A boost to the sport

AN elderly lady, who was staying at Taj Residency and who had just come back after her evening walk, wondered aloud: "Has some film actress come here?" She could not make out why so many cameras were flashing and why there was such a big crowd around some girls.

"No," somebody told her, "These press photographers and television cameramen are after some chess players, not film stars."

Koneru Humpy, Dronavalli Harika and Nisha Mohota were indeed made to feel like film stars by the local media during the Asian women's championship. There were signs of the media in Kerala waking up to cover chess in a big way, during the Asian youth championship in June. But still, the way in which the local media, both print and television, went to town with the Asian women's championship was pleasantly surprising. The media in Kerala covers sport well, of course, but it is games such as cricket, football, athletics and volleyball that get a prominent display in the sports pages of the regional daily newspapers.

Chess is not the most popular sport for the media. The only instance one can recall of the media focussing so much on chess was the 2000 World championship in New Delhi. But then, it was the World championship and Viswanathan Anand was playing. And it was in Delhi, where most of the television channels have their base.

Nobody really expected that an Asian women's tournament in a small city like Kozhikode would generate so much interest. "I've never seen chess getting so much coverage," said the AICF secretary and the tournament's organising secretary P. T. Ummer Koya. "It's very encouraging."

All the five private TV channels in Kerala covered the tournament in some detail in their bulletins, often giving interviews of the players. Top Indian players such as Koneru Humpy received so many requests from television channels for exclusive interviews that they had to politely refuse some of them.

The local print media — in the Malayalam language — though was even more enthusiastic. Dailies such as the newly launched Varthamanam carried multiple side stories every day, besides the comprehensive main story.

The newspaper even gave the moves of the day's key game, along with comments. There were days when the Asian championship was featured in nearly three-fourths of the entire sports page. "We are ourselves surprised by the positive feedback we received from our readers," said a staffer at the daily.

There was some competition among the Malayalam dailies to carry exclusive stories, and just about every player from Koneru Humpy to Shabana Parveen of Bangladesh was featured. Some of the stories that appeared were well-researched too. They weren't exactly shallow profiles.

"I'm very happy to find that local reporters are showing an interest in chess now," says Koya. "Chess will become a bigger sport in Kerala if the media continues to support us like this."

That the local media took so much interest was commendable because not even a single player from Kerala was in the field. But who knows, some bright little girl in some corner of Kerala may have read those reports and may have begun to think that chess is not so unrewarding after all.