The good, the ugly, the bad

Our hero, captaining the Welsh women’s team at the Olympiad, is completely exhausted – and his team have only played three rounds

Michael Healey

Three rounds in and I haven’t been this emotionally drained since that Polymorph attack. How we’re meant to survive another eight I have no idea.

A routine has developed. After breakfast we have a general coaching session on the restaurant floor, followed by half-hour slots. This is partly because lifts will only go to the floor you are keycarded for, with stairs – if they exist – barred to guests. We are also supposed to call lifts using toothpicks. Eventually the Olympiad officials round us from lunch and try to shove us on buses for the venue, 30-odd minutes away, along a road white- and black-washed to form a terrifying constant chessboard. Murals, posters and mascots form a permanent passing background, the overall surreal effect akin to the film Yellow Submarine. The local governor’s photo is placed above a crappy wooden chessboard I would never let kids play on as pieces just fall over. It is in any case set up wrong. The cows and goats don’t seem to notice. There are neon signs, road bumps, waterfowl and roving gangs of dogs.

The venue itself is fairly overwhelming, a mass of people which makes the introvert feel quite uncomfortable. Also, for a game based on spatial awareness, people don’t seem to have any concept of moving slowly, stepping aside to pass, or stopping before blind corners. Doors are both ways, and as someone who pretends outwardly to be a polite Englishman you can often spend a whole minute trying to get through.

In round one, my Welsh team were up against India 2: titled 2300s all the way down. The darlings of India (well, second string of darlings). We are in Hall One, chamber of champions, the special place of super-GMs and their amateur fodder (England women are in scum Hall Two). Cameras and filmcrews, space to wander about, fans up and down the walkway pointing and staring at four suited-up national heroes, facing my four red-jacketed Welshies. In my captain’s speech, I say there’s way more pressure on them than there is on us; two of them are over 30, so more dead brain cells than alive; and 2300s are rubbish anyway. Accuracy of captain’s speech: precog.

The match starts strangely when Khushi, the Welsh board four, plays an inaccurate opening, but her opponent decides to go after a pawn. Then the 17-year-old Indian prodigy huffs. Then she puts her head down. She looks fed up, as my 13-year-old continues to play sensible moves. The 2300 is eating up time and entering what can only be described as “a strop”.  

Olivia Smith on board one has the line she wanted, and her opponent is making strange moves. She must be better?! Kim on two is a bit worse, but not much against the IM. Hiya on three has exactly the position she wanted on the board, which we knew the computer said was +1. Hiya the 1600 is definitely better against the 2300 WGM! I am torn between grinning my head off and bewilderment. I can’t help but fist-pump moves, stalking up and down behind the team like a prowling tiger, hoping that aggressive energy will feed into my girls, or that my scowling will intimidate the titled women. Probably it has more the look of a hunched Winnie the Pooh, but hey – that might distract India 2 as well.

Khushi and Kim continue to survive. Liv’s (short for Olivia, geddit) position looks great. Hiya gets too much fury radiation, and flamethrowers insanity all over the board. Even I, the resident lunatic of London chess, am raising my eyebrows. This is savagery like I’ve never seen except in the pages of game collections. On the Indian commentary there is apoplexy at what is going on. Are India 2 going down??

Sadly the incredible rush can’t last. Khushi’s knight get trapped. Kim’s time gets low. Hiya’s flames gets dowsed. Liv remains, struggling away in an endgame, apparently drawn but beyond my feeble understanding. Instead she loses, so we gain zilch for our efforts. Harsh.

Busts of the Buddha in Mahabalipuram, home of the Olympiad. Photograph: Kishore Ragav Ganesh Kumar

Meanwhile, Wales Open team (the boys) were drawn against fourth seeds Spain. And wow did they give them a tussle. Just seeing Shirov in person was amazing, but he seemed to have taken offence at my red bandana, focusing all the rage of his position on to my forehead. The boys did incredibly well, threatening an incredible upset, but eventually went down to the 2700s. Have a quick chat with chess writer and all-round luminary Malcolm Pein, who kindly suggests that if it hadn’t been for the Welshos’ heroics, his article would have been on the Welshettes. Great pride from today’s performances; definitely the best lost match I’ve ever been part of.

