Viswanathan Anand had won almost everything chess has to offer: five world titles, six chess Oscars and multiple editions of many tournaments. But an Olympiad team medal had eluded him. That changed on Sunday when Anand helped India emerge joint-winners with Russia in the Online Chess Olympiad.
In this interview, Anand said he hoped the win would spark another revolution in the sport. Edited excerpts:
People are saying there is no reason to go overboard as this was only an online event.
First of all, we have never won an Olympic title so that is a new development. It shows exactly what I have been saying, the changed format allowed us to showcase the talent we have at junior level and our women players. We were able to field such a good team and for me, it is a very nice addition to my trophy cabinet, this gold. I would say after all the world championships it was very nice to win a team event.
But chess is an individual sport so how important was this title?
This event allowed you to showcase what you have as a country, display all the strength you have. This was the most balanced Olympics (team) for us because every board was able to contribute. India was dangerous to other teams on every board, you never know which board (there were six) was going to perform. I had the feeling that the team carried me through a lot of crucial matches. The team atmosphere was cheerful; we all had these internet calls in the evening and chat for a while and it’s been forever since we had the whole team at one location. So, at a social level it was probably one of the most entertaining events that I have taken part in.
Will it work out for chess like winning the 1983 World Cup did for Indian cricket?
That parallel has come up and yes, why not. I hope this will be a stepping point for the youngsters.
What do you think about FIDE’s (the world chess body) decision to declare joint-winners? This is causing lot of controversy with Russian players like Ian Nepomniachtchi and Alexandra Kosteniuk making snide remarks.
What was the alternative? As far as I know, India was ready for anything: to play further matches, to play two games, play three, play six. FIDE took what I think is a fair decision. This would not be the last disconnection in online chess and there will have to be a solution for these situations.
The Indian team also faced issues with internet in previous rounds…
Yeah, but in this particular one everyone had (an issue). During the three-day break (between the preliminary rounds, in which India had to forfeit a game against Mongolia, to the playoffs) the team was obsessed (with the internet issue). I got three connections and I even did a demo where I yanked out my ethernet cable to see how quickly the connection is restored from the mobile, it took 10 seconds. So before matches, I would put the mobile connection first and the ethernet as a backup while others were investing in channel-bonding software where you can put multiple internet connections and use them as they were one.
In the quarter-final against Armenia too there was this problem.
Of course, it was not Armenia’s fault and we should have played the return match with them but both in the Nations Cup and here, they are following the policy that if you lose connectivity it’s your responsibility. Even the (Magnus Carlsen) Tour was doing that. I simply don’t know what happened at Armenia’s end but here very quickly it was established that it could not be our fault because fans were getting disconnected and there was a global level problem (with the server).
You have said the biggest takeaway from this Olympiad was the contribution of the youngsters. Who was the best of the lot?
A: I can’t single out one. In the group stages, Vantika (Agarwal), Vaishali, Aravindh (Chithambaram) were winning crucial matches. Later, Harika saved us one day and then another day, Humpy saved us. Then, Humpy saved us in the semi-finals (against Poland), Pragg (R Praggnanandhaa) and Divya (Deshmukh) saved us by winning the group stage and reducing the number of matches we had to play (India beat favourites China to top the group and didn’t have to play the pre-quarters). So, you know everyone managed to kick-in at some point. Vidit (Gujarathi) and Hari (Pentala Harikrishna) also won some crucial matches in the group stage.
Do you think there is scope for continuing online events after normality returns?
I think online events will be with us, the proportion between offline and online will have to be decided.
This gold is an indicator of the strides chess has made in the last three decades in India, from one GM in 1988 to over 65 now. What do you think are the major factors behind this?
Many things. First of all, simply the number of youngsters that take up the sport — they are driving the sport — and really that is showing at all levels. It is a nice thing that it’s for both boys and girls as we showed in this team. I hope that we build on this for the next few years and decades.
Though we have had great success at youth and age-group level, there has not been another senior world champion.
I simply hope that this happens (from now onwards). Sometimes an event like this sparks something and I hope that many of the youngsters would be inspired by this result. This result got lot of attention and I hope that as a result the new generation will be inspired.
The last few events have not been good for you, the Legends of Chess event in particular. Was it because of the unpredictability of rapid chess?
I don’t know. Right now I am just happy that this event went well. I am just going to celebrate this.