.

Q. What was the lead-up like?

A. I’d played in the Online Nations Cup and my performance had been pretty bad. I was disappointed with how I had played. So a month before the Olympiad, I began planning and set up a very strict personal schedule. Well, I followed 90 per cent of it at least. It’s also when they asked me to be captain and I contacted Srinath to help me out because I’d worked with him earlier. Then we decided to focus on getting juniors competition-ready. He arranged for juniors like Bhakti, Vaishali, Vantika and Divya and even the boys to play amongst themselves. Then we went through those matches in details. With top players like Anand, Humpy and Harikrishna, I knew their preps would be perfect. I’d personally had a bad Online Nations Cup so that motivated me to get my day’s schedule in order.

Q. How did you decide on Srinath Narayan to help you out?

A. His was the first name that came to my mind. He’s helped me with preparations before as my second. We share a good bond, and he had the perfect skillset for the role. He’s very good at management and could look at assorted things like power supply and internet connections. And more importantly, he is excellent with data/statistics and collecting the technical details.

Q. How was the ebb and flow of the whole tournament?

A. The knockouts were not easy at all. It was high pressure. The group stages were more relaxed as there’s always the chance of a comeback. But in knockouts, there were these 15-20 second periods when the heartbeat would go through the roof. I would’ve loved to have a heart rate monitor strapped on to check what the numbers were! But I could sense it going very fast. In fact, that should be the next technology to be tried in chess. (It) Will make for great viewing.

Q. What were the group stages like?

A. We’d made a list of 5-6 teams in group stages that could be trouble. The plan was to ensure we qualify directly for quarters. Despite the problems against Mongolia, we were winning with good margins. There were 4 1/2 -1 1/2. The big game was obviously China – they were winners for the last two editions and had also won the Online Nations Cup. As it turned out, we were to play them in the ninth and final round so there was excitement about that. But of course, the tough one was Armenia. It’s a very strong team. Very balanced and their women are underrated – so tougher than the rating (suggest). Also as a team they were scoring on every board, so that was a challenge.

Q. Was losing to Poland a jolt?

A. They shocked us playing the first match. But with a 10-minute break, there was no time to recover. And I distinctly remember thinking in that short break about who we should field, and not what I should be playing. So, it was a great experience as a captain.

Q. What was China like?

A. After the Mongolia incident with the power supply/ internet, there was fear and we were actually deliberating on whether to play Humpy or not against China. I mean this is the great Koneru Humpy, she’s a legend in Rapid, but imagine the whole strategy revolving around internet connectivity because it was such a risk. We knew she had to play Hou Yifan. So even thinking that there was a debate on whether to field her or not, which now sounds incredulous, became a point to ponder. Hari (Harikrishna Pentalya) called up and we brainstormed for three hours over it. We decided internet issues are out of our hands so we would forge ahead. You know she offered a draw on white, which was declined! That’s when we realised opponents are declining draws which they otherwise would’ve jumped at against her, because they knew she was facing internet issues.

Q. What were your internet takeaways?

A. I started out with one unstable connection. Now I have three strong ones.

Q. What was a typical day like?

A. Group stages would be 1.30 to 4.30. After that, we would have a small team meeting. But there were 12-13 players so it was tough to have one-on-one conversations with everyone. My preparations as captain would start the previous night and Srinath and me would discuss board order for the next day and then keep Zoom meetings short and pinpoint. My mom would take care of my meals – never a heavy lunch. And I’d watch her focused with only that on her mind – my meals.

Q. Relive the scenes around the final against Russia for us.

A. My game had finished in a draw and I was glued to the commentary on one side and watching the games on other boards. At that moment, Divya (Deshmukh) looked like winning, Nihal (Sarin) was improving and Humpy was slightly worse but within drawable range when time started to flash. My first reaction was relief that my game was over, but then things started buzzing on the commentary about a problem. I contacted Srinath and we drafted a quick appeal. I could see comments sections so I knew immediately that we were locked out – didn’t know about Cloudfare then – but knew it was something bigger. Our servers had been 100 per cent ok.

Divya tends to be emotional and was very upset. And she was panicking. When I called up Nihal, he was already relaxed. He didn’t even pick the call, his dad did. He had got over it quickly and was asking me questions like, ‘do you think I should’ve played this or that!’ He was unfazed.

Q. What’s been your experience over a summer full of online chess? Humpy said it felt different because she couldn’t see opponents’ body language.

A. Oh! I love online chess because I don’t have to see opponents’ body language. See, I don’t make any expressions but many players use that to distract over the board so I’m always at a disadvantage. So, I was very happy I couldn’t see them.

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Of course, it was different playing from home but the two shouldn’t be compared. I can’t imagine the classical format online. Pure chess has to be over the board. But online is a perfect fit for blitz /rapid. 68000 viewers was a good sign and we can still professionalise it further. It felt good after China when so many people congratulated us.

Q. Earlier in the lockdown, you had spoken of a difficult phase last year when you lost a lot of weight (10 kg) to stress suddenly and how those concerns were predominant even when the virus situation started to blow up in India. Did that affect you adversely?

A. Actually that phase is still going on. It remains undiagnosed (in March-April, Vidit was still determining if it was lifestyle/stress-related). I’ve gone to all kinds of doctors but we’ve not been able to figure it out. I still have health issues sometimes when there are two games especially. It creates hurdles – it’s very tough to focus at times and solve problems. Sometimes, I want to practise but can’t. It robs you of focus. I want to fix it, but it’s not getting diagnosed. Not much more I can say about it.

Q. You were reading Japanese philosophy and about minimalism over the lockdown summer. Still on that?

A. I went back to the one book that always motivates me – Heart of Success by Om Swamy. It’s about six guiding principles of business success, guided by ancient Indian philosophy and scriptures. But there are practical messages. I also couldn’t stop watching the Michael Jordan documentary.

Q. What were some of the lighter, funnier messages or celebrity messages you got? A. Oh, I got a lot of funny anecdotes. Someone told us, his marriage was about to be fixed but he kept watching the Olympiad stream online and well, the marriage match didn’t go through as a result. Others bunked their online classes and those from the US didn’t sleep the entire night to watch India play. Celebrity messages are there, but it’s these fan stories that make me chuckle. It felt like all of India was happy for us.

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