A teen sweep in National Chess Championship

This was the first time in 58 editions of the National championship that teenagers occupied the top three spots.

Proud moment: Divya Deshpande poses with the champion’s trophy and the cheque after winning her maiden National women chess title in Bhubaneswar.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

These are exciting times for Indian chess. Some young talents are busy catching the attention of the world’s elite with their quality and consistency. Some others are awaiting their turn.

Not so long ago, it was all about the duo of Nihal Sarin and R. Praggnanandhaa providing the best advertisement for the new generation of Indian chess players. Their exploits in online chess and results against some of the illustrious names proved that the future of Indian chess was in safe hands.

Today, the hard work of a few more is bearing fruit. Teenagers Arjun Erigaisi, D. Gukesh, P. Iniyan, Raunak Sadhwani, Leon Mendonca and Divya Deshmukh are all claiming their place in the sun. In varying degrees, they have tasted success and promise a great deal more.

For long, Indians were considered late bloomers. But in chess, the new, restless generation of talented children are re-writing the script. During the pandemic when the world of sports suffered due to restrictions, chess graduated to be a kind of e-sport. Online tournaments grew in number, players across age groups got busy participating and this seamless transition from over-the-board action to online competitions helped chess, unlike any other sport.

Terrific trio: Arjun Erigaisi (centre) with the winner’s trophy, flanked by runner-up D. Gukesh (right) and third-placed P. Iniyan at the conclusion of the MPL 58th National chess championship in Kanpur   -  RAKESH RAO

 

As a result of increased competition and participation, chess reinforced the popular belief of being the most internet-friendly sport. Many Indians managed to play some of the accomplished players like World champion Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru Nakamura, Levon Aronian etc in online games, where both players were allowed three minutes on the clock.

Losing to these greats was no shame, but slowly, youngsters like Nihal, Praggnanadhaa, Arjun, Gukesh, Iniyan, Mitrabha Guha etc started winning a few. These triumphs injected tremendous confidence in these talents and as a result, they were no longer intimidated by the reputation of some of these elite players.

In 2021, when the Magnus Carlsen-owned Play Magnus launched the Challengers Tour for select teenaged boys and girls and offered a spot to the winner of each leg to play in the Champions Tour, Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh made the most of it.

Though Vidit Gujrathi and P. Harikrishna stumbled, Arjun went beyond. He made the quarterfinals of the Goldmoney Asian Rapid — an event on the Champions Tour — in June 2021, ahead of Alireza Firouzja, Vidit Gujrathi, Peter Svidler, Gukesh, Daniil Dubov, Salem Saleh, B. Adhiban and Hou Yifan.

Even as Nihal and Praggnanandhaa continued to get the lion’s share of media attention, Arjun went on make his mark in November last year, in the Tata Steel rapid and blitz event in Kolkata. He justified his seeding by winning the Challenger section of the Tata Steel event in Wijk aan Zee, in the Netherlands in January this year. This title also ensured his berth in the Masters section of the 2023 edition.

During Arjun’s impressive campaign, when Carlsen was asked about the Indian youngster, he commented, “He is going to be 2700 soon. He is by far the best player in the Challengers section. He plays chess in a way that I enjoy! You can just sense it that he knows how to play! He has a good tactical eye and he can switch styles easily.”

While Nihal seemed to have slowed down for a while, Praggnanandhaa had some impressive games when he made his debut in the Masters section. A month later, in the Airthings Masters online rapid tournament — the first leg of the Champions Tour — the youngster made light of a poor 0.5/4.0 start to open the second day with the defeat of two-time World Cup winner Aronian and ended it by stunning Carlsen.

The news of Praggnanandhaa’s victory over Carlsen trended on social media like no other chess news in the country. From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sachin Tendulkar to several other players — all congratulated Praggnanandhaa. Leading butter brand Amul wasted no time in coming up with a poster to celebrate the youngster’s triumph. Overnight, the reigning World under-18 champion became a far more familiar name in the country.

At home, when the rescheduled National chess championship took place in Kanpur, second seed Arjun emerged as the champion by leading all the way. He eventually topped a three-way tie at 8.5 points from 11 rounds. Gukesh, 15, and Iniyan, 19, completed the teen-sweep of the podium.

This was the first time in 58 editions of the National championship that teenagers occupied the top three spots. This was, of course, in keeping with the times. Playing incredibly strong chess, Arjun deserved to take the title, but was quick to mention, “I really feel sad for Gukesh who played equally well. I feel we should have had a better way to break the tie. Perhaps, a playoff (to decide the winner).”

When told about Arjun’s suggestion, Gukesh said, “Arjun deserved the title. He played so consistently. Arjun is my best friend and I am very happy for him.”

Iniyan, whose tie-break score was lower since he had a poor start, scored seven wins against six each by Arjun and Gukesh. “I recovered well and overall, I am happy to have tied for the title.”

It was also very heartening to find the camaraderie that exists among these three incredible talents. Having spent time in various coaching camps, their bond is hard to miss. “My friends are from the chess world and I bond pretty well with almost every one,” said Gukesh, the country’s youngest Grandmaster and tipped as the next big thing in world chess to emerge from India.

A closer look at the top-10 prize-list of the National championship revealed that former champion S. P. Sethuraman was the oldest of the lot. Sethuraman, who turned 29 on the first day of the event, finished eighth after holding Arjun in the final round.

The old order seemed to be changing in the women’s section, too. In the women’s National championship played concurrently in Bhubaneshwar, 16-year-old Divya Deshmukh emerged as the champion with a stupendous display.

Divya started with a draw, then won seven games on the trot and took a final-round draw to claim the title. Sakshi Chitlange 21, and N. Priyanka, 19, filled the podium.

Many past winners like two-time defending champion Bhakti Kulkarni, Padmini Rout, Mary Ann Gomes, Soumya Swaminathan, Nisha Mohota and Swati Ghate settled for lesser places as the young trio made its presence felt.

Interestingly, Divya revealed that Arjun was helping her with preparations during the triumphant campaign. When asked, Arjun complimented Divya by saying, “She is immensely talented and what the world has seen is only the tip of the iceberg. She is like my younger sister and I want Divya to realise her potential.”

It is truly amazing to note how two young talents, while dealing with several double-round days during the weeklong championships played concurrently, have interacted so fruitfully to pull off such remarkable results.

N. Srinath, coach of Arjun and Divya, is obviously very pleased with the outcome. “Honestly, I was surprised by Divya’s performance. She had not played much since she was concentrating on her Class X exams.

But then, this is unique to Divya… you write her off and she pulls off surprises. Her consistent quality of play did the trick. My job during the tournament was to empower her, provide her with some clarity. She knows how to do the rest.”

About Arjun, Srinath said, “I think, he was the favourite. He has been working very hard on his chess during the pandemic. He amazes me with the work that he does on his own. He is supremely motivated and has the fire in his belly. I am sure, Arjun and Gukesh will soon reach ratings of 2700, perhaps by the end of the year.

Viswanathan Anand has the final word. “I don’t think we should think too much of their teenage. There is nothing stopping them from excelling.”