Chess Olympiad: Despite winning bronze, losing gold hurts women

Express News Service

MAHABALIPURAM: Creating history is great. It grants the team creating said history access into an exclusive club — the first to do something.

Yet, on Tuesday evening, minutes after becoming the first Indian women to have medalled at an over-the-board Olympiad, the most frequent words used were ‘sad’ and ‘disappointed’.

The trademark smile was missing from Tania Sachdev’s face. Koneru Humpy’s face was a study in grimness. R Vaishali was maintaining a poker face.

They had no time to celebrate winning a bronze. They had missed out on winning gold when that shiniest of metal discs was within touching distance.

They had missed the chance after the US outplayed them on both the lower boards. With Humpy and Vaishali only drawing on the first two boards, it meant all that hardwork and effort put over the first 10 days,’ according to Sachdev, amounted to nothing.

That they didn’t have the experience of D Harika — her condition meant she was rested the last two days — cost them as replacement Bhakti Kulkarni lost with black pieces.

Sachdev, who so-ably spearheaded the side in the first 10 rounds, also found the most inopportune of times to lose her first game.

“It is historical, winning a medal but as sportspersons, very bad day for us,” was how Humpy summed up her feelings in a press conference meant to celebrate the team’s win.

“We lost very badly today (Tuesday), still in the feeling of missing out on the gold medal. This bronze hasn’t even gotten into my mind.”

The 35-year-old Sachdev sang from the same hymn sheet.

“It’s very hard right now to understand the gravity of winning the first medal because we are very disappointed that we couldn’t win gold for the country. That was definitely the aim from the very beginning.”

Considering they were the top-seeds — China (who preferred not to come) and Russia (banned by FIDE) weren’t in the draw — bronze was the bare minimum that was expected of them before the tournament began.

With some of the other leading players also not coming to Chennai, India had three — Humpy, Harika and Vaishali (all with a rating of above 2440) — capable of matching with the ones who had made the journey.    

Over the first 10 rounds, this advantage was very visible. The top boards seldom won but they also seldom lost. The bottom boards almost always won or drew but never lost.

The net result was picking up good results against the only rivals that could have challenged the team for gold: Georgia (3-1 winners) and Ukraine (2-2 draw).

They suffered a reverse against Poland (1.5-2.5) in the ninth round but put that loss behind them with a very strong outing against Kazakhstan (3.5-0.5) on Monday.

So, going into the final round of matches, they had a one-point advantage over all their main adversaries.

Now, US are a good team but they have only one GM in their ranks (Irina Krush). The Indian team matched up well against them on paper but as the morning progressed, the engines started to favour all four US boards.

The Indian team found no joy and the writing on the wall became very clear.

At some point of time, it looked like US had pipped them for bronze but the second tie-break — the Olympiad Sonneborn-Berger one (it involves a complex formula to arrive at the final number — put India’s score at 396.5, 4.5 over the US team.

“More than anything it was the way in which the tournament was progressing,” Sachdev explained.

“We were all leading, always playing on the top. We are still dealing with the fact that we lost on the gold rather than winning with the bronze. Don’t think the schedule was the problem (10th round beginning on Monday afternoon and 11th round starting on Tuesday morning). The US today was the better player. Didn’t get anything on any of the boards. It’s kind of sad because we put in so much effort in the previous days.”  

With disappointment writ large on her face, Humpy hoped their feat would inspire girls to take up chess as a profession.

“Great motivation to young kids. The women’s team needs to become a lot more stronger. Vaishali has improved a lot, she has given her best. Like that we need to have many more women players. Only then can we aim for higher targets. As a team, it is important to have more players.”

When the dust settles and the disappointment of Tuesday becomes a distant blur, the five women — Humpy, Harika, Vaishali, Bhakti and Tania — will be rightfully remembered as the first women to have done something that has never been done before. Till then, the pain will linger.   

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