Strange LAN: How the internet gave (and almost took away) India its Chess Olympiad gold

The internet that made it possible for Chess to carry on in these unprecedented times, injected a new life in the sport during the lockdown and even ushered in a trusted fan base almost proved to be the Indian team’s undoing on Sunday.

Vaibhav Shah September 01, 2020 10:37:19 IST
Strange LAN: How the internet gave (and almost took away) India its Chess Olympiad gold

Frantic calls were made to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board to hold up maintenance work in a corner of Chennai near Viswanathan Anand’s house.

In Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada, an assistant engineer and a linesman were stationed outside Koneru Humpy’s residence until her online matches would finish.

Fans helped Vidit Gujrathi set up two more internet connections as a failsafe mechanism to ensure the Indian captain’s connection remained stable after he lost due to the internet snag in a group game against Mongolia.

Another fan shared how multiple internet connections could be used to make a solid Virtual Private Network (VPN) that would hold through the duration of a match, vital information that was relayed to vice-captain Srinath Narayanan, via Vidit and subsequently to the entire team.

IAS officers helped GrandMasters reach out to officials across several states to ensure stable connections for players scattered across the country.

These measures may seem extraordinary, but being fussy has led to India winning their maiden Chess Olympiad gold (which they will share with Russia).

Cricketers fret about pitches. Footballers worry about the raucous fans of opposing teams. Shuttlers factor in the drift before tournaments. Tennis stars who do well on clay may have woeful records on grass or hard courts.

But for a chess player, the sport has forever been a duel of wits with the person across the board, with little else being a factor.

Strange LAN How the internet gave and almost took away India its Chess Olympiad gold

The King: Viswanathan Anand has been the flag bearer of Indian chess for over three decades and is still going strong. AFP

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing chess players to compete from their home, they have had to cede a bit of control to their internet connections.

The internet that allowed the sport to carry on in these unprecedented times, injected a new life into the sport during the lockdown, and even ushered in a promising Indian fan base almost proved to be the Indian team’s undoing on Sunday.

“I can't remember whether it was the quarters or the semis... but there was a power cut in this part of Chennai for maintenance work,” Anand told the press on Monday. “They would cut power from nine in the morning to five in the evening. I was using two connections, one through internet cable and the other one mobile (wireless).

“The catch is when the power is restored, the problem arises because they switch off the generator. During that brief moment of switching, I could lose the internet and would lose 10-15 seconds in reconnecting. The power was supposed to come back halfway through the first game and I was planning for that.” explained the five-time world champion, who in a career spanning three decades, has seen it all.

But the pandemic-enforced lockdown has nudged everyone out of their comfort zones. Anand was concerned about losing his internet during a game. But a phone call from Srinath, laid his concerns to rest.

“Srinath had spoken to TNEB and they had agreed to restore power to our building three hours early and they promised not to cut it till the final.”

Now able to see the lighter side of the situation, Anand said members of his apartment building in Chennai had become fans of Srinath.

“Srinath, you have a lot of fans in my apartment building because we got our power back three hours early,” Anand revealed in an online press conference where all 13 members of the team had assembled in tiny rectangles over a Zoom call to discuss the past few days spent over 64 squares.

It wasn’t just officials in Tamil Nadu that got calls for help. Breaking into a laugh, Koneru Humpy revealed, “Srinath did the same thing in Andhra. An assistant engineer and a linesman were sitting downstairs till my game had ended and that was the story of every day till the final. Srinath made all the arrangements to ensure India wins the gold.”

In the first-ever online Chess Olympiad, the internet both helped and hampered India’s march to the final.

In Round 6 of Pool A against Mongolia, India captain Vidit, and Humpy’s internet disconnection saw India drop two crucial points which resulted in a 3-3 tie. It was a match that the Indians started as favourites, and the tied result could have potentially affected their chances. Whereas in the quarter-finals against Armenia, where India won the first round 3.5-2.5, the Armenians appealed that a move from Haik Martirosyan on board number five against Nihal Sarin wasn't registered by the system. Despite Armenia claiming there were no issues with their internet, the appeals review committee rejected their plea following which Armenia defaulted the second round.

