Experience - A day at the Chess Olympiad

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Manoj Kumar
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A day at the Chess Olympiad

August 14, 2022

It was the first time that a chess Olympiad was held in India. When it’s bad for one part of the world (Russia-Ukraine), it opens up ways for the other part.

When you get to see at least one member from every nation around the world in a single event, you definitely don’t want to miss it. I missed Dubai Expo 2020 the last time because of COVID. Even the tickets could not be refunded, which I had already bought. I’m glad I didn’t book my flight in advance.

I think the venue was thoughtfully chosen away from the heart of Chennai, so that the players can stay in the various hotels that line East Coast Road. I was told the players were given accommodation in 40 different hotels. That can be only possible when you are away from the city limits so that it is peaceful and easier to host the event.

It was obvious that Russia wouldn’t be participating in this event. Although they could have come with a FIDE tag on them, they refused. Another shocker was China not participating. I am not sure why, but even they didn’t give any reason for it. Both were among the strongest teams in the Olympiad and not having them was a little upsetting. But that allowed India to include two more teams in the Olympiad. Good for 3rd team players as they got a “wild card” entry. They must be thrilled, right?

Even before my day of entry into the hall, I went to the venue with a journalist friend from Delhi whom I invited through Couchsurfing just to look around from the outside and see how things were going. The stretch of East Coast Road was filled with policemen as 3000 was the number assigned by various police departments. He took some photos while in the hall as they were allocated half an hour to do their job, which he shared with me via WhatsApp.

I was not aware that tickets were available since they might not want to risk the entire world’s team with the risk of COVID. When I saw the link to the official website that stated the ticket price and the other details, I was pumped up. I immediately booked the ticket, considering Round 6 might be a good day to see some top nations fight it out after the first few rounds might be a bit of a one-sided performance, although you can also look around for upsets, which is why an open-multi-nation event like this is always exciting to watch for.

At first, the amount was debited from the bank, and there was no notification after that about the ticket through email or Whatsapp. Then I had to personally email the mentioned id for the confirmation and half of the job was done, which was to get the full day pass for the hall number 1, where all the top boards for men and women were playing. Hall number 2 might not be attractive to many, but when Norway, obviously due to Carlsen and Tari, for some, had to struggle their way to that hall on certain rounds, it might not be a bad option for the spectators.

Chess Olympiad - Round 6 Ticket

I invited some friends through WhatsApp and Couchsurfing to accompany me. They were eager to come too, as they already asked me about it, but some said the prices were higher, some said they had work on that day. So I thought of focusing on going to the event alone.

On the day of Round 6, I woke up just before noon. I quickly dressed up in a Chelsea blue jersey and black jeans, and I took my car, always with the music on, excited to see the big event. The venue was not far away, just 45 minutes to 1 hour away from my home. I took the way up to the Kovalam route toll gate and a decisive right from there, racing towards my destination. From the ECR stretch, you could see the chess banners all around and buses painted with Olympiad details. The whole 15 km before the event looked like it was meant only for the Olympiad and nothing else.

There were so many gates for the venue. I drove towards the front entrance but was diverted by the policemen to the appropriate gate, which was reserved for the spectators. I parked my car near the venue. As usual, I would leave a large gap between the other cars while parking. I was told to reduce the gap, and I agreed.

I walked my way towards the checking area where they diverted me to the queue where I would be given a band to wear. A girl, probably another chess player or volunteer, was sitting at the counter, and she wrote down the details of the e-ticket and placed a green band with “Round 6” written over my hand and tied it. So that was the identification for all day pass users and a different band colour for other hourly users.

I reenter the checking area, but this time with the identification so that I can go through. I had no mask with me since 2020 seemed like ages ago, but was given a complimentary mask at the entrance. I had to ask them if it was free for me. They said “Yes” with a smile and conversed in Tamil, “Evalo kudukaraangalaam” (How much will he pay for it?) with her other mask supplier. Of course, they were pulling my leg.

I entered around 3:00 PM, when the round began, and yes, I was among the players and spectators from all countries at that time. There was a food court right in front of the Hall 1 entrance. I just bought a bottle of water as I had already filled my stomach when I was home. I wanted to watch the matches on an empty stomach so that I could enjoy the experience. A bottle of water does wonders. I was waiting outside the hall when Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov was walking towards the hall with people around him when a boy was crazy enough to take a running selfie. It felt like Shak was in a hurry since his match was about to start and was he late?

