In the stipulated 15-minute window between their concluded games and submitting a written appeal for a review, India's non-playing captain Srinath Narayanan was certain it was over for his team. The Online Chess Olympiad this year has had several instances of internet disruptions, none working to the benefit of the affected sides. Narayanan was convinced the outcome of the episode during Sunday's final - two Indian players losing connection and as a result, their respective games - wasn't going to be any different.
There was another crucial reason for worry. Beyond mandating players to have stable internet connections and forming a three-member Appeals Committee to look into a protest or review, FIDE didn't have in place regulations in black and white to deal with the kind of situation they found themselves in during the India-Russia final on Sunday.
India's request for a review went to the Appeals Committee, comprising Mikhail Khodarkovsky (U.S.) and Sava Stoisavljevic (Serbia). The third member of the panel, FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich, sat out the appeal since he belongs to Russia. The world body later announced that in the 'absence of a unanimous verdict' by the committee, Dvorkovich had declared both finalists joint winners.
It was viewed by many as a 'compromise solution' to appease a thriving Indian chess community and raised the question that if the Appeals Committee was incapable of arriving at a decision on its own, how did it serve its purpose of existence?
In a 54-minute interview to Chess.com on Tuesday, Dvorkovich acknowledged that it was "clearly an imperfection in FIDE regulations" and that they'll need reserve members in the Appeals Committee to always have a three-member jury for a decisive verdict. He also agreed that in future, as president of the body, he should distance himself from the Appeals Committee. He also revealed that the committee agreed on not declaring the two games India lost on time as lost.
"They were at least three possibilities to proceed, maybe more. One was to replay those two games, and many people actually proposed that. For me, the problem with that kind of proposal was both on the fairness and the technical side. On the technical side, the internet issues were not over, and replaying would mean we should postpone until the next day. There were other options, like replaying starting from the positions where the games had been stopped, but most people believe that it is even worse than replaying from the beginning. People would have time to think about the position... I think everything should be decided eventually on the board and what happened this time is not an optimal thing. I was choosing between two bad choices," Dvorkovich said.
Unlike earlier instances in the tournament, the internet connectivity problem on Sunday was caused by CenturyLink, an internet service provider that keeps websites up and running, suffering an outage. It had a ripple effect globally, taking down services like Cloudflare, Hulu, PlayStation, Xbox among others. Along with over 25 million internet properties on Cloudflare, which acts as a content delivery network and domain name server, the Olympiad's host platform Chess.com, too was hit.
While online chess has seen a remarkable surge in recent months, the challenges that come with it haven't quite mitigated. In the Magnus Carlsen-organized Chessable Masters last month, the world No 1's Chinese opponent Ding Liren lost from a completely drawn position in the first game of the first semifinal mini-match. Carlsen responded with magnanimity. The Norwegian resigned in four moves in the next game against Liren because he believed it was "the only correct way".
FIDE has a lot of ground to cover before major online chess tournaments can be turned into a sustainable, long-term option. Starting with laying down a contingency plan tailored for all kinds of likely game stoppage scenarios. "I think there was a lot of time to draft the regulations," world No 7 Levon Aronian told ESPN. "After all esports has been around for close to a decade. Why couldn't we borrow from it to draw up a set of rules?" Aronian was a member of the Armenian side that forfeited its quarterfinal encounter against India after teammate Haik Martirosyan lost internet connection and his game on time against India's Nihal Sarin. FIDE then turned down Armenia's appeal for a review.
"The regulations clearly say that internet connectivity is the sole responsibility of the players. Based on that and only on that, the appeals committee didn't have any other opinion or solution rather than to confirm the result of the game that had been announced by the chief arbiter, that Haik, unfortunately, lost to Sarin," Dvorkovich said.
Chess.com, the playing platform for the event too refuted the Armenian team's claim of being adversely impacted by a server issue.
"When observing our records, we found that some of the Armenian players had minor disconnections, then reconnected, and were disconnected again, clearly pointing to local or global ISP issues," Nick Barton, director of business development, chess.com said. "If there were issues at our end, connections for the players would have been cut immediately."
"All impactful disconnections," he added, "were due to user connectivity quality issues, localized infrastructure stability issues, or swan events like the international outage. Server loads at Chess.com never reached even half of their capacity at any time during the Olympiad."
According to FAQs listed on chess.com, a faster connection does not necessarily benefit a player in that the lag time for each player is calculated and compensated by the server. So players with a 100 mbps and 500 mbps connections have the same amount of time on the clock.
Once a player's move or request hits their network, the time it spends inside the server is generally less than 10-20 milliseconds, explains Barton. Chess.com, he says, only controls the last 10-20 ms of lag. Outside of that, the speed and connection quality is controlled by the general internet and players' local ISP.
Given previous instances of internet disconnection, Narayanan didn't expect a favourable decision on Sunday. In the group stage, India lost two games on time after Koneru Humpy and Vidit Gujrathi suffered power failure at their respective homes. "The response I expected from FIDE was, 'OK we understand your problem but bad luck nothing can be done about it'," Narayanan told ESPN. "I was nervous. I wanted us to have a foolproof appeal which wouldn't be rejected on technical grounds. Both Vidit and I had two lawyer friends whom we'd requested to draft the appeal but 15 minutes was too little time. So I went ahead myself, wrote down how our players Nihal (Sarin) and Divya (Deshmukh) had lost connectivity, mentioned the global internet outage and submitted the appeal."
In the appeal, India did not seek a specific resolution like continuing the affected games from where they'd stopped or replaying them. Their only request was to not confirm the two games lost on time as losses, leaving it on the Committee and FIDE to make a final call.
The eventual verdict though came as a huge surprise.
It didn't amuse members of the Russian team. In a scathing missive on Facebook, 2018 World rapid champion, 24 year old Daniil Dubov wrote: "Any important sport event is a failure without a winner. We are all disappointed with the final decision...We are not a random team and this is not the way we want to win. I personally thought that can nothing can be worse today than losing a match but I was wrong. I can only speak on my behalf... we would definitely prefer to restart two games instead of such a ridiculous decision."
Narayanan, while empathizing with Russia's reservations, pointed out that replaying matches wasn't a practical option. "The internet outage wasn't fixed until five hours so playing again that day would have been difficult. I can understand the Russian team feels a certain way. It's normal for most players. Some of the reactions were quite emotional and can be countered logically. We weren't consulted by FIDE either before they announced the verdict. But honestly, under those circumstances, this was perhaps the best solution."