After 11 rounds at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, the Indian contingent finished agonisingly close to a medal in both the Open and Women’s sections, finishing fourth and fifth, respectively. By way of comparison, the men had won a bronze in 2014, while the women had ended in tenth place.
However, although the podium finish in 2014 looks a better performance on paper, the men – represented by Pentala Harikrishna, SP Sethuraman, Baskaran Adhiban, Vidit Chandra Gujarathi and Karthikeyan Murali – dominated the Olympiad in a way no other Indian team has done before.
“We led for most part of the tournament and could have got a medal but for a few unexpected accidents along the way,” the Open team’s coach RB Ramesh told Firstpost. “Though we won bronze in the previous Olympiad, we didn't dominate the event like we did this time.” After the last round India were tied with Norway, losing out on bronze after Russia – the strongest team in the tournament – romped home against a much weaker opponent, Italy, to take the third spot.
By contrast, India faced the highly-rated Norway, whose team included world champion Magnus Carlsen. This match, in turn, was a product of “accidents”, fatigue, pressure and unfortunate illness plaguing the Indian contingent after a dream first-half of the tournament, when India was in first place after six of 11 rounds, with the gold in the men’s section very much in sight.
What happened from there onwards should be a subject of analysis for the Indian team ahead of the World team championship to be played next year. Being in the top six in the Olympiad in both categories means that both the men’s and women’s teams will participate.
Decisive loss to the US
The investigation must start with the seventh round clash with eventual champions, the United States, which fielded what is easily their best team ever at the Olympiad. Their “dream team” of Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Samuel Shankland featured three of the world’s top ten players, and handed the Indian men their first three defeats in the tournament, all in the course of one round, deflating India’s momentum.
India’s loss, given the ratings, was expected, but the tables could have been turned. Sethuraman was miles ahead of Shankland with black, and should have converted it into a win that would put pressure on the rest of the US team. In the same match, Harikrishna, who had a fantastic overall tournament and finished just shy of a medal in the individual category, missed an opportunity against Caruana, the eventual individual bronze-medallist.
Had these opportunities been converted, India’s win over the US would not only have meant an enormous upset, but would also have virtually cemented India’s chances of a medal and the team’s morale. Even a lower margin of defeat than 3.5-0.5 – with only Harikrishna drawing his game – would’ve ensured different tie-break scores. This in turn would have prevented a tight last round clash with Carlsen’s Norway, and India might have been pitted a weaker team.
But nerves got the better of Sethuraman and perhaps, momentarily, even of Harikrishna.
Illness plagues the Indian team
Vidit Santosh Gujarathi’s illness through the middle rounds did not help matters at all either, contributing to his loss to Wesley.
In the women’s half, coach Vishal Sareen revealed that Tania Sachdev was unwell, which puts into context the performance of the Indian board No. 2 in the middle rounds, when she lost three back-to-back games. “Tania was very sick in the last five days or so, and she played only because I forced her to. Considering that in any other event she would have withdrawn from the event itself, her guts under pressure was exemplary” Sareen told Firstpost.
Despite the illness, Sachdev put up strong performances in the later rounds, such as her win over Anna Zatonskih of the US in a game that lasted over six hours. Harika Dronavalli on board 1 was solid, although more was perhaps expected from her, especially in the last round when she agreed to a draw in a game where she had the edge, perhaps owing to the fact that Padmini Rout was a piece up in her game before losing the initiative.
Patchy performances from Dronavalli on board 1 and the setback to Sachdev’s health meant the pressure on Padmini Rout and Soumya Swaminathan was greater, leading to a finish just shy of the podium even after strong performances in the later rounds.
Fatigue and pressure
Another factor to keep in mind for the Indian team emerged later in the tournament: fatigue. After the fantastic performances in the early rounds, exhaustion was visible during the games in the later rounds, especially in the men’s team. Adhiban’s last round choices against his Norwegian opponent was proof of this.
Sethuraman’s flawed bishop-sack tactic from a position where he was marginally ahead spoke even more loudly of tiredness. The sacrifice, easily refuted, meant a game headed for a draw turned into a loss, and the match was drawn at 2-2 despite strong performances from Gujarathi and from Harikrishna, who defended doggedly for a draw against the world champion.
Padmini Rout’s display in the last round of the women’s section can be attributed to fatigue as well, as losses from an advantage as big as hers are rare at the international level. The same can be said of Sethuraman’s critical loss to Shankland, although the issue there was more of nerves. Perhaps an influx of experience from the likes of Vishy Anand or Surya Sekhar Ganguly could have proved the additional element India needed for a podium finish.
Positives for India
That being said, there emerged lots to praise from the youngsters, led by the older Harikrishna, who played his first Olympiad at age 14. Vidit Santosh Gujarathi’s performance, well above his rating, was a revelation, while Harikrishna’s impregnability against the best of the world on board 1 saw upsets as momentous as they were critical, especially the win against world championship challenger Sergey Karjakin.
Despite his misses in rounds 7 and 11, Sethuraman had a decent tournament as well, as did Adhiban. In the women’s draw Soumya Swaminathan produced a memorable performance, while Tania Sachdev’s resilience in the face of ill health would’ve surely been inspiring to her teammates.
A young and inexperienced Indian contingent punched well above its weight in a tournament that could well have propelled them into history. The future should be even brighter.
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