The Rise and Rise of Chess Players

Young stars can now afford to dream of growing up in chess, which was not the case before

Young stars can now afford to dream of growing up in chess, which was not the case before

‘Thambi’, the mascot of the 44th Chess Olympiad, greeted me shortly after I landed at Chennai airport. Dressed in his white dhoti and shirt, he greeted each passenger with clasped hands from the blue picket fence. I encountered him several times during the smooth journey to Mamallapuram, the scenic site of the Olympiad. The most prestigious team event in the world for chess, with more than 1,700 players from 186 countries, created a huge buzz. It is getting the attention it deserves from the public and media in India. It may be the biggest chess event for India, but there have been great ones before such as the 2000 and 2013 World Championships. However, these events have not quite captivated the public imagination as the Olympiad did.

Viswanathan Anand was the common feature of these two events. I remember the frenzy he created at the Hyatt Regency in Delhi over two decades ago. I saw how much he meant to Indian chess fans. It was my second meeting with him. The first time I met him, I was not a journalist. I was one of the players in the Kerala State Junior Chess Championship at Pala. He had come for a congratulation after winning the Junior World Championship in 1987; it was a turning point for his career and for Indian chess.

When Anand faced Magnus Carlsen at home, 13 years after his first title, media interest in chess had increased dramatically. I remember having chatted, with Hyatt Regency of Chennai, with members of a particularly numerous Norwegian contingent, who did not want to miss the possible coronation of their first world champion. Carlsen did not disappoint them. Now it is back in Chennai and is one of the biggest attractions of the Olympiad. He arrived shortly after abdicating his world title, which he won five times in a row, citing a lack of motivation.

Quick steps

Interest in chess in India has grown even more since Carlsen’s last visit. The live broadcast of chess tournaments, the rapid progress of the game during the pandemic (it is adapted to the virtual world), the fact that India jointly won the Online Chess Olympiad with Russia, the popularity from the Netflix series The Queen’s Bet, which propelled the game into the mainstream, and the emergence of a fabulous band of teenagers ready to take on the world are all contributing factors to this phenomenon. That Anand mentors youngsters bodes well for Indian chess. Young stars like R. Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi, Nihal Sarin, D. Gukesh and Raunak Sadhwani can now afford to dream of becoming really big in chess which was not the case before.

An anecdote illustrates this well. Early in his career, while Anand was traveling by train, another passenger struck up a conversation with him. “What are you doing,” he asked Anand. “I play chess,” Anand said. The passenger insisted: “But what do you do for a living?” Anand again replied, “I play chess.” The man said, “Who do you think you are?” Viswanathan Anand?

Another Indian star, from that era, also had to answer a tough question when he was introduced to someone as a chess player. “Single or double? the person wanted to know. A chess star today may not have to go through such experiences.

Chess knowledge in India has come a long way since then. People know that the possibilities are enormous for a talented child. That’s why parents take their children to chess lessons and make huge sacrifices. For example, at a tournament many years ago, I met a soft-spoken man who told me he had quit his job as a lecturer to focus on the chess career of his daughter. Today, she is the strongest player in the Chennai Chess Olympiad. And you guessed it right: it’s Koneru Humpy.

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