A new day. I receive an email from tournament chief arbiter, England’s own Alex Holowczak. Accreditation is to be done by today at 2pm, or there will be a fee. I reply to ask what is this accreditation? He doesn’t know, it’s just something they’ve told him to message us. Liv is desperate to get us Indian sim cards, so we can all Whatsapp each other. I use one of the lift-toothpicks to try and open the port of a smartphone I’ve brought (Hiya had to point this out to me). This does not work, so I go in search of a paperclip from reception. I do hope this isn’t actually the camera hole I’m poking.

Round two: Palau. Pretty flag. Their openings on the databases make little sense, but they can clearly play if given the chance. Suspicious board order. Location: Hall Two, near to the doors for refreshments/toilets, and close to the spectators. Captain’s speech: calm today after yesterday’s insanity. Hiya, in particular, should picture Yoshi, a Japanese gardener of Bonsai trees. Calmly and quietly, she must snip at the position. No chainsaws and flamethrowers today. “But I’m playing the Sicilian.” “He’s a Sicilian Japanese gardener,” I say. “He looks after the Mafia’s Bonsai trees.” Kim’s task is to stay ahead on time, unless she gets a position which requires time investment.
Accuracy of captain’s speech: well Hiya’s board is a default, so pretty calm I guess?!

It does rankle that Hiya has to come all the way to the venue then go straight back (or not so straight, the shuttle bus system being less “every 10 minutes” and more “sitting for an hour fed up and powerless in the face of constant prevarication”). This default system seems particularly idiotic. Oh well, one to the good, even if I’d have liked to see Hiya play. The Palau team are lovely, and teach us the word Alii! (Hello!). Apparently they have no word for goodbye; Maybe they never say goodbye.

Liv wins a nice, simple game, although with one slight inefficiency distracted by the possibility of an early shuttle home. Possibly we need to move her out of sight of the clock. Khushi wins an early exchange, then proceeds to block the position up. The game seems to have been cursed: the aircon tries to blow their scoresheets and pieces off; the Palauan player forgets to press her clock, causing Khushi worry. Then Khushi employs en passant on the c5 pawn, dxc6 – only c7-c6 was the unorthodox move two. The arbiter notices, the game rewinds five moves to the illegal move, time is added but the clock refuses to restart. Opponent offers a draw; Khushi offers a draw; there is much debate; our neighbouring arbiter looking on giggling with me; our arbiter hoping to be rid of this troublesome pair. After more discussion, draw! Never mind, both are off the mark, and we’ve got the points to win the match, hurrah.

Kim gets the position we all dream of, pushing knights back and gaining a true olympian centre. But, as some wise coach once said, “With a great centre comes great responsibility”. A motorway pile-up in extreme slow motion, Kim’s position goes from optically perfect to an explosion with limbs everywhere. No one deserves this, but it is a great experience to learn from. I wince as she recovers once, twice, three times, but the final blunder is too much. Black wins. Kim is devastated, and we all feel the same. A win for the team, but in the ugliest manner possible. Drinks in the hotel rooftop bar (for those of us of age) very much needed. It boasts a view of our locale, heaving with lights and heat and noise and everything you would expect from urban India. Kim is kept away from the side.

Sunset over Mahabalipuram after another rollercoaster day. Photograph: Prasanna Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy

Round 3: Belgium. We’re outrated by a cumulative 1800+ points. The Belgians play something different each and every game. Fantastic. Location: Away from the doors, but by the arbiter’s station. Spectators, children and noisy infants. Captain’s speech: Keep calm, remember your prep, if they play something odd just roll with it. Sensible chess. Accuracy: Maybe I am still speaking Palauan. 

A little Vietnamese woman barges me out of the way, a new system of sticky red dots having been introduced. Everyone must have a red dot. I ask if tomorrow we will getting a different coloured dot? She looks at me as if I’m mad. Dot the dot lady whizzes around the hall, the first wave of stressful distractions today will offer.

