It was August 1987 when Viswanathan Anand won the World Junior Chess title to mark India’s arrival on the global stage. Before this, in August 1982, 15-year-old Dibyendu Barua caused ripples in the chess world by stunning then-World No. 3 Viktor Korchnoi in 57 moves in their fifth-round clash in the Lloyds Bank Masters Open in London.
It took another August, in 2022, to bring to the fore the collective strength of a growing chess nation. In the Chess Olympiad at Mamallapuram, near Chennai, India came close to winning the titles in the Open and the women’s section before settling for historic twin-bronze medals.
Interestingly, before the start of the Olympiad, Magnus Carlsen predicted that the young India 2 would do better than India 1. And that’s precisely how it panned out.
The chess world took note of the performance of the India ‘2’ team, for which young D. Gukesh won the first eight rounds, including the one against Fabiano Caruana, the spearhead of the top seed USA.
India upstaged the USA, and later, individual gold medals went to Gukesh and Nihal Sarin, silver to Arjun Erigaisi, and bronze to R. Praggnanandhaa.
R. Vaishali, the elder sibling of Praggnanandhaa, collected an individual bronze, as did Tania Sachdev. It was also the first time a sister-brother combination returned with Olympiad medals. For its overall performance in the open and women’s sections, India was awarded the Gaprindashvili Cup for the first time.
Despite the amazing performance at home, the country’s sports lovers did not give the event much attention.
Since then, a series of consistent performers have emerged at all levels. Many won international titles all over the world. As a result, six Indians are ranked between 8 and 31 in the world. The eighth-ranked Gukesh, who overtook Anand (ranked ninth) as the highest Indian on the latest world list published on September 1, is also the youngest to break the 2750-rating mark.
Praggnanandhaa has jumped nine places to hold the 20th spot following his stupendous showing in the Chess World Cup. Vidit Gujrathi (28th), Arjun (30th), P. Harikrishna (31st), Nihal (42nd), S. L. Narayanan (82nd), and Aravindh Chithambaram (92nd) are in the top 100. Indian chess has never had it this good.
Though the progress on the women’s side is not as encouraging, youngsters like R. Vaishali and Vantika Agarwal are promising to carry forward the legacy of Koneru Humpy and D. Harika.
Looking back, what has provided a sudden surge in the performance and growth of Indian chess is the work done by the youngsters during the COVID-19 break. With no over-the-board events and strict travel protocols, many Indians like Gukesh and Arjun worked tirelessly on their game.
A lot of lesser-rated players, too, made the most of the time on hand to sharpen their skills. No wonder, in the recent national championship in Pune, several players with sub-2000 ratings made life difficult for several Grandmasters and International Masters. It was a rude reminder for many higher-rated, seasoned players to regain their motivation and start working hard on their game or repeatedly face embarrassment.
Gone are the days when Indian youngsters would feel intimidated by players with higher ratings or better results. The current lot, whether in international or domestic events, fears none. They are no longer looking to escape playing tougher rivals. They are looking for opportunities to scalp reputed players.
This fearless and confident approach of the young Indians has instilled the fear of losing in the minds of many higher-rated players. It is no longer good news to face an Indian player, despite holding rating superiority.
Youngsters catching attention is nothing new to Indian chess. From 2018–19, the creamy layer of Indian teenagers, represented by Praggnanandhaa and Nihal, has become more prominent, with many more joining the race. The new generation’s ability to utilize computers, advanced engines, and megabases, coupled with coaching and exposure to international competitions, has sharpened their skills and boosted their confidence.
In August 2019, a specialised first-of-its-kind coaching camp for young chess players was held. Six handpicked youngsters, including Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa, P. Iniyan, Raunak Sadhwani, Leon Mendonca, and Prithu Gupta, had the opportunity to learn from former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik about certain chess-related aspects that were not accessible to their peers. Encouraged by the results of the first camp in Chens-sur-Leman, France, Chennai-based Microsense followed it up with a second camp at home, with 2012 World Championship finalist Boris Gelfand joining Kramnik in January 2020.
After COVID-19, Gukesh and Arjun competed to reach the coveted 2700-mark, achieved by less than 40 players. They both accomplished this during the Olympiad. All this while, Praggnanandhaa did well in the mega-online rapid events, where he twice beat Carlsen. However, due to playing fewer classical games, Praggnanandhaa trailed Gukesh and Arjun.
However, stagnancy hit Nihal’s progress. He could not reproduce the success of the pre-COVID days and was duly overtaken by his younger peers. This talented teenager did make a statement in the Olympiad but has not been able to find a second wind.
Increasingly, the elite players of the world have praised the upcoming Indian youngsters, with Carlsen being the most vocal of them all. Carlsen stated in Baku, “Gukesh and Arjun are among the strongest players born after 2004. In addition, Praggnanandhaa has the potential to be a world champion. Gukesh is clearly the strongest in classical chess among the upcoming generation of players.”
What’s more, Praggnanandhaa’s coach, R. B. Ramesh, is helping selected Norwegian juniors. Carlsen had raised the topic with Ramesh during the Olympiad, and the Indian coach agreed to share his knowledge.
This was also the background against which Carlsen got up from his chair midway through his match to congratulate Praggnanandhaa following his 2-0 victory in the tiebreaker against the mighty Nakamura.
“I congratulated Pragg and said, ‘Everyone wants to be like you. Those kids in Norway who train under Ramesh keep hearing the line, ‘Be like Pragg’ from the Indian coach. So, I thought I would say the same to Pragg’,” revealed Carlsen in Baku.
The immense respect Carlsen has for these upcoming Indian players is well-earned. Anand, who mentors these players in the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy, says, “It is amazing that in the World Cup, where Gukesh overtook me to become the highest-rated Indian on the World List, the world is talking about Praggnanandhaa and his performance.”
Organisers of elite events are increasingly inviting young Indian players, including a semi-retired Anand, as seen in the World Rapid Team Championship in Germany. This is the best time to be an Indian chess fan. Though Anand continues to be a top-10 player in the world and is happy to show his craft at select invitational events, the focus is firmly on the talent he has nurtured.
At the same time, all credit is due to coaches like Ramesh (Praggnanandhaa), Vishnu Prasanna (Gukesh), N. Srinath (Arjun, Nihal, and Divya), and many more who have worked hard to hone the skills of these talents and put them on course to reach their optimum potential.
August 2023 has become a memorable month for Indian chess, just like it did several years ago.
That being said, the best of Indian chess is yet to come.
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