Chess in Chennai: India's Unlikely Olympiad
By Gautam Goel, UG'23
India has geared up for the 44th Chess Olympiad, being hosted in Chennai at the Four Point Hotel on the East Coast Road, from 27th July to 10th August. The Chess Olympiad is a historic biennial tournament: the first Chess Olympiad was held in 1927, nearly a century old, and is one of the biggest official tournaments in the sport. Chess’s international governing body FIDE selects the host country, as well as the participating nations. This year, there will be 343 teams from 187 countries flying to Chennai to participate in the 11-round classical chess tournament.
While usually countries have a four-year notice on hosting this mammoth event, the All India Chess Federation only bid for the Olympiad five months ago. The Olympiad was supposed to be hosted by Moscow, but due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, FIDE decided to change the venue. The AICF, in conjunction with the enthusiastic Tamil Nadu government, has managed to pull off the task of hosting nearly 2000 people for over a week in a very short time. The event is being funded with an amount of 10 Million USD by the Tamil Nadu government.
How is the tournament being Indianised?
Generally, chess tournaments are an accumulation of drab suits, boards, and opening and closing ceremonies. However, lately, there has been an online chess boom due to the pandemic keeping people free, and shows like The Queen’s Gambit taking the internet by storm. This boom, combined with the Indian tendencies of dramatics and grandeur, resulted in a lot of unique aspects to India’s Chess Olympiad.
The Torch Relay
For the first time since 1927, the Chess Olympiad was commemorated with a torch relay across India. The torch relay began from the Indira Gandhi International Stadium in Delhi, and ended in Chennai just before the start of the tournament. In Delhi, the Torch was given to PM Narendra Modi by FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich on 20th June, who handed it to GM Vishwanathan Anand, five-time World Champion and India’s most decorated chess player.
During its journey from 20th June to 27th July, the torch visited 75 different cities of India. In each city, the torch was rallied, and made a public appearance in the hands of a prominent chess player as well as a political leader originating from the state. This gave all the internationally titled players of India, especially the Grandmasters, an opportunity to be celebrated and recognized. The showcase in each city was also accompanied by a simul (playing against multiple opponents at the same time), or some other show of their unmatched skill in chess, by the attending grandmaster.
Adding to the flair of the Torch Relay, India’s Chess Olympiad also has a booming online presence using the hashtag #ChessChennai2022. Along with this, the CM of Tamil Nadu along with top officials of AICF hosted an event for the unveiling of the mascot of the olympiad Thambi. It is a horse with folded hands dressed in a white shirt and a dhoti. Its name means younger brother, and is a common term used to address someone affectionately.
The horse being the only piece on the chessboard with a face is commonly used as the symbol for chess-related events. The Tamil Nadu government was quick to action with Thambi as well: they revealed a 20-foot tall statue of the mascot, its stickers were put up on buses in the city, and its online presence was also amplified by a Twitter account made for the event.
The Bridge and The Anthem
The Napier Bridge of Chennai is a prominent landmark and tourist destination for its beautiful lighting, and historic significance. On the occasion of the Olympiad, the entire bridge has been covered with black and white squares, such that it resembles a humongous chess board.
Accompanying the online report of the newly painted bridge, the Tamil Nadu government released the Olympiad Anthem. The video shows traditional dances, the Mamallapuram monuments, and music by the legendary A.R. Rahman. In the video, the performers along with some top-level players from India, welcome the guests from all around the world to Chennai. It is meant to be a warming welcome song, along with a teaser for the kind of culture that the visitors will experience.
These three aspects of the event are unique to Indian culture, and show the extravaganza which we carry to international levels. The response to these features has been very positive by the chess world, with some even encouraging future Olympiad hosts to continue this level of excitement for the competition.
The Indian Delegation
The hosts of the Olympiad are presented the opportunity to have an extra team in each section of the tournament. Hence, this year there will be a 30-strong team competing for the gold in the open and women’s sections. Following are the formations of the six 5-member teams.
India A- Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli, Tania Sachdev, Vaishali R, Bhakti Kulkarni
India B- Soumya Swaminathan, Mary Ann Gomes, Padmini Rout, Vantika Agrawal, Divya Deshmukh
India C: Easha Karvade, Sahithi Varshini. Pratyusha Bodda, P V Nandhidhaa, Vishwa Vasnawala
India A- Vidit Gujrathi, Pentala Harikrishna, Krishnan Sasikiran, Arjun Erigaisi, S.L Naryanan
India B- Adhiban Baskaran, Praggnanandhaa R, Nihal Sarin, D Gukesh and Raunak Sadhwani
India C- Surya Shekhar Ganguly, S P Sethuraman, Abhijeet Gupta, Karthikeyan Murali, Abhimanyu Puranik
The Indian Team will be mentored by Vishy Anand, and each team has their respective coaches. The India A team is seeded 2nd in the open section and 1st in the women’s section. So, expectations run high from the delegation. Tamil Nadu is also the home state for many of these players, and they will be surrounded by a supporting and comfortable atmosphere.
The Olympiad is being watched by the whole world, and has superb assistance from the Central as well State government. It sets a precedent about India’s support to the sport as well as tenacity at its highest level. With the tournament underway, we wish all the best to the players, and hope the tournament proceeds without a hitch.