On August 30, 2020, the Indian Chess Team led by Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi became the joint-winner of Chess Olympiad 2020 along with Russia for the first time. The decision was taken when two Indian players, Divya and Nihal, lost their respective games due to server error, caused due to the global outrage on Cloudflare servers. Vice-Captain GM Srinath filed an appeal, after which an unusual decision was taken by the FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs) appeal committee and declared both Russia and India co-winners.
The team was backed by legendary Vishwanathan Anand and Humpy Koneru. Harikrishna, Vidit and Aravindh were present on the male board and the female board was backed by Bhakti, Harika and Vaishali. The junior board, which actually got some important wins, had Nihal Sarin, Divya Deshmukh, Vanita and Praggnanandhaa.
Although the team has brought back Gold for the country, it is important to remember that these players were not given any facilities by the government. In an interview with LiveMint,Vidit Gujrathi said “We’re trying to help each other as much as we can. It’s sad to see that as a professional player playing for the country, even the training expenses aren’t taken care of. All preparation done here is based on the players’ own skill and finances.”
This lack of facilities also cost India some crucial games when India lost two games against Mongolia on two strong boards of Vidit and Humpy in the division stage due to bad internet. Later on, the Chess Federation offered both the players to play from five-star hotels in their cities and yet, no support was provided from the government.
This issue of not being given proper facilities also leads the question to bigger problems like receiving no recognition from the government. It has been seven years since any chess player has received the Arjuna Award, which is given by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to recognise outstanding achievement in sports. Recently, the government listed 27 individuals who will be given the award this year and there were no chess players among them.
Vidit Gujrathi, who led the team in Chess Olympiad, is currently world number 24 and achieved 22nd rank in March 2020. He has won many prestigious competitions — first position in 2019 Biel Chess Festival Grand Master Tournament, runner-up at the 2020 Prague Chess Festival Masters Tournament and the youngest Indian to reach 2700 Elo rating. Vidit has applied for the award for three consecutive years, and has not been awarded yet.
Similarly, Adhiban Bhaskaran was the fifth Indian to break into the Elo 2700 mark. He was part of the Indian Olympiad team that won the bronze medal in 2014 while Padmini Rout won the Asian Championship in 2018. None of them have received their due credit too. Along the same lines no credit has been awarded to the coaches as well who are presented with the Dronacharya Award which has led India to many wins at different international events.
During the Chess Olympiad, netizens started to demand recognition for chess players by tweeting #ArjunaForChess and even filed a petition to the government for due credit to the chess players. Many comedians including Samay Raina, Biswa Kalyan Rath and Vaibhav Sethia have also talked about it and promoted chess since the lockdown.
However, the question remains the same: will sports such as chess get the same recognition as given to other sports? Will the gold medal bring due attention to the chess players?