Barely have we started and I storm off into the tournament hall, absolutely furious with myself. In prepping Khushi, I have overwhelmed her with lines and ideas, but failed to cement the basics of her opening. Within half a dozen moves Bxf7+ has won a pawn. The fury of round one is back, but now turned inwards. 

Hiya seems confused by her opponent’s offbeat try, getting herself in tangles and repeatedly moving her queen. Kim has gone for a Benko, backing herself despite never having played it before, convinced her opponent will repeat some innocuous line we briefly practised rather than take the pawn. I presume Liv’s secret prep is working; her opponent seems a bit thrown. But now she is eating time. Is there really a d6 pawn on?

It takes me a long time to calm down from my utter failure this round, stalking around Scum Hall grinding my teeth – more good news for the dentist after my constant intake of Indian sweet things. Thankfully, matters improve. Khushi’s opponent is trying to finish the operation, but using not a scalpel but some kind of washcloth. Kim is again eating time, but at least she’s in the game. Liv is playing wonderfully, her experienced opponent playing some inexplicable moves. Hiya has stabilised the position, and her opponent is looking very worried. I resume my round one hulking presence between occasional mini-naps. During one snooze there is a tap on my shoulder. A member of the spectators is leaning over the barrier – can he have that bottle of water?

During one of my waking-walking moments, I look up to a gasp worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe. One of the male players, 50 metres away, reaches out across the board in agony, his hands clenched in frozen agony. He collapses over the board and spills on to the floor. A crowd forms. There are no shouts for a medic; no clocks stop. The tournament continues more or less as normal, and I can see the man’s legs shaking. I offer up a prayer, hope, and try to extend a spiritual forcefield around my girls. Hiya’s lust for victory in a position I suspect was dynamically level has led to her being checkmated. I take her off to watch Liv, away from rescue operations. 

It is hard to know what to think. I’m well aware that this has happened before at Olympiads, but playing on like this seems callous. My players barely seem to notice, which is good I suppose. Out of the corner of my eye I see a spectator grinning, up on tiptoes trying to see what is happening. In fact they’re all standing up now, trying to get a look. I feel quite ill, sip my Coke and close my eyes. Eventually the man seems to be taken out by wheelchair. Thousands of volunteers and police officers, but where had the paramedics been? 

For the second time, a Belgian male player turns up on our side of the table. I walk up to him, flick his badge, angrily bark “Belgian” like a Teutonic officer of old, and motion for him to go around to the other side. He looks confused. I point again and explain, forcefully – he is Belgian, this is our side, he should be behind his team not facing them. This registers and he apologises. I have a new batch of angry energy to feed my girls. Adam Hunt, the Welsh Open captain, is amused by this encounter. It’s not often you get to tell a 2400 off.

Khushi finally folds, her longest game ever by a wide margin, holding off her opponent rated over 500 points higher for nearly four hours. Kim also concedes, having battled to a rook endgame but playing much better than yesterday. Liv is left, and I wander off to try not to distract her. The position seems winning, her opponent short of time, but there are many paths to examine.

I wander over to the Welshos. At one point they had looked extremely good again, against Paraguay’s GMs. They go down 4-0, a terrible score from the positions they had. Well Liv will win, then we’ll have outscored the men at least … Idly wandering back Liv is clutching her king. And I can see why. Somehow Black has fluked a tactic, and, when the king moves, a bishop sac will see a pawn through. She later tells me she was not only in shock, but continued to hold her king because she couldn’t recall which square it was on. Her rictus grip seems to last forever, and I swear into the emptied myriad rows of boards. 

Thankfully all is not quite lost. Liv recovers, and makes a draw against her higher-rated opponent. Apparently for tiebreaks just one draw is better than a whitewash, so we go out happier, ready for our nightly arguments with the hotel shuttle service. Next stop Namibia, whose players include “Jolly” and “Patience”. This might just be the match we need right now.