Thanks to Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand’s hat trick of wins at the World Chess Championship, a new passion is emerging on the subcontinent for the nation’s oldest game, as Kamala Thiagarajan explains
It is a decades-old scene common to every hamlet, town and city in India – a dusty playground at midday, chock full of schoolchildren armed with cricket bats and rubber balls, sweating bullets, but playing earnestly, despite the searing heat. Yet these days, there’s more to it than that. On street corners and in school corridors, a new breed of Indian sports tragic is emerging – the chess fan, for whom strategy and skill holds the thrill.
Chess originated in India in the sixth century CE, a game for maharajas played on gem- and marble-encrusted boards. It mimicked the strategies of war in an effort to develop prudence, fortitude and split-second decision making. Yet as chess evolved and spread throughout the world, its native country gradually lost touch with the game.
Several centuries later, however, the world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972 created a new generation of Indian chess enthusiasts. Today, reigning World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand’s success is responsible for another wave of interest in chess.
Vibhas Pande is a former air force pilot who has been an avid chess player for the past 36 years. Pande now challenges players around the world, playing online whenever time permits. He says the Internet has made the nuances of the game more accessible in India, providing exposure to chess at an international level.
‘Chess is a growing sport in India,’ he says. ‘And the Internet has improved education about the game. Today, game databases are available on the Net for study and analysis. After Anand’s success we have more players turning grand masters and international masters than ever before.’
Augusto Pinto, Vice-President of the Goa State Chess Association, concurs: ‘There is little doubt that chess has grown enormously. Until the mid-’70s there was just one [Indian] international master, namely Manuel Aaron. Look at the number of GMs [grand masters] and other titled players now, not to mention a certain world champion! Yes, chess certainly has a strong grassroots presence, especially in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bengal. For its size, the progress of Goa has been remarkable.’
In recent years, Goa, the smallest Indian state, famous for its sun, surf and sands, has turned out a remarkable number of child chess prodigies who are making waves in chess circles across the world. Among them is nine-year-old Ivana Furtado.
Ivana was exposed to chess at the age of three by following her eight-year-old brother’s tournament progress. ‘She picked up some very basic tips this way and at the age of five, she expressed her desire to play,’ says Eli Furtado, her father. Ivana went on to win innumerable age-group State Championships, before twice taking out the World Youth Chess Championship.
High-profile Indian chess success stories have brought about a subtle yet significant change in the psyche of many Indian parents, who now look to chess as an acceptable career option for their children. Considering the conservative nature of the average Indian, who veers towards government jobs and the traditional money spinners like engineering and IT, this has been a remarkable development.
Children and chess
‘The most significant change after Anand’s success was that parents began to realise two things: firstly, that it was possible for their child to become a superstar and a millionaire by playing chess; and secondly, even if the child did not succeed at becoming a professional chess player, he/she could still do well in life, as chess [is] a learning tool,’ says Pinto.
This perception has not only given the game credibility, but it has also resulted in a horde of parents grooming their children in chess from an early age – a trend that experts say has significantly contributed to the development of the game. This fact was reinforced at the 2008 World Youth Chess Championship in Vietnam, where India won four golds, the most of any country.
Today, India’s burgeoning economic growth has also resulted in better chess infrastructure in universities and schools. ‘The chess scene is quite upbeat now,’ says Roomy Naqvy, Assistant Professor of English at Jamia Millia University, New Delhi. Naqvy began playing chess as a student, captaining his university team in 1990. He recalls sitting by the kerb near college playing – and winning – four different games simultaneously, yet couldn’t even contemplate making money from chess back then.
Thanks to the All India Chess Federation (AICF), it’s a different picture now. The AICF has created infrastructure across the country, engaged quality coaches such as Maxim Sorokin and Evgeny Vladimirov (who coached Garry Kasparov), arranged tournaments and groomed champions.
‘By the time Anand came on the scene, the AICF was a reasonably efficient chess administration and had gradually started organising more tournaments where, slowly, young players of a fairly good merit were emerging,’ Pinto explains. ‘When Anand started out, the youngest age group was the under-15 [sub-juniors], but later, younger age-group tournaments were started. This began throwing up more players into the cauldron of the chess fraternity.’
It’s an approach that is steadily seeing India succeed the Soviet Union and Russia as the world’s chess powerhouse.
VISWANATHAN ANAND PROFILE
Viswanathan Anand is a native of the southern Indian city of Chennai. First taught chess at the age of six by his mother, Anand’s rise to the top has been meteoric.
In 1984, aged 15, Anand became an international master, winning the national chess title for the first time (of three) the following year.
Building a reputation for phenomenal speed, Anand first won the World Chess Championship in 2000, defeating Latvian grand master Alexei Shirov. He won the crown again (in an eight-player, round-robin tournament) in 2007 and successfully defended it in Bonn last year against Vladimir Kramnik, himself a former champion.
Anand is one of only four players in history to achieve a World Chess Federation rating in excess of 2800 – the others being Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and the incomparable Garry Kasparov. His advice for upcoming chess players is simple: ‘Just enjoy what you do. More than anything, believe in yourself and never force results. Focus and dedication will take you far.’