I waited outside the hall for a few more minutes and I saw people aged 10 to 50 trying to take selfies with some of the Chess celebrities. I was not eager to take selfies with anyone, although I had that craze when Dhoni came to my Dad’s office way back in 2015, but has it become a new normal for me not to treat people like celebrities?

The wait was taking longer and I had to go back to the food court so that I could sit for a moment. I spent 20 minutes watching the matches on the big screen. Spectators were not allowed for the first 30 minutes inside the hall. Around 3:30 PM, I joined the queue for Hall 1. I asked my front person where we submit the mobile phones. He was clueless as well. So when we were approaching the hall door after waiting for 10 minutes in the queue, we were stopped and diverted towards the cloakroom for spectators.

I nearly gave away all of my possessions, as if I wanted to abandon my materialistic life and travel to the Himalayas, but the cloakroom volunteer advised me to keep my wallet. It made me realise it was too early to go to the Himalayas.

I get into the queue again. This time there was a group of schoolchildren in front of me. They were waving their hands to the multiple cameramen. I reach the security check after a few minutes, and the security guy gives a thump on my wallet. I thought he was asking me what’s in your pocket, but he said “Toh ja na!” (So, go no!)”. That thump was a signal to move forward, it seems.

The important moment arrives as my eyes are welcomed by almost all the top modern chess players. At first, I had no idea who was where. I randomly checked the walking area of the hall without checking the players, although their glimpses really made me excited to see what’s to come.

The walking area was placed in such a way that I could see around 40 out of 200 boards where you can see the games with a clear view. From my point of view, I could see only one Indian men’s team and another Indian women’s team board. The rest of the boards were obstructed by the players.

The first board that was clear to view was the USA-Iran match. It was great to watch Caruana, Wesley, and Aronian’s matches as they were so close to us. They would sometimes look at the spectators and also at me, not sure if they were calculating our moves or just looking at us. I was constantly watching the USA matches as that was clear as well as interesting. Caruana’s position against Parham looked like he was going to win since he was going for the king’s hunt with his Queen and a Bishop.

Although Norway was not anywhere near the top of the leaderboard, spectators were still there because of Carlsen, obviously. I got to see almost everyone that I used to see on the chess YouTube channels. Eric Hansen was there just near Carlsen’s board, but not with his ChessBrah partner this time.

I randomly chose to watch an England women’s match as it was another board in clear view. So, it was Akshaya of Indian origin. She looked like my former flatmate, Kirthika. She was almost about to win with a pawn up, Queen making inroads, making the opponent’s king wander, and I thought she won, but when I came back home and saw the results, it was a draw because of an endgame blunder, which happens most of the time.

I am not sure how the hall restroom was monitored, but there was more movement there than spectator movement from outside. Could it have been easier to repeat the Toilet Gate episode?  Of course, I was denied entry there so that I could not see the “monitoring”. I had to go outside the hall for my purpose, but there was no check while reentering the hall.

I was constantly asked to wear a mask by a volunteer there. It was just one of the volunteers among 10-20 who asked me to do so. I would get out of that position quickly to switch to a different game so that I was not troubled anymore by that particular volunteer. He asked me the 2nd time after finding me again. I said, “I can’t breathe” just to not wear a mask. They were strict and I had to wear it at least for a few minutes.

I randomly bumped into one of my college chess teammates with whom I used to go to inter-college chess tournaments. We both asked each other about our whereabouts, and it seemed like he came with his office friends. I did not take a single photo in the hall as well as outside, but I found myself on YouTube. Yes, the guy with the blue jersey on, near the wall and covered by Parham just a few seconds into it.

Gukesh was in top form and would have gone undefeated had it not been for that Knight blunder against Norbidek in the later rounds. It was going to happen because of the time pressure. I have seen GMs give away Queen under time pressure, so it was nothing surprising. Anyway, a gold medal was secured by him, which was enough. Uzebkistan has already given a new rapid champion to the world. India and Uzbekistan can vie for the title of new classical champion, but Russia and China will not stand by and watch.

I would say it was definitely one of the best days of my life. It was pleasant to be in the atmosphere inside the hall itself. If you want to analyse the games, it is better to view them through a website at home where you can see a bird’s-eye view of all the games. As I had spent more than 4 hours inside the hall, I had to leave since all the important matches were over. It was good to call and tell some of my friends about the experience. I wanted to go back for 2 more days. It was that pleasant.

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