In August, India was crowned the joint winner, along with Russia, at the online Chess Olympiad
Chess conjures up stock images. Like that of two studious men sitting pensively across a table and staring intently at the board with its carved figures striding across the black and white squares.
An unlikely smash hit on Netflix, though, has given chess a makeover. The Queens Gambit (read review), about a girl extraordinarily gifted in chess, has captivated audiences the world over. And chess has finally entered the mainstream. From an Indian point of view, the streaming of the limited series could not have been timed better. The game has seen unprecedented interest these past few months after the COVID-19 pandemic pressed the pause button on many sporting activities.
Chess has found a way to beat the dreaded virus. Online games featuring players of all standards, from beginners to grandmasters, are being played across time zones. In late August, India was crowned the joint winner, along with Russia, at the online Chess Olympiad. This was the first time the prestigious event was held virtually. The hashtag #ChessOlympiad trended on Twitter for a while. And hundreds of thousands followed the event live on YouTube. Never before has chess garnered such sustained attention in the country. There are newspaper reports of an Indian boy achieving remarkable feats in chess tournaments in Europe, braving the lockdown. And of course, queens gambit has become more than just chess jargon.
It was Viswanathan Anand, the five-time world champion, who single-handedly revolutionised the game in India. He caught the imagination of the sporting fraternity when he won the world junior title in 1987. It was the biggest achievement by an Indian chess player up until then. Anand soon established himself as one of the brightest stars in world chess, inspiring thousands of youngsters in India to take it up as a career.
India is now ranked No. 4 in the world, and has 66 Grandmasters (only four countries have more). There are two Indians in the womens top 10 and three Indian men in the top 25. India has been steadily winning multiple medals at world age-group championships every year.
Yet, after Anand, no Indian has won the coveted world title in classical chess. Anand won it on five occasions. The classical category is considered more prestigious than the rapid and blitz formats, which are played over shorter durations. Can we hope to see another Indian conquering the world stage in the near future?
Maybe not. But there are a couple of young talents capable of mounting a serious bid for the crown a few years from now. Nihal Sarin, 16, and R. Praggnanandhaa, 15, have already been recognised as two of the most exciting prospects and are Indias best bets at the moment. Players like D. Gukesh (14), Raunak Sadhwani (14), Bharat Subramaniyam (13), R. Vaishali (19), Arjun Erigaisi (17), Aryan Chopra (18), Prithu Gupta (16), Leon Mendonca (14), Divya Deshmukh (14) and Vantika Agrawal (17) hold promise too.
I think it is possible for India to have more players in the top 20, says Anand. For that, the tournaments have to resume (after the pandemic subsides), but I know they are working hard on their game.
The players are doing their bit, but they wouldnt mind more support from the authorities, be it the All India Chess Federation (AICF) or the State and Central governments. Compared to many other sporting authorities, the AICF has been active and has succeeded in putting in place a system to identify players with potential through its several age-group tournaments. But it suffers from a lack of imagination when it comes to taking the game to the next level; there are not many big-ticket events in the country to attract prominent Indian names, let alone overseas stars.
Early this year, the AICF split into two factions, both of which went to court. There have been instances of two Indian teams being drawn up for the same international tournament, signalling a clear crisis at the decision-making level.
The infighting in the AICF has affected the game badly, says V. Saravanan, International Master and coach. The lockdown was when they could have shown some leadership. They could have conducted national championships online, but they didnt. They are far too busy waging legal battles.
Saravanan and his contemporaries had to travel to Europe to play in quality tournaments to fulfil the norms required to become a Grandmaster. Things still havent changed much for the present generation. Players such as Aravindh Chithambaram and S.L. Narayanan, Indias No. 7 and No. 11, respectively, could benefit immensely if strong tournaments are held regularly in India. You need to play in closed (round robin) or quality open tournaments, says Narayanan. But only if you are sponsored or employed can you travel to Europe. Its very difficult for people like me who arent.
Koneru Humpy, the reigning world womens rapid champion, agrees with Narayanan. In India, you have enough tournaments up to a certain level, she says. But once you become a Grandmaster and if you wish to move up the ladder in world rankings, you wont find any useful tournaments here.
Bharat Singh Chouhan, who has served the AICF in various capacities for more than two decades, says there is the Tata Steel tournament in Kolkata. But that began only in 2018. The AICF should have begun conducting high-profile tournaments at least two decades ago. Anand won his first World title in 2000 but had been a global superstar for years before that. However, apart from the three official tournaments by FIDE (the world chess governing body), India did not host a single event good enough for him to compete in when he was at his peak. A regular tournament featuring him and other big names in world chess, as well as young Indians, would have given the game more visibility and evinced corporate interest.
The AICF could indeed up their marketing and PR game. Chess may not be a spectator sport, but it is one of the few truly global sports in which India has several major stars. Varugeese Koshy, a vastly experienced International Master who is also one of Indias most respected coaches, says the AICF hasnt moved with the times. The game has flourished in India primarily because of Anand and because of the support of parents who have invested time and money in their children, says Koshy.
Koshy is also disappointed that players are not part of the administration. The National Sports Development Code demands that, he says. That is one of the reasons why we formed the Chess Players Forum. The players interest has to be protected.
Humpy raises another issue that has been vexing Indian players. Chess doesnt get the recognition it deserves, she says. Chess players and coaches are ignored for top sports awards like the Arjuna and Dronacharya. It is strange that somebody like Vidit Gujrathi, who is ranked World No. 20, has not won an Arjuna. The AICF has to address this problem.
Chouhan says the AICF has requested the government to treat chess on a par with cricket when it comes to awards and honours.
But it is not just the lack of recognition thats bothering Indias mind champions. Players are no longer assured of a job if they do well in the game. And they need to work; Anand is the only Indian to make a living purely as a player.
Earlier, public sector companies and nationalised banks would recruit players regularly, now only the Indian Railways does so. I am worried that my son has not been able to get a job despite being one of Indias strongest players, says Sunil Duth, Narayanans father. I wont be surprised if parents think twice before planning a career in chess for their children.
Setting up a national league, like the IPL in cricket, could help. It is high time we had a chess league in India, says Saravanan. That is how we should professionalise the game. If Maharashtra can build a successful league, there is no reason we cannot have a national league. Most of Indias titled players, including Anand, compete in various leagues, mostly in Europe. China also has a popular league. So does Bangladesh, though it has only five grandmasters.
There is much room for improvement in the country where chess originated 14 centuries ago. If not here, then where?
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