29 August 2014

The long road to ‘Gold’ at the Chess Olympiad


It’s a long way from Colombo to Tromso.  Indeed, a few years ago none who undertook the journey to the distant fishing ‘village’ in the northern part of Norway would have heard the name.  That is, not until FIDE, the world body governing chess announced that the 2014 Chess Olympiad would be held there.  The journey was long.  It was arduous too because a cash-strapped Chess Federation had to arrange a flight + train + bus journey.  There were no tickets by the time the visas came through.  In fact the manager got his visa so late that the team left without him.  He left the following day, but due to fortuitous scheduling of trains, arrived in Tromso just a few hours after the team did.

No one complained.   They took a flight to Stockholm, followed by a 22 hour train ride to Narvik, Norway and a 4 hour bus ride to Tromso.  They still managed to arrive a day before the tournament started without any loss of enthusiasm.  Sri Lanka fielded a solid team which included three national champions, G.C. Anuruddha (who was playing in his 6th Olympiad), Chamika Perera (National Champion 2011) and Isuru Alahakoon (National Champion 2012, 2013 and 2014), the last two playing in their second Olympiad.  It was Prasanna Kurukulasuriya’s first Olympiad but he has been consistently among the top 10 players in Sri Lanka for more than a decade now.  Rajeendra Kalugampitiya, currently the No 1 blitz and rapid player in Sri Lanka, first played in the Olympiad in 2006 when he was a schoolboy.  This was his second Olympiad.

There was also a women’s team, led by Anuththara Chandrasiri of Girls’ High School, Kandy.  They performed creditably, winning 5 and losing 6 of their matches.  This story, however, is about the men’s team, competing in the Open Section. 

The team had been put through a tough training program organized by the Federation which secured the services of a top coach from Greece, Efstratios Grivas.  He spent two weeks in Sri Lanka and the players agree that this was the best preparation they had seen in many years.  Grivas, a key member of FIDE’s training program, was at hand in Tromso to help the team.  He spent a vital 2 hours with them every morning, going through the games they had played and helping them prepare for the particular opponents in the afternoon.   Most importantly, he infused a sense of purpose and gave the players ample confidence especially when they took on opponents with higher ratings.  None of the players would ever be intimated by titles such as Grandmaster (GM) or International Master (IM). 

Sri Lanka was ranked 120th in a field of 172 teams.  The team didn’t have a single IM or GM.  They ended 74th.   That leap was enough to secure a Gold for the team according to the tournament format which offered ‘category prizes’ for the best performing teams in 5 different rating-related segments.  It was tough going all the way.  As the coach pointed out, there are no bad teams, everyone comes to play chess and you have to be totally focused in order to win. 

Sri Lanka’s low ranking assured a strong opponent in the first round.  Sweden, ranked 34th, had 4 GMs.  Sri Lanka lost 1-3, Alahakoon and Kalugampitiya drawing their respective games, the latter actually missing a relatively easy win.  Sri Lanka beat Honduras (125th) 3-1 in the next round but lost to 66th Ranked Scotland in the 3rd round, 1-3. Scotland boasted of 2GMs.  Anuruddha drew with one of them while Alahakoon drew with FIDE Master Alan Tate.  The loss gave Sri Lanka a weaker opponent in the 4th round, Malawi (134th).  A 3-1 win saw Sri Lanka being paired with Venezuela (61st) in the 6th round. Venezuela, with 1 GM and 1 IM had a tough time.  Mistakes under pressure saw what ought to have been a  2.5-1.5 victory turn into a 1.5-2.5 defeat.  Anuruddha drew against an IM while Chamika defeated an FM. 

The pattern of loss followed by victory was wrecked when Sri Lanka defeated Afghanistan 4-0 and Jamaica 2.5-1.5 in the next two rounds.  It was at this point that Sri Lanka became a contender for the category prize.  The next two assignments, however, were tough.  Finland, ranked 56th with a GM and 2 IMs, defeated Sri Lanka 4-0 while Sri Lanka went down to 55th ranked Bangladesh 1-3.  In the latter match, had opportunities not been squandered, a draw or even a victory might have been possible. 

It all came down to the last round.  Sri Lanka was drawn to play New Zealand, a team with 3 IMs and ranked 44 spots higher.  Kurukulasuriya lost relatively quickly on Board 1, adding pressure to the other 3 players.  Anuruddha got into difficulties but fought as tenaciously as he had throughout the tournament to secure a draw.   He remained the only unbeaten player in the team and won an FM title for his efforts.  Chamika and Isuru battled hard to score memorable wins over considerably higher ranked players.  They held their nerve although down to a few seconds on the ‘clock’, unfazed even by the huge commotion caused by a Swiss player collapsing with a heart attack. 

That 2.5-1.5 win pushed Sri Lanka marginally higher than Lebanon on the tie break for the category prize.  There was jubilation, naturally, for Sri Lanka had not won a category prize in over 30 years.  The entire team put it down to better preparation courtesy the foresight of the Federation to secure Mr Grivas’ services.  The players themselves kept their motivational levels high despite setbacks, determined to do their best without being intimated by players stronger on paper. 

Anuruddha, in particular, brought all his experience into play.  Isuru Alahakoon, the team’s captain, gets the credit for both his excellent play and for convincing his teammates that the team should not be happy with consolation prizes of securing the odd draw with a GM or IM, instead they should aim to win the particular match.  Kurukulasuriya, handed the toughest assignment of playing on Board 1, played game after tough game without complaint.  Chamika Perera offered solidity on Boards 2 and 3, while Kalugampitya was gracious to acknowledge form loss.  This did not stop him from constantly backing his team and reveling in their victories.  It was, in this sense, an excellent team effort.  A well deserved Gold. 

[The writer accompanied the team as Manager cum Non-Playing Captain]



     
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1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Malinda and such a beautiful photo.