It was an important face off between India and Armenia in the online Chess Olympiad last week and Viswanathan Anand was planning for an unusual, though unsurprising, contingency in Chennai: a scheduled power cut.
Intermittent power supply could seriously disrupt the nation's chances at the Chess Olympiad, one of the prestigious tournaments that was adopting an inclusive approach to mix juniors with the seasoned players this year. In one of the earlier games in the same tournament, India had had an experience of poor Internet and unreliable power infrastructure disrupting the match, leading Anand and his team to explore ways to ensure there were no hassles during the game.
Little did Anand know that efforts by the team's Vice-Captain Srinath Narayanan activating the bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu could truncate a scheduled power cut, something that is executed rain or shine with inexorable firmness in these parts of the world. Anand's wife Aruna Anand said: "Anand knew that there was going to be scheduled maintenance on Friday. So, we already decided to keep the laptops fully charged and just depend on Mobile Internet, so that we circumvent the whole electricity issue. In fact, we had two mobile internet modems ready, so that we are using both, and there was a Plan B and Plan C in place. But Srinath [Narayanan] decided to go one step further and contacted TNEB and requested them if the scheduled maintenance work could be finished by 3PM so that Anand could play without any issue… We didn't know it was scheduled maintenance. We got this on our residence Whatsapp group.."
With the pandemic forcing most human activities online, the 64-square mind game was probably one of the quickest to adapt to the Web, given how extensively platforms such as Chess.com are used. But, a completely online tournament was a totally different deal altogether.
"So, it was just taking a step further by having chess tournaments online, and there have been many world-class events happening online, which otherwise would have happened in physical places. Anand has also taken part in many tournaments in the online format. Taking this one step further is the Chess Olympiad which has a very, very rich history. It is like the Olympics in chess," Aruna said.
The challenge with the online tournament is the lack of power and connectivity, Aruna said. "Already in one of the pre-quarters, which was against Mongolia, India had an issue on two boards where we lost the electricity, and because of that we had to lose the game because any kind of disconnection means you could lose the game - you really can't log back in immediately. There were many games that were decided, sometimes a bit unjustly, because of disconnection at your side. Keeping this in mind, the team captain was very aware," she added.
But two days later, a global internet power outage led to India filing an appeal, and ending up as joint winners along with Russia. It was after a global Internet outage, and the Indian team made a representation with the Appeals Committee of the tournament's administrators. India's victory on the Chess Olympiad was scripted amid tremendous drama, underscoring how a mind game could rouse such passions in the country.
As for Anand, who has enthusiastically taken to the online format, nothing beats the viscerality of a physical game of chess, says his wife. "I think he still prefers the old style, where you meet your colleagues and there is a social feeling to a chess tournament. You get to see your opponent's body language. All that is definitely missing in online chess," she added.