Unbeaten: Tania, the leading light and firefighter of India A team, continues to dazzle

Usually, as soon as she makes a move, Tania Sachdev swishes her curls back, gets off the chair and takes a languid stroll along the hallway, often pausing beside her teammates and gazing at their board. Her face is impassive. Outside the game hall, she can be the most expressive of chess players, but inside the quiet ambience of the chess ring, she is economical with her expressions, except for her eyes that hold the mirror to her mind.

Her eyes talk vividly; observe those and you realise the state of her game, almost a running commentary. A melange of emotions flicker back and forth, from joy to rage, and angst to doubts. When the match against Georgia’s Salome Melia began, her eyes were tranquil. The early manoeuvres were all by the book, too bookish—a Ruy Lopez  opening, one of the most classical openings in the game named after a 16th century Spanish priest (who did not become a bishop though!), followed by the Morphy Defense, by far Black’s most popular early move in the Ruy Lopez line.

The thread became clear—both wanted to trade shadow punches at each other before unleashing the full-bloodied hooks and punches. Steadily, often taking an eternity for moves, they plastered the base like an assiduous mason, slowly fixing the gaps, the minute loopholes cracks, arranging the troops in the perfect order. This was not going to be a game of ambush, but one of straight bunker to bunker firing. It was just the matter of the king firing the orders. The orders came quite late in the game—on the 14th move, after almost two hours of careful positioning, into the game. Tania’s eyes firmed up like those of an Army General before belting out the shooting orders.

But hard work entailed for both players—whoever pursued a win had to breach through layers of carefully placed troops. You could shoot one down; you could get shot too. It was exactly how the game panned out—Tania captured a rook and Salome returned in kind. In a few moments, lashes of swords were flying around. By the 26th  move, Tania had taken out another pawn, both bishops and knight; her opponent had two of her pawns, a bishop and knight too. The match had opened up, there were fewer pieces on the board (though that does not mean an endgame is near), but neither had made a considerable territorial advantage, or rather, whatever thrusts they made were even. Tania had a foot on Salome’s ground and Salome had one on Tania’s too. As if each were mirroring each other’s games.

The exchange of firing continued—the Orwellian war minus shooting fits a non-combat sport like chess more than physical sports, because the game in essence is a war—though the spoils were mostly shared. Both lost the queens, and by the 35th move, all that remained were pawns, a rook and king. The king in sight for the both, a rousing climax loomed. But all three results loomed—a Tania win, a Salome triumph and a draw. A draw it was to be—as is often the case with Ruy Lopez lines, an opening with a high drawing rate.

Tania, whose unbeaten streak has extended to 6 games now, and India would take the .5 points (with the black pieces) helping them retain their top spot after the victories of Koneru Humpy and R Vaishali, and Harika Dronavalli’s draw. Her eyes had a not-too-happy or sad look.

A lot of India A team’s success owes to Tania and her unstoppable form. Tania had been her team’s leading light as well as the firefighter, the rock that has held her team from rolling down the precipice. Her versatility is understated—she can attack as well as grind down opponents, hold fort or launch a rapid counterattack. All those virtues have shone through her games this campaign, and her eyes have captured all the attending emotions.

Her Olympiad logbook—played: 6; won 4, drawn: 2, points: 5/6—looks exemplary. It’s instructive to revisit some of her games. Against Rushkona Saidova, she clawed back, with a calculative but patient game from the brink of a defeat with the black pieces in a marathon match. Against Hungary  in the fourth round, she dug deep to procure a match-winning point. Her defiance has blazed as much as her intelligence.

The run of form presents the perfect time to revisit her legacy too—she was a mould-breaker in Indian chess, among the first to bust chess as a game of aloof, withdrawn geniuses stereotype. She was different—articulate, extroverted and fashionable, with an ability to deconstruct the complicated chess language to the lay listener in her commentary. She showed that chess players should not necessarily conform to a type outside the chess hall. And this Olympiad, she has reinforced that she is incredibly difficult to beat too.  A cold-eyed defiance—it has been the predominant emotion of her eyes.

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