India’s board number four, Harika Dronavalli said, “The game against Mongolia cautioned us. In fact, in a way, it (internet failure) happened for our own good. We had a break of four days (before the quarter-finals) wherein all of us started taking extra precautions.”

“Srinath got some ideas to get a Speedify app (An app that allows users to use multiple internet connections all at once) and get other connections together and it worked out perfectly fine. I think the initial hiccup followed by the break gave us the opportunity to build the infrastructure correctly for the knockout stages.”

Not one to hog all the credit himself, Srinath was quick to clarify that he wasn’t the only one troubleshooting. In fact, it was the larger community of fans, officials, and many such individuals who helped India achieve the top honour.

“The Speedify idea was suggested by a fan to Vidit,” Srinath revealed. “In most of these cases, I helped only with the execution part. Similarly we had a lot of people from the bureaucracy helping us. Whenever we approached any IAS officer, he would help us contact the relevant authorities, for example, the power secretary of Andhra Pradesh or any state, we could reach Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu etc, we were able to ensure electricity was available across the country. The only place we didn’t have control over was in Prague but there were no electricity issues in Prague. So a lot of people were united in this quest to make India win the gold and many helped us behind the scenes, this was just one such instance.”

Electricity might not have been a problem in Prague, but P Harikrishna, who is based in the Czech Republic capital, had a different challenge. He had to shuttle from his new house to the old one as internet connection was yet to be set up in his new home.

Vidit, too, shared how the number of internet connections increased in his house and how his supporters helped him with the technicalities of setting up an internet connection.

“Before the start of the tournament, I had only one internet connection. By the time the Olympiad ended, I had three connections. A lot of fans helped me set up the internet connection right before the tournament,” India’s first Olympiad-winning captain said.

Strange LAN How the internet gave and almost took away India its Chess Olympiad gold

Vidit Gujrathi likens India's Olympiad gold to 1983 World Cup win in Cricket. Image Credit: David Llada

Online euphoria

Anand’s ‘We are the champions!!’ tweet was retweeted over 17,000 times in the first 24 hours. Vidit partied with his 83k subscribers on YouTube. Harikrishna managed to engage in some over the board chess on the same evening after winning the gold medal.

Harika uploaded a photograph of herself with a serene backdrop enjoying a well-deserved break after 10 days of manic chess.

Vantika Agarwal joined Twitter overnight and had more than 1000 followers. A man boy of few words, sometimes none, Nihal Sarin, managed to tweet twice (albeit one of the two tweets just read ‘Happy’, while the other was, ‘That was a fun ride!’), R Praggnanandhaa even had his leg pulled by GrandMaster Surya Sekhar Ganguly on social media threatening to leak some of his (presumably embarrassing) photos online.

There are doubts that Divya Deshmukh, who expressed her wish to simply sleep through the next week after winning the Olympiad final, has had any shut-eye at all, as she revels in the memories (or as she puts it ‘lessons’) of a lifetime.

Chithambaram Aravindh, Bhakti Kulkarni, R Vaishali, and Humpy might not have taken to Twitter, but were all present on the Zoom call for the press address arranged on Monday, which incidentally, as the players revealed, was the first time all of the team members were on a call together.

Wading through all these odds and more, when FIDE eventually announced India as joint winners of the first-ever online Olympiad alongside Russia, the Prime Minister, President, various cabinet ministers, sporting icons, commentators and even business tycoons joined in with the scores of fans over social media in celebrating India’s first-ever gold medal in the competition.

‘Best social event’

As most, if not all, aspects of life, have been brought to a grinding halt due to the spread of COVID-19, chess remains an anomaly. Chess thrived and even saw a surge in its popularity, especially in India.

"It is an amazing feeling to win a gold for India. These are the moments that we will always remember," Vidit reflected on Monday. The Indian skipper went on to liken the Olympiad victory to India's first World Cup win in cricket.

