Raving heroics

The end of the Olympiad is in sight, the Welsh women’s team have reached round nine, and their captain is mildly hysterical at the prospect of facing Ecuador

Michael Healey

¡Dame tu mano
Y venga conmigo!
¡Vamonos al viaje para buscar los sonidos magicos
De Ecuador!

I wake up even earlier, in an even colder sweat from the obscene aircon, than normal.

doop doop, de doop de doop doop

These chiquitas can play. Looking over their games it’s all fabulous; one replies to Nd5 with Ne7-c8, intending c6. I’ve been playing chess 30 years and I’ve only just clocked that manoeuvre exists. 

doop doop, de doop de doop doop

They all play a bajillion things. Their board two, as previously reported, is insanely good. The best I can do is pick some of their more obscure lines and prep something simple. Fully rational terror combined with an internal pounding 90s dance anthem is quite something, let me tell you.

On the plus side we finally get a South American country, which means we’ve pretty much collected the set (barring North America and Antartica). Our arbiter is Spanish, so for once we have the feeling of being left out of the linguistic banter. Hiya is deeply mistrustful, while Liv will later claim her dairy milk chocolate (one of my main jobs as captain is to nick as many as possible, as often as possible, from the heavily guarded dispensary), has DISAPPEARED.

I’ve been to Quito, but Liv’s actually lived there for a couple of months, working in a children’s hospital. Their board two, Anahí Ortiz Verdezoto, who is gaining elo points like nobody’s business, is training to be a doctor. Board one has a knight tattoo on one hand – something evident on several chessplayers here. One Lithuanian, keen that no one miss her backless outfit , also has a chess queen tattooed on her upper back. Many have got henna tattoos. Indeed, after learning the Jersey captain got someone to come round specially to the hotel for all the girls, my team point out yet another of my deficiencies as captain. Sigh.

Liv plays a Petrov (or anti-Petrov, which doesn’t really make it anti-boring for those sitting next door), and gets a position we’ve looked at but where the nuances mean little to me. Hiya’s opponent sidesteps our prep with a Catalan. Khushi’s prep goes fantastically well, and she’s better and hacking away delightedly. Kim’s opponent has gone g7-5 early in an Italian, and I smile to myself – not something we looked at and this ain’t gonna be good. Kim replies with g2-4, in front of her castled king. She later complains I never told her g5 was a thing – having spent most of my chess life preaching the power of The Holy Move, I find this amusing.

Welsh board one Olivia Smith’s draw against Ecuador averted a whitewash. Photograph: Fide/Mark Livshitz

Khushi gets overexcited and drops her e4 pawn, Hiya drops her d5 pawn, Kim is … whatever she’s doing, and Liv’s position is not helping with my serious issues drifting off. I dramatically stand up, shake the arbiter’s hand, and head for the 5pm shuttle. First however, I want to hit the Expo and see what’s happening there. 

It’s Sunday in India, and the crowds for the traditional day off are mental. There’s a queue going round the courtyard to get in for a view of Champion Hall. Everywhere are people, especially lots of purple lanyarded VVIPs. Whilst looking at some particularly uninteresting computer displays and soulless chess sets, I get huddled out back into the heat for my second interview of the day (back at the hotel a swarm had descended on my prep session with Hiya). Yes, everyone’s very friendly, I like the food, I expect everyone will be back to Chennai since it’s about to become chess capital of the world (Gukesh D is on 8/8, having knocked Caruana out of the top 10 yesterday). Now will I make this shuttle?

I feel a bit guilty, as I should, for abandoning my team so early. Fortunately Caissa punishes me with a shuttle which takes two hours to get back, going all round the different early finishers’ hotels. Khushi will last past move 50, showing incredible fight, and still beat me back, along with Kim and Hiya. While Liv’s game goes to and fro, I am accosted by a tiddly Tanzanian girl, who is delighted to practise her English on me and seems strangely taken.

