The woman at the lobby of Taj Bengal in Kolkata is busy taking selfies on her mobile phone. She smiles as she looks at the phone’s front camera from different angles. The hotel is rather crowded, which isn’t surprising: the wedding season is in full swing. Anyone would have assumed that the woman with the phone is one of those wedding guests. She looks the part too, dressed in a saree. Few would have recognised her as Nana Dzagnidze, the 2017 World blitz chess champion.
The Georgian came to Kolkata for the Tata Steel Chess India tournament. She isn’t the only woman dressed up in a saree for the evening’s closing ceremony, at the nearby National Library. All the 10 female participants are. Little wonder they are the centre of attraction on the stage.
The focus was on the women’s event at the fourth edition of the Tata Steel Chess India. It was for the first time that a women’s event was being conducted in India’s only world-class annual chess tournament. The organisers made it even more special by having equal pay for both the men’s and the women’s champions.
The tournament may have taken place after the BCCI’s well-received announcement that India’s men and women cricketers would get the same match fee, but the organisers of the chess tournament had taken the decision long before. “When we decided to have a women’s tournament, we wanted it to have equal prize money,” Jeet Banerjee, Managing Director of Gameplan (the Kolkata-based corporate branding agency that conducts the tournament on behalf of Tata Steel), tells Sportstar. “And we have been delighted with the response; everyone, even from outside chess circles, welcomed our decision.”
Needless to say, the participating women at the tournament were delighted. “I don’t remember a (chess) tournament where the prize fund was the same for both men and women,” said Ukraine’s Anna Muzychuk at the opening ceremony, “because such a tournament didn’t exist.”
Another Ukrainian woman was among those who benefited most from the organisers’ decision on the prize-fund. Anna Ushenina, the 2012 World champion, won the rapid section of the tournament after beating Dzagnidze in the tie-breaker. They were tied on 6.5 points from nine rounds (10 players met one another once). Ushenina won both the games in the tie-breaker to win the title.
Back in August in Chennai, she had won her game in the final round of the Chess Olympiad to give Ukraine the gold in the women’s section in what has been one of the stories of the year in world sport. For a country ravaged by a brutal war, that was a rare moment of happiness. Ushenina and the Muzychuk sisters (Mariya also played in Kolkata) were part of that team. “I think I should only play in India,” Ushenina said after her triumph.
Dronavalli Harika was the best Indian performer in the women’s rapid event, finishing third. Three days later, she took third place in the blitz event too, but it was her younger compatriot who stole the show. R. Vaishali winning the blitz title is one of the best things to have happened in Indian women’s chess in recent times. The women’s game in India has only been making slow progress, compared to men’s chess, in which the country has a host of outstanding young talents who have been making headlines almost on a daily basis.
Chennai-based Vaishali’s younger brother R. Praggnanandhaa, who played in the blitz section, though with no great success, is one of them. The 21-year-old Vaishali has been overshadowed by her prodigious sibling for much of her career, but her talent had never been in doubt. Her stunning and rather convincing victory in Kolkata — by a margin of 1.5 points over her nearest rival Mariya — could well be a turning point in her career.
Vaishali’s performance also showed what exposure to such quality tournaments could do to talented Indian youngsters. Sadly, until Tata Steel brought this event to Kolkata, back in 2018, there was no such high-profile tournament in the country. The All India Chess Federation should have tried to conduct such events; its focus has been more on open GM tournaments.
Five-time World champion Viswanathan Anand had once told this correspondent that he would have loved to play such a tournament in India. In his prime, he never got that opportunity and that was an even bigger loss for players like Krishnan Sasikiran and Pentala Harikrishna. Anand played in the inaugural Tata Steel tournament in Kolkata in 2018, and won the blitz event, a month before he turned 49. Fortunately, members of the golden generation of Indian chess have been able to play in the tournament when they are young enough. They have made good use of the opportunities, too. Remarkably, both the rapid and blitz sections were won by Indian teenagers — Nihal Sarin (rapid) and Arjun Erigaisi.
They came on top of the field ahead of some of the biggest stars in international chess such as Americans Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan and Nodirbek Abdusattorov of Uzbekistan. Arjun had also finished runner-up in the rapid event.
In the last edition of the tournament, it was the other way around for him: he had won the rapid event and secured the second spot in blitz. Last year, he had started as an outsider and got to play the blitz section only because B. Adhiban had pulled out. The tournament thus proved to be beneficial in his career.
Vidit Gujrathi also did well to take the third place in the rapid event. In the blitz tournament — as Anand pointed out during the media briefings — he was the oldest Indian player, at the age of 28. That fact alone shows how promising the road ahead is for Indian chess.
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