Online Chess Olympiad: India hope to defend title against class field

A star-studded Indian team led by captain Viswanathan Anand, a five-time World Champion, will aim to defend its Online Chess Olympiad crown when it starts its campaign in the top division on Wednesday.

“We have a good mix of experience and youth. We hope to do well and are fairly confident of our prospects,” said Anand, while addressing a packed press conference in Chennai on Monday.

Victory in the tournament will ensure the country its second successive gold medal in the prestigious tournament.

Unlike the last time, when the players played from their respective homes and struggled with internet and electricity connectivity, the AICF has ensured that the team will be together for the 2021 edition. They are being put up in a five-star hotel in Chennai with top-of-the-line facilities, including a dedicated internet connection.

“This is the new AICF. We will do everything to make our players comfortable and competitive,” AICF President Dr. Sanjay Kapoor said in response to a question. “Our next target is a cash-rich chess league and the Chess in School Program of the AICF. This is just the beginning. Many good things are in the pipeline for the chess fraternity of the country,” he added.

India will launch their campaign on Wednesday.

The Indian squad comprises Grandmasters (GMs) Anand, Vidit Gujrathi, P Harikrishna, and B Adhiban in the Open category, GMs Koneru Humpy and D Harika and Woman Grandmasters (WGM) Tania Sachdev and R Vaishali in the Women’s category, GMs Nihal Sarin and R Praggnanandhaa in the Juniors Open and WGM Vaishali R and Woman Fide Master Savitha Shri in the Junior Girls section.

Over 150 countries had started the competition on August 4 and with 60 of them playing Division 4. Fifteen teams from this section advanced to Division 3 comprising 50 teams and 15 teams qualified for the next stage — Division 2. From 50 teams in Division 2, 15 have qualified and joined 25 seeded teams in Top Division.

These 40 teams will be competing for top honours over a thrilling week. India has nine other teams in its pool and will play three matches a day from September 8 to 10. Then, after a two-day rest, the knockout stages will begin.

“We wanted the players to bond with each other and play as a team. This prompted us to bring them all together here in Chennai. All the players, save three, are comfortably settled in their rooms and are raring to go. We thank our sponsors Microsense for making this happen,” Bharat Singh Chauhan, Honorary Secretary of AICF, said.

The 25 seeded teams in Top Division include Russia, China, and India. The 15 that qualified from Division 2 are Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, Philippines, Shenzhen China, Slovenia, and Sweden.

These 40 teams will be divided into four pools of 10 teams each. They will play in nine rounds of round-robin play with the two best-placed teams from each pool advancing to the knockout stage.

The main challenge for the Indian team will again come from Russia, who were the co-winners last time.

The Russian team has Alexander Grischuk, Alexey Dubov, Aleksandra Goryachkina, Alexandra Kosteniuk, Andrey Esipenko and Polina Shuvalova playing on the main boards. China will also be a top contender with Ding Liren, Wei Yi, Hou Yifan, Ju Wenjun, Xu Zhihang and Zhu Jiner on the main boards.

India will have an edge in the 2021 edition, too, as it is being played under the rapid chess rules. It has several speed kings, with Anand being a much-feared player in the faster version for the last 30 years. Vidit Gujrathi, Harikrishna, Sarin, Praggnanandhaa are also acknowledged masters of this format.

That said, in the previous edition, it was Koneru Humpy who had ensured a smooth ride for the team in the finals, defeating Monica Sozcko of Poland in the Armageddon game.

The Indian players will again have to be at their best as their top players will be marked after their performance in the last edition.