"The feeling is yet to sink in", said an ecstatic Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi, captain of the gold medal winning team at the World Chess Federation's Online Chess Olympiad. Twenty-five-year-old Gujrathi, along with his vice captain Srinath Narayanan, were speaking at an online press interaction post the historic win, along with members of the Indian team, including world champion Viswanathan Anand and World Rapid Champion Koneru Humpy.
The delight over having clinched the first position, albeit jointly with Russia, was evident on the faces of the members of the Indian team, who were present at the online interaction.
Senior members of the squad underlined that the key to doing well in this edition was the top quality junior players India now has. The players hailed the decisions made by Gujrathi and his deputy about which player would be pitted against each of the opponent and with which colour, taking a lot of pressure off the back of players. The duo prepared the juniors for the tournament, getting them to compete in some matches before the Olympiad.
Vice captain Narayanan had got in touch with power secretaries of various states to ensure that electricity was not cut during match times of all team members—something which shocked both Anand and Humpy, who were informed by respective electricity board officials that they needn't worry about load shedding in their houses during the time matches were on. Humpy had an assistant engineer and linesman stationed outside her house by the electricity board during her matches!
The Indian captain likened the win to Indian cricket team's 1983 World Cup victory. "That win changed how sports was looked at, and when it comes to chess, this could be one of those moments.”
Gujrathi, who praised the team, saying everyone was highly motivated and worked very hard to win the medal, added, “There were some critical moments during the tournament. Everything rested on Humpy's shoulders. She had to play the Armageddon (a penalty shoot-out or a tie breaker) and she took the responsibility on herself without hesitation."
This is India's finest performance in the tournament till date. In 2014, India won the bronze in the Open section while the women's team's best performance was a fourth place in the 2012 edition.
Anand hailed the mixed team format chosen for the Olympiad by FIDE (the international chess federation), played online for the first time due to COVID-19. Each team consisted of six players, in a mixed format with a minimum of three female players and two junior players. Specifically, each team had to include at least one player U-20, at least two women, and at least one girl U-20. Each team was allowed up to six reserves, plus a team captain.
"I was very happy when the format of the Olympiad was announced. It allowed India to show all its strength. Whenever I looked around during the tournament, someone or the other from the team had won. The whole team contributed; that's what made this very, very special gold medal to add to my cabinet. I hope especially youngsters, when they go on to achieve much more in their careers, look back at this moment as a very special one. This is the first time we have won a gold medal."
A beaming Humpy described the victory as "a golden moment for Indian chess.” “ This will motivate many youngsters to take up chess. When we went for Olympiads earlier, we used to have discussions about winning a medal, I am happy we could," she said.
Grandmaster P. Harikrishna, joining in from his base in Poland, said, "When the format was announced, I was quite certain that it is a big advantage for India as we have amazing juniors."
Woman Grandmaster Harika Dronavalli said, "This is a very special moment in my career. Earlier times, we had reached fourth and fifth positions, and I would discuss with other team members about the day we would be on the podium."
Anand said FIDE's decision to declare India joint winners was the right one despite criticism from Russian quarters. FIDE decided in India's favour after India filed an appeal. Nihal Sarin and Divya Deshmukh lost connection to their games in the second round due to a server crash at host platform. "We did nothing wrong. We were ready for any decision by FIDE. The connection was lost not due to our fault. We fully deserve the result. We were even ready to play two or six games again if FIDE asked us to."
Speaking about her crucial Armageddon match, Humpy said she was prepared for it. "Both Vidith and Srinath had prepared me well. We had four days to prepare before the knockouts started. I was very confident as I had won my world rapid title with this."
Both Humpy and Anand, however, admitted that playing a tournament of this magnitude online was a different experience for both of them. "I had never dreamt I would play a competition online. I always had fear of online chess. I am more comfortable playing over the board. This pandemic has forced us to play online," admitted Humpy.
Anand, the senior-most player in the team, termed the experience strange."I have played many times online for fun, but playing online for such high stakes has taken some getting used to. It felt very strange."