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Introspection Need of the Hour as India Basks Under the Glory of Hosting the 44th Chess Olympiad

By: Pravin Thipsay

News18

Last Updated: August 13, 2022, 10:52 IST

Maharashtra, India

R Praggnananda and Vaishali  (Photo: Twitter/chennaichess22)

R Praggnananda and Vaishali (Photo: Twitter/chennaichess22)

It indeed seems that the golden period for Indian Chess Fraternity has begun. Unfortunately, the top Indian Teams don’t seem to be all that happy.

The 44th Chess Olympiad has concluded on a successful note, two Indian teams – one team in the men’s (open) section and one in the women’s — have secured Bronze Medals, a feat never achieved by the Indian teams in the past. The All India Chess Federation and the Government of Tamil Nadu are being congratulated for the brilliant performance of the Indian teams and the superb conduction of the event; the players are being congratulated from all quarters of the society. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, has even declared an award of rupees one crore each to the two medal-winning teams. It indeed seems that the golden period for Indian Chess Fraternity has begun. Unfortunately, the top Indian Teams don’t seem to be all that happy. Clearly, the ’feel good factor is missing amongst the Chess organisers and elite players from the Indian Chess fraternity.

Let’s first look at the extraordinary circumstances under which India was allotted this greatest Chess event, something which happened in a most unusual manner. The Chess Olympiad is generally allotted four years prior, to enable the host National Federation to arrange for funds and make all the preparations. The 44th Olympiad was scheduled to be held in Moscow but unfortunately, Russia declared war against Ukraine on 24th February, creating an international political and social crisis. The next day, FIDE announced that the Olympiad would be moved to another country. However, it was an awkward moment for FIDE, whose President is a Russian living in Russia. Postponing the event to a later date would have been the normal course of action in such extraordinary circumstances but the FIDE President, Arkady Dvorkovich, decided to make an appeal to all the National Federations to consider the possibility of conducting the mega event as per the schedule, July-August 2022. Due to the high budget (to the tune of 80 crore rupees), most of the National Federations were not inclined to offer to host the event but, the dynamic General Secretary of the All India Chess Federation, Bharat Singh Chauhan, decided to give it a try. Since organising such an event without Government sponsorship would be impossible in India, Chauhan travelled state after state appealing to the Chief Ministers to organise the event in their respective states. To his surprise, the CM of Tamil Nadu agreed to sponsor the event in the very first meeting fully and thus the event was allotted to AICF by FIDE.

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Though the financial guarantee was given by the Tamil Nadu Government, most of the other aspects had to be dealt with by the AICF, who opened a temporary office at Mahabalipuram, the beautiful ancient city chosen by the Government of Tamil Nadu for hosting the event. Things started moving fast then and we now see that India has successfully done what seemed to be impossible to the rest of the world.

The Union Government and the PM himself took a lot of interest in the event and a Torch Relay was conducted in 75 cities to celebrate the ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’. The awareness among the general public was thus created and the mega event eventually became a true sports festival.

Though every country is permitted to field only one team each in open (men’s) and women’s sections in the Olympiads, India was permitted to field as many as three teams each in both the sections, a right extended to only to host countries in Olympiads. The greater budget for the tournament enabled the AICF to conduct as many as three ‘10 days of coaching camps’ for the teams in the last three months, (the first time in Indian history), thereby creating an optimal situation for Indian teams to perform.

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The Indian Chess fraternity was delighted to see the ‘India 1 team’ being given top seeding in the women’s section and second in the open. [The strongest Chess playing nation – Russia – were not permitted to take part and the defending champions (winners of the previous Olympiad) China had chosen to opt out without assigning any reason]. As the Head of the Indian delegation, I was optimistic about our teams bagging Gold in both sections, like what China had done in the previous Olympiad held in 2018 at Batumi in Georgia. There was no Chess Olympiad in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Under these circumstances, top seed Indian women (team 1) bagging Bronze and second seed India (team 1) finishing fourth in open (men’s section) has left the Indian Chess fraternity in a shock rather than a mood to celebrate.

Certainly, the AICF had chosen the usual path of selecting the teams, well tried over a decade, leaving the things entirely to the selection committee. The players were much better trained this time, the two strongest Chess playing nations were not participating and yet, the team India 1 did underperform. The only consolation is that the India 2 team – seeded 11th – was able to bag the Bronze, with two players winning Individual Gold and one winning Individual Bronze.

Let us look at players’ individual positions at the 44th Chess Olympiad.

Men

Top Board: Gold D.Gukesh India Team 2, Silver Abdusattorov, Uzbekistan, Bronze Magnus Carlsen, Norway.

Board II: Gold Nihal Sarin, India Team 2.

Board III: Gold David Howell England, Silver Arjun Erigaisi, India Team 1, Bronze R. Praggnananda India Team 2.

