It was around midnight in Beijing that Chinese Grandmaster Wei Yi broke into a rueful smile, as his American opponent Fabiano Caruana, sitting in his beachside house in Miami, where it was just noon, killed a thrilling faceoff with a slick end-game manoeuvre. The victory left the FIDE Online Nations Cup super-final locked in a 2-2 draw, though China were declared winners as they had won the round-robin phase.
The four Chinese Grandmasters—Yi, Ding Liren, Hou Yifan and Yu Yangyi—appeared briefly for a video conference on the ChessBase website, that was live-streaming the week-long tournament. Following on the livestream, their eyes looked sleepy but beaming, the voices sounded happy but drowsy to all who followed them online. Their American counterparts were dreary and downcast, though Caruana later lifted the gloom with his characteristic humour.
Bafflingly, despite the mounting friction between the two countries, the Chinese victory—or the American defeat—was not lost in political symbolism, layering and interpretations. Like when the Cold War was raging, and the Soviet chess machine was meant to demonstrate mental and athletic primacy over the decadent West. Here, even if you take the Trump administration’s swelling antagonism of China, the accusations and castigations that had flown from the White House to Beijing in the last few weeks, tropes of ideological victory or metaphors of global domination weren’t woven into China’s triumph. For all what it was, the context didn’t leap out of the 64 squares on the board. There was no political rhetoric.
It was as Garry Kasparov, agonisingly watching Team Europe plunge in the tournament, said after the final: “Solely the moment to acknowledge China as a superpower in chess. They have an exceptional generation of quality players. Maybe, one of them could be a future world champion.”
A few weeks ago, in an entirely different context, the legendary chess player had criticised the country: “China will have to be held to account, and their free world enablers too. Past time to end the one-way street of engagement of dictatorships with the free world, exporting corruption and death along with oil and goods.” But here, he had kept the politics out of the board.
Whether one of their golden generation could wrestle the crown and sceptre from Magnus Carlsen (still only 29) has to be seen, but China has been making rapid strides in the game. Long ago chess was banned by Beijing for the first eight years of the Cultural Revolution.
Then in 1975 the Malaysian patron Dato Tan, in partnership with Chinese officials, conceived and financed the “Big Dragon” project to make China a global chess power. Its model was the USSR’s state-run strategy in the 1930s and 40s, spotting players at a young age and putting them into the right climate to blossom. The state nourishes and develops them from childhood, carefully grooms them for the international arena, and handsomely awards them when they start yielding results, which they have been steadily accomplishing.
First China captured the women’s world title from the previously dominant Georgians, before they advanced in the biennial team Olympiad until winning it in 2014. Finally, after many years when Chinese grandmasters stalled in the top 20 or 30, they found Ding, who has a classical and dynamic playing style. Apart from the third-ranked Ding, they have three more in the top-25. Only Russia has more. And unlike the USA’s talent pool, China’s is entirely home-grown.
As much as the outcome of the tournament was a symbol of China’s emergence as a chess superpower, it was a metaphor of hope in these trying times. When the pandemic and lockdown shuttered the sporting world, chess managed to conduct a tournament featuring the best of the world, barring Carlsen, who had just finished hosting his own online tournament recently.
Yifan candidly put the overwhelming emotion of the chess fraternity into words: “I’m actually more excited about that we are here. Under this global climate, it is very important that we are trying to bring up something together that makes chess somehow lift in the air. This is I guess a privilege for chess, that we can do a lot of different events online. I certainly had a lot of fun, and thoroughly enjoyed it.”
It was fun, but it also required a lot of adapting and adjusting, for players, organisers, audience and arbiters. They had just three weeks to organise and prepare, and though it was not exactly a plunge into the unknown, it posed a whole new set of challenges.
Like Team Europe’s Zoom conferencing conked out briefly on the second day. Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri was so worried about his internet connection that he spent the week leading up to the tournament fishing out methods to keep the connection stable. “I was playing in a smaller online tournament and the Wi-Fi went out. I was furious. I did a lot of research and I upgraded everything. Now my Wi-Fi is absolutely insane,” he told ChessBase.com.
To nail the wobbly connection, Dinara Saduakassova, playing from her home in Nur-Sultan, set up two mobile routers as a backup. “We have a lot of unannounced power cuts in the city. So it’s better to keep the mobile-phones ready. It’s a saviour,” she said.
For Italian-American Caruana, a bigger problem was that he couldn’t go to the bathroom between rounds. To keep the integrity of the tournament and prevent cheating allegations, FIDE had insisted on players not moving from the chairs, which means they can’t move from where they are sitting and there are multiple cameras gazing at you.
The urge forced him to play quicker against Indian Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi. “I was just trying to play as quickly as possible because I kind of had to use the restroom. I just wanted the match to get over as fast as possible and I literally ran to the rest-room,” he said in the post-match interview.
For many of them, the adjustment was physical. Playing someone who’s sitting miles away, staring into a virtual board and the head of your opponent blinkering from the corner of the screen. Admitted India’s B Adhiban: “It’s like you’re playing a computer. The whole intensity and body language are missing. You get used to it, but you miss that human element. Though you ideally like to play in quieter environments, you miss your opponent’s face.” It’s not fake, but as Caruana noted: “It’s like playing someone from a parallel universe.”
The emotional face of the game was missed. “We are missing the emotional part when people meet and shake hands. People love when they look over the board into the eyes of their opponent. People are missing that. But this is a very good substitute,” said FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich. He though could not imagine a China-US finale in a real tournament. “That would have been sensational,” he said. It could have been the perfect storm too, where political symbolism and posturing would not have been too far away.