Drama and intrigue: How India won a historic Chess Olympiad gold

Anand sat out the first round, and drew with world no.4 Ian Nepomniachtchi in the second. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The last time India medaled at the Tromso chess Olympiad six years ago, the team had a quiet, inconspicuous touchdown at the New Delhi airport. With the pandemic forcing the 163-nation event online this year and chess ringing in steady, large viewing numbers in India through the lockdown, the Olympiad found its way into national conversation and trending Twitter hashtags over the weekend. It was the first time ever that India made the final of the event.

There was drama befitting the occasion too.

It briefly seemed like the match was headed to an anti-climactic end. Two Indian teenaged players - Nihal Sarin and Divya Deshmukh - lost connection with the host server and lost on time handing Russia a 4.5-1.5 win in the second round. India responded by appealing for a review. To their relief, a major global internet outage had been reported and Fide took an unprecedented call - declaring both finalists, India and Russia, joint champions.

"It was a dramatic turn of events," Viswanathan Anand, who drew his second round game against Ian Nepomniatichi, told ESPN. "My initial response was to assume what a moment for this (losing server connection) to happen to us and it was the second time after the Mongolia match. I was quite disappointed that we were only going to get a silver. In fact, I wrote to both Divya and Nihal asking them to not feel bad about the result because as youngsters it can affect them. Then I spoke to Srinath (Narayanan, non-playing captain) and he said the problem is not at our end and it's being investigated by Fide," Anand said.

"It was a long wait. I thought they may expect us to play again. Repeat the second match or perhaps repeat a couple of games. I really thought it would be a solution along those lines, but this decision I did not anticipate at all. At the end of the day, I think it's quite fair because both teams were evenly balanced in this match. It's certainly a nice and pleasant twist."

The Appeals Committee went through the evidence provided by Chess.com, where the tournament is being hosted and also took into account news of the global outage. However, they couldn't arrive at a unanimous decision to resolve the situation. Fide president Arkady Dvorkovich, who sat out the appeal since he belongs to Russia, then stepped in with a final verdict - declaring both India and Russia joint gold medallists. The decision took the Indian team, mentally readying for a possible second round replay, completely by shock.

"It was a pretty intense match. We didn't have a decisive game until the global outage," India non-playing captain Srinath Narayanan said, "We didn't know what was happening because it seemed like we all got logged out at the same time. When we went for the appeal we were pretty sure it wasn't an issue at our end but the final decision really was a surprise."

Earlier, India and Russia drew all six games in the first round. It was Anand's idea that P Harikrishna, the country's second highest ranked player, be fielded in the first-round game. Harikrishna who is currently also playing in the Polish league, drew against Russia's prodigious talent Vladislav Artemiev. In the second round, though Koneru Humpy was an exchange up against Kateryna Lagno, she subsequently fell into time trouble and the game concluded in a three-fold repetition. Nihal had an equal position against Andrey Esipenko while Divya was in a winning position against Polina Shuvalova when they both got disconnected from the server and their time ran down. With a possible win on one of two boards for India, the match was likely to spill into an Armaggedon

Throughout the tournament, server and internet issues have cropped up at various stages deciding the fate of matches. It brought to the fore the question of technology's fallibility in online chess events. Fide's regulations for the event put the onus on players to ensure they have access to a stable internet connection. Beyond this stipulation, there wasn't provision for a wider lapse. India were forced to draw against lower-ranked Mongolia in a group encounter last week after two Indian players faced internet trouble. Two days ago, Armenia had forfeited their quarterfinal match against India after they were disconnected from the server but Fide turned down their review appeal. "We can have accidents in over-the-board chess as well," Anand, who won his first Olympiad medal on Sunday, said. "But yes, essentially if chess is played online then these variables come into play. I assume as time goes by, and everybody develops more experience, procedures will evolve that will factor in such situations. Right now, it's growing pains."

If anything, this Olympiad has been a revelation of the large, emerging audience that chess has tapped into in the country over the past six months. In its time, the bronze medal in 2014, a historic first for India, didn't find its due. This gold medal could be reason for amends.

Match 1: India - Russia 3-3