Both the Indian Men and Women did commendably in the penultimate round of the Chess Olympiad at Baku, Azerbaijan, by holding their fancied rivals to a draw, but may still fall just short of a podium finish as a tense last round awaits them on Tuesday. Harikrishna sprang the biggest upset of the entire mega event when he trounced the World Championship challenger, Sergey Karjakin. For the women, it was Tania Sachdev who rose to the occasion, upsetting Grandmaster Natalia Zhukova in a wild and tense encounter.
However, the point positions and pairings of other teams dictate that India's chances for a medal in the open category are remote in the logical course. With just the last round left, USA and Ukraine are in joint lead with 18 match points apiece, already guaranteed a medal each. They are followed by Russia on 16 who has the best chances for the bronze, after which a total of 7 countries including India are tied on 15 points.
However, all the top teams are playing much weaker rivals in the last round – USA takes on the 25th seeded Canada, Ukraine the 29th seeded Slovenia and Russia the 36th seeded Italy. India's hopes solely rest on beating 12th seeded Norway and Russia not being able to win their match, but that would be wishful thinking.
Indian women have a much better chance of bagging a medal. China leads the table with 18 match points, followed by Russia on 16. There six teams including India on 15 points, and most of the top teams will face each other in the final round. While China and Russia face off in a direct clash on the top table, India takes on USA who are seeded just a slot below them. Hence, if India wins the tough match on Tuesday, they stand good chances to win a medal.
Vidit Gujrathi and Sethuraman played extremely solid, never giving their higher rated rivals any chances through the game. Playing Ian Nepomniachtchi, who at a rating of 2740 is ranked 21st in the world, Gujrathi essayed the English opening and eliminated all risk in the position before slowly trying to push for an advantage in the endgame. He even refused to repeat the moves on move 30 but varied with a more aggressive option, creating a buzz. However, the position didn't have much juice left to play for more.
Sethuraman played completely different from his usual style against Alexander Grischuk, rated 2754 and ranked tenth in the world. Avoiding trademark sharp openings, he employed the quiet Hungarian Defence by transposition. In a slow manoeuvring game he defended solid to force a draw. A clear success of an opening surprise with Black pieces.
In both the men and women team for India, the results reflected who could hold their nerve in a tense encounter, and who went astray, even from reasonable positions, due to pressure. Facing the former World Champion and living legend Vladimir Kramnik, who at a mammoth 2808 rating is ranked fourth in the world, Adhiban seemed unlike his usual confident self. From the Black side of a Reti opening, he seemed to handle his pawns with a hint of pseudo-aggression, exchanging them when he could have held the tension and pushing them up when he needed to hold them back. His position deteriorated slowly and Kramnik outplayed him in a clear-cut manner. It seemed more of Adhiban's loss than Kramnik's gain.
But if anyone in that tournament hall showed quiet confidence and aggression, it was Pentala Harikrishna. Facing Karjakin, who is rated 2769 at ninth in the world, and who is set to challenge Magnus Carlsen later this year for the title of world champion, Hari conducted the game as any other. From the White side of a Guico Piano, he attained a slight edge by move 21, and started applying pressure by threatening to invade the kingside with his Knights. An uncharacteristic blunder by Karjakin, who surprisingly cracked under pressure enabled Hari to win the exchange, and he converted confidently in 44 moves.
In the women's draw, though Dronavalli Harika is a solid presence for India, her insipid opening choice on the top board with White pieces gave the impression she wanted to eliminate any kind of risk against fellow Grandmaster Anna Muzychuk of Ukraine. Though she ended the game in a draw against an equally strong player, the strategy - if any - behind such a conduction was surprising, as all her team mates faced comparatively stronger rivals on paper on the other boards.
However, playing against her younger sister Grandmaster Mariya Muzychuk, Padmini Rout boldly adopted the French defence with Black and showed guts in adopting a complicated and topical line. In a Queen-less middlegame, Padmini even seemed to hold a slight edge, but the game petered out to a draw.
Comparatively, the Indian bottom boards were under most of the pressure, and Soumya Swaminathan simply went astray to taste her first defeat. From the Black side of a Slav Meran, Soumya seemed to have a passive but defendable position in the middlegame against former Women's World Champion and Grandmaster Anna Ushenina. After a series of mutual mistakes which showed the state of their nerves, Soumya made a crucial calculation error on the 21st move, and landed into a losing position soon.
Tania Sachdev was once again involed in a topsy-turvy game with White pieces on the third board against Zhukova. From the white side of a sharp Modern Benoni, Tania seemed to tease danger, keeping her King in the centre in the middlegame. However, a wrong combination by her opponent gave Tania initiative in an imbalanced position, and she kept steady nerves to convert her advantage in a lengthy endgame, thus enabling India parity against the much stronger Ukraine.
Tuesday will be the day fans all over India are bound to watch the games relayed live, particularly the men's section, where Harikrishna will be up against the best of the challenge one can face – the World Champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway on the top board! He also stands a chance to win an individual medal in case of a good result.