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Viswanathan Anand, Photographs from getty images
Viswanathan Anand, Photographs from getty images

Say checkmate, online

Viswanathan Anand, Garry Kasparov and other legends come together for an online tournament next week

Everyone is still coming to terms with the reality of life in lockdown—even world champions. Usually, Koneru Humpy, 33, who won the FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) Women’s World Rapid Chess Championships in December, would have enough hours in the day to plow through information, plot strategies and prepare for an international tournament. But the prep for the FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup (5-10 May) is a little different.

“When (Viswanathan Anand) messaged me a week ago about this tournament and whether I would be available to participate, the first thing I wanted to know was the timings," says Humpy on the phone from her home in Vijayawada.

“Luckily it will be at 6.30pm India time," she says, adding: “Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be a problem but I don’t have a lot of time right now. I have to look after my daughter, who is two years old. There’s no domestic help, so I am busy with the household chores through the day. Only once I give my daughter lunch and put her to sleep in the afternoon, I get some time. Since I have confirmed for the event, I am practising about 3-4 hours a day."

With all sporting action suspended, the Online Nations Cup may well be the only big-ticket sporting event this summer. The competition, which will happen remotely, will feature some of the biggest names in the sport, like Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Anand.

Six teams (China, India, Russia, US, Europe and Rest of the World) will compete for a prize fund of $180,000 (around 1.3 crore). The games will be played in rapid format—each player will begin the game with 25 minutes on their clock, plus 10 seconds of extra time added after each move. While Humpy and Anand will represent India, seeded fifth, former world champion Kramnik will be the “adviser" to the team. Kasparov will captain Europe, which has players such as Anish Giri and Levon Aronian.

“A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the historical match ‘USSR vs Rest of the World’. It seemed like a natural idea to try to do something in the same spirit," says David Llada, FIDE’s chief communications officer. “But we had to adapt both to the new times and the special circumstances of the moment. So we decided to invite six teams instead of two, make it gender-inclusive (at least one of the players has to be a woman), and of course, online."

Online chess is already a popular phenomenon and according to Chess.com, an estimated 16 million games are being played online during the lockdown. An online tournament with the top players in the world—other than reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen, who is holding an online tournament of his own—seems like a logical next move.

For Humpy, though, it’s a foray into a new world. “Usually when you play, you look at your opponent, try to read their body language or emotion. The computer takes that away. But this event will be a good way to stay in touch with the sport," says the women’s world No.2, who won the Cairns Cup in February.

Since the game will be played across five continents, there are logistical issues. “It has its particular difficulties and the time difference is one of them," says Llada. “Even guaranteeing a stable internet connection is not so easy these days. But both FIDE and Chess.com have a lot of organization experience."

When players were approached for the event, the prerequisites were a laptop, a webcam and the facility to share screens with the arbiters—the referees, if you like, in chess matches.

“I think, in an online scenario, trust between players has to be inherent," says Humpy. “Yes, in an open tournament, when there are 1,500-2,000 players participating, it can be difficult. But some of the best players in the world are participating in this (Nations Cup); they will not risk their reputation by doing something wrong," she says.

“Chess doesn’t get many opportunities to be in the spotlight," says Llada. “But time after time, when we get the opportunity, people realize what a wonderful game chess is.... Now, with all sports competitions halted, we have such an opportunity."

Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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