Board IV: 5th position S L Narayanan, India Team 1.

Board V: 4th position Raunak Sadhwani, India Team 2.

Women

Top Board: Gold Pia Cramling, Sweden.

Board II: 5th position P V Nandhidha, Team India 3.

Board III: Bronze R. Vaishali, Team India 1.

Board IV: Bronze Tania Sachdev, Team India 1.

Board V: Bronze Divya Deshmukh, Team India 2.

Having played seven Chess Olympiads myself and having known the experiences of Bhagyashree Thipsay (who has played nine Olympiads), I feel that it is high time for me to make some suggestions to the selection committee of AICF regarding a review of their selection methods and to introspect the performance of the India 1 teams. The performance of Indian teams in the 44th Chess Olympiad should indeed be an eye opener for all of us. It needs to be noted that the two best performers in the Olympiad, D. Gukesh, individual Gold medal winner on the top board and Nihal Sarin, individual Gold medal winner on Board two, both belonged to India Team 2, as the selection committee had not found them strong enough to be in India team 1. The most frightening thought that comes to my mind is that had the 44th Olympiads been held in Moscow, the India 2 teams would not have been eligible to play at all and we would have reconciled ourselves to the thought ‘this is where we stand’ without ever understanding the shortcomings of the team selection methods and the huge potential of some greatest talents in the country, particularly D. Gukesh, Nihal Sarin and R. Praggnananda.

The selection committee of the AICF has the most transparent selection methods. The selection criteria are declared well in advance, they are adhered to strictly, thereby eliminating all chances of favouritism or victimisation. Decades ago, too, there were fixed set of rigid selection rules which now have been replaced by another set of similar (equally rigid) rules. I myself believe more in the flexible methods such as the ones chosen by the erstwhile USSR. There is something unique about the sports field, there always is an element of uncertainty, something which can’t be covered by fixed rules. The selection process needs to be innovative, it’s not enough to be only transparent and fair. Let us now discuss the factors which affect the performance.

The first and the most important factor is ‘proper evaluation & assessment of relative playing strength of youngsters’. After looking at the composition of India 1 and India 2 teams in the men’s section, the World Champion Magnus Carlsen opined that the (11th seed) India 2 was stronger than the (2nd seed) India 1 team. Now that the results have shown how correct he was in his assessment, we need to try to develop similar insight in our minds, which can’t be achieved without doing away with our prejudices and dogmatic ways of thinking. Young champions, unlike more established ones, have a capacity of improving every day, which tends to make them under-rated in terms of ranking or rating. Therefore, we have to change our mindset of assessing players by paper records, which leaves no provision to assess on basis of potential. Another important factor is that youngsters are often more motivated to play for the country which can play a positive role in their performance.

Let us come to the second and equally important factor which applies specifically to Chess. In Chess, there are two major types of tournaments, Round Robin (all play all) tournaments and Swiss League tournaments. There is a vast difference in the nature of these types; the qualities required to excel in each of these types of tournaments are completely different. In Round Robin tournaments, the schedule of matches is known on the very first day. The Swiss League tournaments are always more challenging as they require more courage, fighting spirit, alertness and presence of mind. The players who restrict themselves to Round Robin tournaments often find that they have lost their risk-taking ability. The players playing Swiss League, on the other hand, never shy away from playing Round Robin or any other type of tournament. Since the Olympiad is a Swiss League event, it would have been advisable to have a different selection criterion.

The third important point is the ‘difference between individual tournaments and team tournaments. Most of the strongest Chess playing nations conduct a lot of strong team tournaments for their players whereas this factor seems to have been completely neglected by most of the other countries including India. A player’s temperament during team tournaments has to be different than that in an individual tournament. It is quite important for players to be able to adapt to the tournaments as per the type of the tournament. 59-year-old veteran Pia Cramling of Sweden winning the individual Gold medal on the top board at Mahabalipuram isn’t a chance factor but a success story of a well-trained mind. I see that very few Indians have mastered the technique of playing team tournaments with the right mindset and strategy.

The fourth factor is the ‘selection of coaches for the teams. This is an extremely sensitive issue as most of the players have their individual trainers who have nurtured the players for years. Nowadays there are lucrative incentives and awards for coaches of medal-winning teams and therefore many people are aspirants to become coaches of Indian teams during important tournaments. It is important to find out how comfortable the players are with these short-term coaches.

I have tried to cover a few points to ponder over for the readers. There are some more angles which need to be looked into as well but they are too technical and could find a place only in a Chess magazine. I leave it to the readers to judge the performance.

Pravin Thipsay, Arjuna Awardee and recipient of the highest Chess titles by FIDE — International Chess Grandmaster (for players) and FIDE Senior Trainer (for trainers).

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first published:August 13, 2022, 10:48 IST
last updated:August 13, 2022, 10:52 IST