Mariam tells me she only started playing in December, her life not going too well at the time. A distraction turned into a tournament, which led to an invitation to travel to another tournament in Kenya. Someone dropped out of the Olympiad team, and now she’s travelled here, her goals being to get a rating and win at least one game. Not only will she gain a rating, she’s on 4.5/9! I’m blown away by her story, as well as her constant questioning and smiley nature. When she leaves I ask how she’s going to spend the evening? “I have learned so much from chatting to you. I am going to work out how to keep you!”

Back at the hotel Kim is down, so I join her for our second KFC at the mall next door; being of Malaysian heritage, Kim thinks UK KFC is done wrong. I don’t know about that, but my popcorn chicken biryani is the hottest thing I’ve had since I got here. In pain I squeeze a ketchup satchet into my mouth, only to read the back – “Contains spices”. I nick a limey ice drink no one wants, containing lashings of masala. I can’t taste anything. The ice is cold though. The mall is unbelievably packed. There’s even a little train going round for toddlers. I try to get some pashminas, but my haggling is slightly dampened by someone holding a bag of KFC at the entrance to the shop. Having managed to get only a small discount, I once again become the moron who spends too much money. Liv has drawn, but could have won. Another whitewash averted.

The next morning Nick Faulks informs me Wales are safe. Nick is my source for Fide gossip and this is voting time. There are lots of controversies, one of which is a proposal to have non-International Olympic Committee countries removed from the Olympiad. It is defeated, so Wales, the Jersey girls and the rest live to fight another day.

Captain Healey prepares board four reserve Sarah Kett for battle with Malta. Photograph: Fide/Mark Livshitz

Our next match is against Malta. Kim has the day off, so we are deploying our secret weapon – head of delegation Sarah Kett.The morning is spent training her in the Hippo, reckoning this gives her the best chance of long-term survival. Khushi manages to sit at the wrong board, forgetting she’s been promoted. Whilst wondering just how much trouble we’re going to give this arbiter, whom I previously joked with over Khushi’s en passant game in round two, one of the Thai girls near us collapses. Another medical emergency? No, she’s been trying to hide from a photographer and fallen off her chair backwards. It’s going to be a silly round isn’t it?

Khushi has a fine position, but tactics go wrong and she gets ground down. Sarah reaches a position where f7-5 will completely dominate the kingside, but she’s been told not to push her f-pawn. I smile and return to my book, Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith. Hold on, I espy an f5! Wow, she might win this!? Oh, but now the b-file has opened. And White can play Rxb7, winning a bishop. Never mind, two and a quarter hours’ survival is pretty good going. 0-2. Liv gives us a point. Now, it’s time for Hiya the hero!

Hiya’s position on two, against Maltese chess maestro Clarence Psaila’s wife Uranchimeg, is very blocked. Hiya seems to have dropped an exchange – or is this a genius trap, realising in this position the knight outdoes the rook? She plants the most tentacled octopus knight you will ever see on e4, before white grabs a hot pawn. Hiya concentrates, calculates and finds the way to cause her opponent the most difficulties. Time dwindling, White drops a queen. Then a bishop. Eventually White concedes. I never had any doubt – Hiya’s aristeia

After that late game we shuttle back to the hotel, eat and meet up for the final time in the rooftop bar. It’s a bit of a sombre occasion. Apart from anything else, the boys are lamenting missed chances against an Estonian side who arrogantly seem not to have prepped them. Two draws, including one for Alex Bullen against a GM, but it could have been more. 2-2 was kind of the perfect result for us today (not that I wanted Sarah and Khushi to lose). Instead of a harder final match and 1/2, we’re on for 1.5/2 and a tournament 50%. The men have Jersey of all teams, while we’re going back to Oceania – Fiji at 10am.

Wales’s Alex Bullen soaks up the adulation after almost downing an Estonian GM. Photograph: Fide/Lennart Ootes