Chess Olympiad: Vidit Gujrathi on how he led India to its first-ever gold medal4 min read . Updated: 01 Sep 2020, 10:00 AM IST
From organizing special training for the junior team members to taking the counsel of veterans like Viswanathan Anand, the Indian team captain talks about the team effort behind India's victory
For the past 24 hours, Vidit Gujrathi has been moving from one engagement to another—interacting with fans, talking to journalists, and attending countless congratulatory calls. On Sunday, the 25-year-old led India to a joint victory with Russia at the Online Chess Olympiad. The attention is well-deserved, if overwhelming.
“This Olympiad stands out because of the support of the fans," says the captain of the Indian team. “When 68,000 people are watching you in the finals (on YouTube), rooting for you, that gives you an extra energy." The only downside: he barely had the time to celebrate his father’s birthday on Sunday. “Once things slow down, we’ll get some time and do something about it," he adds. “For now, I don’t think I could have given him a better gift."
A day after winning gold, Gujrathi spoke to Lounge about the work that went on behind the scenes to give India its second-ever podium finish in the chess Olympiads. Edited excerpts:
An Olympiad is different compared to the other chess tournaments, for you don’t always know who your opponent is going to be. How did you prepare for it?
I was working on my individual skill throughout. I looked at all the probable opponents on Day 1. Srinath (Narayanan, the vice-captain) was arranging tournaments for the juniors so they get into shape before the Olympiad. In the 3-4 days gap we had (between the knockouts and quarter-finals), we also trained in Armageddon (a speed-chess round used as a tie-breaker). I wanted to have a very professional approach to the Olympiad. By the end, we should have been able to say that we did everything we could.
There is an internal conflict ongoing at the All India Chess Federation (AICF). While announcing the Indian team, they had initially announced two separate lists of players. Did the uncertainty affect you?
I didn’t have any say in it.... Playing itself requires a lot of energy. As a human, I only have a limited amount. I decided to focus on what is in my hands.
You had mentioned in a previous interview how the AICF didn’t help the players in preparing for the Olympiad. Did you try to engage with AICF or government?
I didn’t. I was training by myself back then.... But if a player and the organization join hands, they can create miracles. We have so much potential in India. If you give them the right conditions, miracles can happen.
At 25, you were captain of a team with quite a few senior players like Viswanathan Anand and Koneru Humpy, legends in their own right. Was it intimidating?
This problem only arises if a player feels superior to others. But in my team, all of the players were so nice. Anand and Humpy, both made me feel comfortable. They knew I had to take tough decisions at times and they were supportive of that.
Anand failed to fire in the tournament. His games mostly ended in draws and losses. Did that worry you?
I think the problem was the way it started. He had a winning position against Uzbekistan but he drew that game. I felt that just set the wrong tone for the rest of the games. But having Anand in the team is a big deal. On top boards, it’s very important to hold the games with black pieces. That's what he did in the last match against Yan Nepomniachtchi (Russian grandmaster and world No.4). He held the most dangerous player of the Russian team so comfortably. That’s equivalent to a win sometimes.
Russia were the tournament favourites. What was it like to go up against them into the finals?
Everyone said Russia was the favourite on paper. But I felt strongly that whoever plays better on that day would win. That’s what I told the team as well. They had done exceptionally throughout. We just had to give our best.
The FIDE decision of a joint-winner was unexpected. Did the fact that the matches couldn’t be played to its logical conclusion have an impact on the joy you would have felt otherwise?
Probably. But in hindsight, I am happy India’s won gold. It was double the joy because we had internet connection issues (after which, Russia was declared the winners until India appealed against it). That feeling of suddenly becoming winners, however it came, I am very happy with it.
Armenia had in a similar problem in the quarter-finals against India. FIDE had refused Armenia’s appeal for a re-play after Chess.com’s server crashed. But in the finals, they ruled in India’s favour.
In our case, it was a global outage, not just on (the playing platform) Chess.com (as it was in case of Armenia).
But do you think FIDE’s decision was fair to Armenia?
After we had appealed (in the match against Russia), we knew had to accept the result, whatever it was. Even in the Armenia match, I asked Anand at the time (on how to react to an adverse decision). He said we have to respect what they say. If they ask us to play again, or play Armageddon, we have to be ready for it. We just had to follow the rules and be ready.
India has never had a podium finish at the Olympiad except for a bronze in 2014. This time, it went straight on top. What changed?
This Olympiad is different because of the support of the audience. When you have 68,000 people watching you in the finals, that gives you an extra energy to the cause. Your responsibility increases, so does the pressure. But that’s what makes the win sweeter.