Winning silverware should always be the target: Women’s Chess Team coach GM Jacob Aagaard

Jacob Aagaard is a multi-talented chess personality. He is a Grandmaster, an author of the most popular chess books for the top levels, a business man with his company Quality chess, and a world-renowned trainer. His talent in teaching has been far from ordinary, which can be seen through his trainees, the most recent of ones being the American Grandmaster Sam Shankland. Sam Shankland rose to fame by winning the US Closed Championship, the Capablanca Memorial, the American Continental, and reaching a career high Elo of 2700+ all in a single year: 2018. Looking at his tremendous records and talent, the All India Chess Federation invited him to become the official coach of the Indian Women’s Chess Team at the Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia this September. The Bridge speaks to him in an exclusive interview, reflecting on his thoughts post the tournament.

Image: The Hindu

1. Firstly, how do you feel after the Olympiad?

I am very tired. And now I have returned to my day job after my “holiday”. Also, my partner and my kids have missed me, so there is a lot to of catching up to do.

2. We went in with a strong team but faltered towards the business-end of the tournament. What did you think of this?

I have my own thoughts about what went wrong, which I presented to the AICF in my three page report. I do not want to give too many inside details, but I think it was quite obvious that one player was out of shape, which is something you cannot guard yourself against. However, you can detect players that are in shape. Soumya has played fantastic chess ever since the selecting at the end of April and would have been board three in the starting line-up, had she been selected. I have suggested to the AICF that we do selection of boards 4 & 5 closer to the event next time.

3. Going into the Olympiad, what were your thoughts and expectations? Do you think that they were fulfilled to some extent in the tournament?

I was nervous. It is a big responsibility. I tried to do some things and go by certain strategies, but life is difficult. You have to deal with people who have ideas of their own!

4. How would you rate the performance of the team overall?

We scored about 1.5 points below expected score in 44 games. It is really within what should be considered a normal result. Clearly it was not a great success, but it was also not a very bad performance. But it did certainly not give us any silverware, which is what the tournament is about and should be the target.

5. Where do you think we need to improve upon? What are some of the
strengths that we have as a team?

In two years we are likely to have an entirely different team. Four of the women in the team are married, one is already a mother. We do not know who will play and we do not know where the young players coming up will be in 24 months. I have some team observations about strategy that I passed on to the AICF about things that can be done better. I certainly learned a lot. If I am the captain, I will have different assumptions going into the event and especially in the preparation. If it is someone else, I will share my experience with them.

6. Can you talk a bit about some individual performances of the players? What struck you the most in each player?

Humpy came back after a few years away. In the beginning she was on fire, but at the end you could see the rust a little bit. She blundered against Peru in round 10 in a horrible way. Without this her performance would have been on par. Harika was on par. The loss against the US was interesting from the perspective of a trainer, but I also will give her some feedback on her style and how I think she should approach the game. What happens then will be up to her.

7. IM Tania Sachdev missed out on the individual bronze by just one rating point in difference to the eventual winner. What can you say about her performance?

She was on track for gold until she lost two games with Black in a row. The first of these was not great. She should have repeated moves and had she asked me, I would have instructed her to do it. She is allowed to do this, but chose to play on. It was bad for her and for the team. But we all make mistakes and she understood it was a mistake and I really did not hold it against her. In the next round she was crushed by my old student Marina Brunello who won gold on board 4. This can happen. In the end she had the best performance of the team, if we take into account of the different level of the players.

8. This time the team had some ‘seconds’ working for them on the side.

How do you think it benefitted the players?

It helped a lot when they took the seconds advice. Not that everything was perfect in that department. Tania’s loss against Hungary partly came from bad advice in the opening. But still, the repetition was there! On the other hand I gave her a piece of preparation in another round that helped a lot towards a big win.

9. The All India Chess Federation had also made some massive improvements in the facilities for the players? Can you please share your thoughts about these initiatives by the governing body of chess in India?

I am deeply grateful to Mr Bharat Singh for making all of our wishes come true and for supporting us also when we did not deliver a great result. Had we been lucky in round 3 or 5, we might have had a different tournament.

10. Can you tell us about the entire experience of being a coach of the

Indian women’s team?

It was very hard and very challenging, especially at the moment when disappointment set in and the players were less happy. But this is sports and it is still worth trying.

11. Looking forward into the future, what are your expectations from the team? What are the next tournaments that the team would be playing in?

Besides the Asian Championship, which is not so strong, 2020 is the next big team tournament.

12. How would you be continuing your role as the coach of the Indian Women’s team for the next Olympiad in 2020?

The first step will be to support the four players that have qualified for the World Championship in November. The AICF understands very well that it cannot pop up every two years and hope the players will do well. But also there are budget restraints. These issues are for the politicians, not for the trainers to solve. What each player has to learn is not for me to talk publicly about.

Image: Sportstar

13. Finally, any concluding thoughts that you would like to share about the tournament. The highs and the lows and any key moments that you felt that stood out?

Falling asleep in the captains chair and seeing the photo all over Twitter has probably the big moment. Also Tania’s win in the first round was fascinating.