Having added another honour in his trophy-laden cabinet, Anand called the Olympiad gold a “special win and a magical moment”

“This is a very special gold for me to add to my cabinet and I hope especially for the youngsters that whatever they go on to achieve in their careers they look back at this moment as a very special one. It is the first time we have won gold and that's simply a magical moment.

“I really like the sensation and the ambiance of winning it as a part of the team. Somehow, getting together with a lot of chess players and feeling that we are fighting for a common cause is very inspiring, especially during the time of a pandemic this was the best social event that I had for quite some time,” said India’s board number one.

Of Armageddons and dreams

Anand also shed light on how as soon as the format of the Olympiad was announced he was confident of India’s chances as the Indian juniors and the women’s field was as strong as any country participating in the event.

“I was very happy when the format for this Olympiad was announced because I really liked the idea of having everyone together, right from juniors being a part of one team. We could show all the strength that India has and I thought (before the event started) this might be a good Olympiad for us. Of course, it went like a dream.”

However, during the dream run, one of the most tense situations arrived during the semi-finals of the tournament when India lost the first round 4-2 and delivered on-demand to take the second round 4.5-1.5, forcing the match into a tie-break, where the officials chose the Women’s category to decide the eventual result of the match via an Armageddon.

Humpy stepped up. She played with the black pieces and a one-minute handicap. Needing only a draw to seal India’s place in the final, she did something even better - she won.

“I was very well prepared to play the Armageddon match. Both Srinath and Vidit had mentally prepared me to go for it. Before the knockout format started, the team was strategising regarding which player would be suited for Armageddon in each category,” the World Rapid champion said.

Strange LAN How the internet gave and almost took away India its Chess Olympiad gold

Nerves of steel: The star of the Armageddon, Koneru Humpy, delivered under pressure by defeating Poland's Monika Socko in the semi-final of the Chess Olympiad. Getty/File image

“When Vidit and Srinath asked me if I was willing to play the tie-break, I was very confident of playing that (Armageddon), because I had won my World Rapid title (in 2019) playing the same format. I also had some good memories of winning the Armageddon, back in 2008 in the Asian Indoor Games.

“But after the loss in the first set, it was a difficult situation in the second round. Winning in that round was mentally more difficult for me than playing in the tie break. But, that is where all of us, Anand, Vidit, Harika, and myself, registered victories and it was clear that we were dominating Poland. Once the Armageddon started, nothing ran into my mind apart from the game. I was playing with the black, so I was very keen not to lose the game.”

Winning the tight Armageddon in the semi-finals of an Olympiad with the hopes of the entire team hinging on your shoulders can be a daunting task in more than one way. However, for the 33-year-old Humpy, coming to terms with playing online was a challenge in itself. To do it after taking a two-year hiatus from the sport between 2016 and 2018 and climbing back to the top is certainly a fairytale, one that has had its climax scripted at the height of a pandemic.

“I had no dreams of playing online chess because I feared playing online,” she revealed. “I never believed in myself that I am good enough in these technical things and I am more comfortable playing over the board. But this pandemic has forced us to play online chess. When I played women's speed chess I was very hesitant while accepting the invitation but once I took part, I gradually got used to it. Towards the end of the event, I was comfortable playing online. That event helped me a lot during the Online Chess Olympiad. It is a completely different experience for me but I am getting used to it.”

‘Getting used to...’ has been a common central theme across the globe for quite some time now.

Indian chess’ original superstar, Anand, hopes the Olympiad gold is the start of many things for India.

While the young players might not be erudite with their words just yet, it was their play that was at the forefront of India’s win.

The supporters’ involvement has added the missing piece to the jigsaw as the 25-year-old leader from Nashik considers the Olympiad victory as a potential watershed moment for chess, comparing it to the moment that arguably changed the landscape for cricket in India and making it the most popular sport in the country.

"Winning the 1983 World Cup changed how cricket was looked at and I feel this (winning the Olympiad gold) could be one of those moments that could change the sport forever," Vidit said.

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