How India’s Chess Olympiad gold was won, and almost lost, due to the power of internet

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.

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

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.

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