Keeping up with Carlsen: Bengaluru CA's chance face-off with world champ

A screenshot of Santosh Hassan Sampath vs Magnus Carlsen from the FIDE Online World Corporate Chess Championship. FIDE

Ten minutes before the start of his corporate event chess game on Friday night, Santosh Hassan Sampath, a senior assistant financial controller with Oracle in Bengaluru got a call from the organizers asking for his photograph. Along with the request, the identity of the opponent he was paired to play was casually slipped in - world No 1 Magnus Carlsen. "I was too shocked to react," says Santosh, "I had no idea Carslen was playing the tournament and hadn't in my wildest dreams imagined I'd be facing him."

Santosh lost the game in 25 moves but he woke up on Saturday to a flood of congratulatory messages, social media mentions and his newfound star status in the company as the guy who faced the world champion.

The FIDE World Corporate Chess Championship, a team event which has a mammoth list of corporate giants across the world fielding their employees and a maximum of one invited player (and one 2500+ rated player), is being organized for the first time, between February 19-21. Carlsen is representing Kindred, online gambling operator and the parent company of his sponsor Unibet. Other top players include Anish Giri (Optiver), Ian Nepomniachtchi (SBER) and Radek Wojtaszek (WASKO). Originally planned as an over-the-board tournament in Barcelona, it shifted online thanks to the pandemic.

FIDE broke down the playing teams according to time zones, hired testing teams in Spanish, Russian, and English, got dozens of arbiters on board and sent out manuals since many of the participants were playing their first-ever chess tournament.

"We had to verify the list of players, to make sure there were no professional squads as the whole idea was primarily a competition between people who work in corporate houses and love chess," says Fide director general Emil Sutovsky, "We waived all fees, so every team could play for free - but we expect companies to donate towards our social programs - chess in education, chess for seniors and chess for people with disabilities." The exercise is also a way for the world body to build networking and lay the groundwork for future potential corporate partnerships.

While FIDE planned for close to 100 corporate houses signing up, they ended up with a total of 288 team registrations and an avalanche of queries. "I think I may have asked the most number of questions," Santosh, says with a smidgen of guilt, "You know, I wasn't sure about the time control, team composition and whether reserve players are allowed... I just had so many doubts. I've played open events during my college days and I play online quite regularly on Chess.com, but this is my first online tournament." In preparation for the tournament, Santosh created chess.com accounts for his colleagues who are new to the universe of online chess and they sparred against each other for practice almost every other day after office hours..

Playing White, Carlsen opened with the King's Indian; Santosh declined the gambit but soon after lost his way. "I was a little nervous and missed a couple of moves. Just getting to play the world's best player is such a rare chance for a regular guy like me." A 1400 player, Santosh picked up chess from his mother, who had in turn learnt the sport from hours of watching her father duel over the board with her brother. The 33 year-old south Bengaluru resident who actively played chess during his college years, moved away from the sport once he began pursuing CA and serious academics took over. He returned to the board once he had landed a job, sneaking frequent breaks to the office cafeteria to follow the 2013 World Championship match between Carlsen and Viswananthan Anand.

A year ago, he decided to take his love for the sport up by a notch. "I started taking lessons at the Karnataka School of Chess. Outside my 9-6 job, chess is what I love the most and I didn't want it to stagnate." Friday's chance encounter against the sport's biggest name has stirred something in Santosh. He's kicked about improving his game and turning out in FIDE-rated events someday.

For now, Santosh is just relishing being the blue-eyed boy at work. "This game is going on my CV for sure and now that bosses love me, maybe I should ask for a good appraisal."