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Chess Olympiad: How Russia's loss has been India's gain

India will host this year's Chess Olympiad after FIDE banned Russia from hosting due to the Ukraine invasion. What does this mean for India?

Vidith Gujrathi, who led India to it's first ever gold medal at a Chess Olympiad in 2020.
Vidith Gujrathi, who led India to it's first ever gold medal at a Chess Olympiad in 2020. (Vidit Gujrathi/

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hess has always been seen as an analogy for war, but a real war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has sent the entire chess world into turmoil. FIDE, the sport’s highest officiating authority, revoked Russia’s rights to host the 2022 Chess Olympiad, scheduled to start in July, as well as the 93rd FIDE Congress, while Russia and Belarus have also been suspended from playing in the tournament. “FIDE can’t be neutral when somebody (Russia) is invading a sovereign country” said Grandmaster (GM) Nigel Short, a high ranking FIDE official after the announcement of the ban.

Matters have escalated further with the six-month ban imposed on Russian Grand Master and former World Title challenger Sergey Karjakin for his vocal support to Russia’s war. Karjakin has stated that he’s decided not to contest the ban as he regrets nothing about his actions, but the Kremlin and Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov have decided to intervene in the matter and contest the ban.

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As for his fellow Russian GMs, such nationalistic sentiments are hardly ubiquitous. "History has seen many Black Thursdays. But today is blacker than the others” tweeted Ian Nepomniachtchi, fellow Russian GM and World-Title Challenger. “Silence today made possible. #notowar” was tweeted by GM and eight-time Russian Chess Champion Peter Svidler. 

Chess is to Russia what cricket is to India, and the Kremlin’s move to intervene is being seen as Russia’s assertion of its soft power in the middle of war. The Chess Olympiad will bring together close to 200 countries in its 44th edition this year, and losing the hosting rights is a massive cultural blow for Russia.

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India is set to gain big at Russia’sexpense. The All India Chess Federation (AICF)has won the bid to host the Olympiad in Chennai with a $10 million guarantee, support from the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and the backing by former World Champion Vishwanathan Anand. This is the first time India will host the Olympiad, giving the Indian contingent, one of two gold-medal winners alongside Russia in the online Olympiad in 2020, its first ever chance to compete on home turf. 

“It is a very big tournament to host for India, and it is an honour. The crowd it will attract will be huge, and it will give exposure of the sport to a lot of young, talented players,” says GM Nihal Sarinone of the players very likely to represent India at the event. Chennai has previously played host to the World Championship match between Vishwanathan Anand and GM Magnus Carlsen in 2013, which Carlsen won. It is home to the largest pool of GMs in the country, including R. Praggnanandhaa and D. Gukesh, who are both future World-Championship potentials for India, alongside Sarin.

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Hosting the Olympiad can provide a massive impetus for the game. At a time when both the viewership and the talent pool have exploded in India, hosting the Olympiad will prove a boon for nurturing this happy trend. “Sports and culture have this incredible ability to boost an entire nation’s mood. Having gone through such a tough and painful time in the past couple years, I think the Olympiad can overall be a huge boost to the people’s mood” says GM Srinath Narayanan, one of the India’s coaches in previous Olympiads.

India’s medal chances at the Olympiad could also gain from Russia’s ban. The latter is home to the largest pool of GMs in the world. It fields one of the strongest teams in every Olympiad, and invariably features on the medal podium. They’ve been one of India’s principle rivals in past Olympiads, because of which the Indian contingent has narrowly missed out on a medal on several previous occasions.  

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However, the advantages and disadvantages of playing at home are not as clear in chess as it is in a sport like cricket. “The advantage is the ability to field multiple teams, and home cuisine and conditions. The disadvantages would be the expectation levels and the pressure arising from it,” says Narayanan. Sarin acknowledges that the expectation of adoring and knowledgeable crowd in Chennai will be high, but feels that “there is no home-field pressure as such in chess.” 

Politically, India’s diplomatic position regarding its stance on the Ukraine war has come under scrutiny. With regards to this situation, the implications of India’s bid for the Olympiad remain to be fully borne out. However, the opportunity it presents is one India would do well to take advantage of. 

Binit Priyaranjan is a freelance journalist, author and poet.

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