The Chess Olympiad – Then and Now

The Chess Olympiad, a biannual event, is one of the major events in the world of sports, attracting more than 150 countries and around 3,000 athletes and officials. The first ever Chess Olympiad took place in France in 1924. Initially it started with the participation of 16 countries.

India is where the game of Chess originated as Chaturanga thousands of years ago. From the very origin of our beautiful game to the current global online chess phenomenon, India has contributed significantly to the World of Chess. Historical records show that the 8×8 chessboard dates from the days of Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Chess has never been a part of the Olympics, though this can be considered as a blessing in disguise for the Chess fans, they can enjoy the festival exclusively without being distracted by any other sport. 

We have this glorious opportunity to conduct such an enormous event involving various Chess playing countries. This is the first time Viswanathan Anand the 5-time World Champion and the legend who brought us back on the Chess map in the 1990s will be a mentor for the team, even though not directly participating as a player. This time it will be held in Mahabalipuram which is a very historic coastal town right next to the hometown and Chess hub of India, Chennai.

Chess- A saga

Chess as we all know is a solo game, but the Olympiad is a team event! 

Let’s discuss what is different in a team tournament as opposed to an individual game.

Each team consists of a certain number of players and their individual scores are added cumulatively to get the team score. In the past Chess Olympiad had the participation of 4 main players plus two reserves in men. For Women it consisted of 3 main players and one reserve. This was the rule until the 2006 Olympiad. In 2008, it was changed to 5 players for both sections. This meant that there were 4 players plus one reserve player for both sections to make it uniform. So assuming 4 players from a country play against the opponent, the score of at least 2.5 for any team wins that round for that team. If it is 2-2 it is considered as a draw. This way in a total of 13 rounds usually the tallies are added up and the winner is decided.

Our first player historically in the Olympiad was legend Sultan Khan who played for Britain before India got its independence! He has played several times in the Olympiad and did extremely well. In the modern times I can recall that India had a wonderful performance in the year 2000 in Istanbul when India finished 8th without Anand participating that time. The team consisted of Barua, Thipsay and Prasad who were experienced players along with Sasikiran, Kunte, Harikrishna who were the youngsters! It was a phenomenal finish when the Indian team was not even taken seriously to have any contention. 

If we come to the medal finishes, 2014 was the first time we won a bronze. Our team members were Sasikiran, Negi, Adhiban, Sethuraman and Lalith Babu. We made a 4-0 finish against Uzbekistan in the last round and even finished ahead of teams such as Russia, USA and Armenia. China got its first Gold, Hungary won silver and India won the Bronze then.

Parimarjan Negi – Rustam Kasimdzhanov 41st Olympiad Norway 2014

A screenshot of a game

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This is a position from the game Negi versus the former World Champion Kasimdzhanov after Black’s 52nd move. It was an important game as India needed a win. The position is drawn even though White is up by two pawns. Since he cannot create a f-passer, he will not be able to win the game. Here Black needs to keep the Rook on the same rank of the f-pawn of White and then keep shuttling his King between g7 and h7.

A screenshot of a game

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White kept persisting and then here we reach the above position after White’s 65th move. Perhaps Time Pressure was also kicking in. Here instead of playing 65…Kh7, Black erred with 65…Ra1? now White won the game after 66.Kb6 Rb1+ 67. Kc6 Rc1+ 68. Kd6 Rd1+ 69.Ke6 and White’s King marches and either wins the g-pawn or forces an exchange of Rooks and gets a King and pawn endgame as for example after 69…Ra1 70.Rd8  and White wins.

Bronze medal- 2014

Fast forward a couple of years, in 2016 at the Olympiad in Baku. India produced an incredible performance remaining on top tables throughout the event. They beat strong teams like Azerbaijan, Ukraine, England, Netherlands and drew against Russia and lost to the USA. Perhaps not being able to beat a slightly weaker (relatively) Norway in the final round meant that we had to very narrowly settle for fourth place instead of a medal.  Our Team members consisted of Harikrishna, Adhiban, Vidit, Sethuraman and Karthikeyan Murali.

Pentala Harikrishna - Sergey Karjakin 42nd Olympiad Azerbaijan 2016

Pentala Harikrishna – Sergey Karjakin 42nd Olympiad Azerbaijan 2016

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This is a game between our board’s  number one player Harikrishna and the then World Championship challenger Karjakin from Russia, Hari continued with the tactics 27.Nhf6+! and won material and the game subsequently.

Fast forward to the year 2020, the year of the hitherto unseen pandemic, the Chess world came to a screeching halt. So, for the very first time FIDE experimented with the idea of holding an Olympiad online! This meant that the time control was rapid, and everyone played from their homes with some strict supervision of anti-cheating measures using both algorithms and the standard cameras. There were a couple of unfortunate issues with the connection problems which led Armenia to lose to India in the Quarterfinals. In the finals there was an anticlimax with many players in the Indian team facing connection issues, but it came to be known later that there was a worldwide internet outage and the unfinished match was declared to be a tie for first place between India and Russia who both shared the Gold. Despite this weird ending, this was the first time India had won a Gold for the team in the Olympiad albeit only in an internet competition.

Gold Medal winning Indian team in 2020

Highlights of Indian performance over the years

CountryYearPositionOlympiad Edition

This leads us to the present-day Olympiad which India is soon to host in a few weeks! There has been a grand celebration for this event and for Chess in general. There is an Olympic type Torch relay going on in the country even as I write these lines! Being the host nation India is fielding two teams in both Men and Women. These are the team members:-

S. No.MenWomen
1Harikrishna, Vidit, Sasikaran, S.L. Narayan and Arjun Erigasi.Humpy, Harika, Vaishali, Bhakti Kulkarni and Tania Sachdev.
2Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh, Nihal Sarin, Raunak Sadhwani and Adhiban.Soumya Swaminathan, Divya Deshmukh, Padmini, Mary Ann Gomes and Vantika Agarwal.
3Ganguly, Karthikeyan Murali, Abhijeet Gupta, Sethuraman and Abhimanyu Puranik.

At the time of writing, India had just announced the third team in the men’s section. As the total number of participating teams were 187 and an odd number would mean that there would be a team left with a bye each round. Hence the organizing federation has the right to enter a third team. 

The time is ripe for both our Men to repeat the past medal winning performances and Women to aim for a medal finish for the first time this year. We have the strength and talent to do so and let us also hope that the fortune also favors us in the quest for the podium finishes. In a historic location, let us wish our Indian teams to clinch a historical finish too.

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