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India and Russia declared joint winners of the Chess Olympiad

India won its first ever gold at the Chess Olympiad, but shared the top spot with Russia after internet failure hit the final round

The Indian team won gold for the first time in a chess Olympiad  (Photo: International Chess Federation)
The Indian team won gold for the first time in a chess Olympiad (Photo: International Chess Federation)

The India team at the FIDE Online Olympiad created history on 30 August by winning its first ever gold. However, in another first, this was shared with Russia, following an internet failure that affected two games.

Russia were favourites to win. India, their opponent in the finals and seeded seventh, had had a dream run at the Olympiad until then. Teenage grandmasters (GM) Nihal Sarin and R Praggnanandhaa led them to the quarterfinals; Koneru Humpy, women’s chess #2, put up a steely performance at a tie-breaker match to seal a berth in the finals. The Indian team boasted of some of the best minds in world chess, including Anand, team captain Vidit Gujrathi and Pentala Harikrishna. Yet, defeating Russia seemed a tall order.

In the first round, India managed to hold them to a draw. The second one proved trickier. Koneru Humpy lost her game; Anand, Gujrathi and Harika Dronavalli drew theirs, Sarin seemed headed the same way. It now came down to Divya Deshmukh to give India its first-ever shot at an Olympiad gold. Deshmukh, 14, soldiered on. With a little over a minute left on the clock, she had cornered her opponent's black king with a battery of pawns, knights and a bishop. Her second bishop was moving menacingly, zig-zagging from files ‘F’ to ‘D’, swooping in for the kill on black’s king-side.

That was the exact moment the servers crashed.

It was chaos for the next few minutes. International Chess Federation (FIDE) announced that Sarin and Deshmukh had lost on time. Team India lodged an official appeal. It seemed like there was a global internet outage, if only for a few seconds. FIDE finally said it would review its decision. An agonizing 42 minutes later, it had reached a decision. India and Russia were declared the joint winners. It would be a first-ever gold for India, and the first-ever shared top-spot for the chess Olympiad.

Indian netizens were ecstatic. ‘#ChessOlympiad’ was among the top five trends on Indian Twitter through the evening, with prime minister Narendra Modi among those congratulating the team. Gujrathi had bemoaned the lack of support from the Indian government and the All India Chess Federation (AICF) in preparing for the tournament in an interview with Mint last week. “It’s a sad state to be in," he’d said.

Internet problems have been a regular fixture of the tournament. In the first few rounds, India had lost two matches due to faulty internet connections and electricity blackouts. The AICF had then offered to host the players in five-star hotels and pick up the tab. But the players preferred to stay put at their homes and beef-up their internet connections and electricity back-ups.

The FIDE verdict for joint-winners has no precedent. “I don’t think gold medal has been shared anytime," says Praveen Thipsay, a chess GM from Mumbai. But, he adds, it is a definite improvement from the system a few years ago: “If there was a tie earlier, even a coin toss has been considered."

Despite the celebrations, some were baffled at the results. After all, couldn’t the players have a rematch? Couldn’t they be allowed to continue from the point they had left?

“I think it was a fair decision taking into account in two remaining position Indians were poised for 1.5 [points]," explained Emil Sutovsky, director-general of FIDE on the YouTube channel of Samay Raina, a stand-up comic who ran a popular live-stream of the tournament. “Nihal was drawing and Deshmukh was winning... I understand it’s in a way anti-climactic but it’s clearly the best recourse available."

The FIDE’s decision could potentially open up a can of worms. In one of their quarter-final losses against India, Armenia had blamed internet problems from the organizer,’s end. The FIDE didn’t allow a re-play then. Spurned, Armenia refused to play the second round. India, winners of the first round, automatically qualified for the semi-finals.

“I have a feeling Armenia will release a statement on this in a couple of days," says Thipsay. “They might feel injustice has been done to them. But it’s also possible that FIDE felt that they were too rigid at the time, and this is a time to correct that."

The results will likely boost the profile of chess in India. Around 60,000 had tuned in to Raina’s live-stream for the finals, an unusually large number for an otherwise quiet, staid game. Following the win, industrialist Anand Mahindra too tweeted that he be “happy to talk" about supporting the first-ever Indian Chess League, on the lines of the Indian Premier League. The AICF secretary Bharat Singh Chau had earlier told Mint that it had considered and dismissed setting up the league “due to some issues".

Following the win, Team India looked ecstatic, if a bit exhausted. On Raina’s live-stream, Gujrathi confessed he would take some time to process the victory, given the stress he was under. Deshmukh, the hero of the evening, looked confounded when asked how she’d be celebrating. “I’m going to sleep," she said. “For a week."

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