Grand mastery still some way away!

Overall, the path to becoming a chess power looks bright. But India, though on course, has a long, long distance to go.

Dibyendu Barua and Viswanathan Anand in action at the Triveni Engineering Super Grandmaster International chess tournament in New Delhi in December 1990. Anand became India’s first grandmaster in 1987, while Barua followed him as the second in 1991.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Quietly and steadily, Indian chess has been making waves at almost every level. There has been a rise in the number of grandmasters, addition to the world and continental titles at the age-group level and the number of norm-holders is increasing.

Overall, the growth graph shows an upward mobility like never before.

However, like many marginalised disciplines in the country, this cerebral sport also suffers from a lack of attention from most quarters.

More often than not, the performers don’t get the accolades they deserve, the importance gets buried in the background and the media, both print and electronic, falls short of projecting the achievements of the individuals in a befitting manner.

In spite of all the challenges, some inherent to chess itself, the players have braved it all. Since chess is not a spectator-sport — cheers and applause are not allowed during games — the performers expect all the admiration after the last move is made.

In the absence of appreciation, most chess players have reconciled to their fate and continue to work in the background in search of excellence.

Praveen Thipsay makes a note of his move during the Sakthi Finance Grandmaster chess tournament in Madras in April 1996. Thipsay became India’s third GM the very next year. Twenty-one years down the line, the Indian GM count is 60!   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Such is the mindset of the chess players driven by passion. Except at the highest level, chess players don’t make much money from winning. For many, coaching becomes an option to supplement their income even when they are actively playing. Several grandmasters and international masters, make more money from part-time coaching than playing full-time as professionals.

Therefore, it is clear that most players who have done well have been driven purely by passion for the game and not for monetary gains. This passionate approach, seen over the past few decades, has helped in producing grandmasters in increasingly good numbers as compared to the past.

Consider this: After Viswanathan Anand became the country’s first Grandmaster in 1987, Dibyendu Barua ended the wait for the second in 1991. Thereafter, it took Pravin Thipsay six more years to become the nation’s third, in 1997. So, India had only three GMs in 10 years!

Now, compare the figures of 2018. It proved the one with most GMs in one year — eight. What’s more, the first fortnight of 2019 produced two more and took the total count to 60!

In terms of rankings, around the world, India stands sixth if one considers the average of the top-10 players from each nation. Going by the number of grandmasters, India is fifth behind Russia (251), the USA (99), Germany (96) and Ukraine (91).

For a country to grow steadily, it is important not only to provide norm-making opportunities to the aspirants, but also organise at least one premier event with participation of some of the elite players.

Over the years, India has managed to hold a series of International Opens in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bhubaneswar, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Bhopal and Panaji. The hosting of the Tata Steel rapid and blitz event in November last year in Kolkata was the first time some of the elite players were seen in action in the country in an invited field.

R. Praggnanandhaa is chaired by his schoolmates in Chennai after becoming the world’s second youngest chess Grandmaster ever, in June 2018. Praggnanandhaa achieved this feat at an event organised in northern Italy.   -  PTI

 

The fact that Viswanathan Anand, who held the world title five times between 2000 and 2012, could not get a single opportunity to play in India as world champion is a reflection how the authorities failed to cash in on a great period to promote the sport.

Anand, single-handedly, has contributed more to inspire a generation to take up chess than any other sportsperson for any other individual sport. Now, at 49, Anand continues to be a top-10 player, something first experienced in July 1991. It is a tribute to the man’s dedication and determination to excel. To stay motivated for over 30 years after becoming a grandmaster speaks of Anand’s unflinching love for the sport.

If any pointer was needed to gauge the popularity of the sport among those who play competitively, it came from the Delhi International Open Grandmasters tournament in January. A world record of 1,534 players competed in the ‘C’ category event for those rated under 1500.

The annual event, played in three sections, boasted of a prize money of ₹1.01 crore. After golf, chess became only the second discipline to offer ₹1 crore in a competition.

Considering the cold weather prevailing in the national capital then, it was truly commendable that players, coaches and parents deemed it fit to participate in what is undoubtedly the best organised Open event in the country. No wonder, the organisers are confident of improving the world record in the next edition.

D. Gukesh has now displaced Praggnanandhaa as India’s youngest grandmaster when he took the third and final norm at the Delhi International Open Grandmasters tournament in January 2019.   -  PTI

 

Indeed, these are great pointers to how efforts are on to broad-base the sport. But it is equally important to hone the quality while catering to the quantity. In this area, a lot of work needs to be done.

Striking a positive note, the country’s best-known trainer grandmaster R. B. Ramesh says, “India has been getting better by the year. We are a respectable chess nation now and seen as a serious contender in the Chess Olympiads for the medals.”

On the growing number of grandmasters, Ramesh says, “What is even better is that these GMs are achieving this milestone at a young age which shows we are doing something good as far as chess for young children is concerned. More Indian players are being invited to play in the major chess leagues happening in European nations like Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, etc. In most major European Open tournaments, we can see a large Indian participation.”

But what has helped these youngsters to strike it rich, unlike their predecessors?

“I think it is the consequence of the changes that have been happening in the chess scenario in our country over a period of time. Nothing happens in a vaccum, things are evolving, emerging, changing over a period of time. This generation is getting more training, access to information and playing opportunities more than the earlier generations. There are some kids who have shown the path for others and it makes it easier for the others to go in that direction. There is more opportunity, vision, aspiration and more parents are willing to spend time, effort, energy, resources on their children’s chess career. All these play a part,” emphasises Ramesh.

The country’s best known trainer, grandmaster R. B. Ramesh, says that the young players of today are getting more training, access to information and playing opportunities when compared to the earlier generations and this is resulting in excellent results.   -  R. Ragu

 

International master Vishal Sareen, now a sought-after coach, feels India still has a long way to go before being labelled a ‘chess power’.

“The fact remains that we have made rapid progress. But we are far from being ‘there’. We are good, no doubt, but how many top-50 players do we have? Not many. I think when we have 10-12 guys in the top 50, only then can we claim to be amongst the top chess nations.

“If you go by the statistics, Parimarjan Negi became the second youngest Grandmaster in history ever in 2006... a record broken after 12 years by Praggnanandhaa — whose record did not last even 12 months (when D. Gukesh broke it in January 2019). Indeed, Indian chess masters are getting younger!”

Given the young crop of grandmasters, in the 12-15 age group, like R. Praggnanadhaa, Nihal Sarin, Gukesh and E. Arjun, there is clearly some hope that the future of Indian chess is in safe hands. This could well be the nucleus of a team that could win the elusive Chess Olympiad gold in around decade from now.

“Yes,” agreed Sareen and continues, “a decade might be a long time really, but I feel that these four, coupled with a few others, whose names are not so common yet, might be the members of the Indian team in 2026. Further, I am not ruling out the presence of Hari Krishna or Vidit Gujrathi from that team. The onus will be on them probably.”

But how can the up and coming youngsters be guided so that they stay on course to achieve their potential?

Ramesh is clear. “They will require high-level professional training access and steady participation in very strong chess competitions happening around the world. The AICF (All India Chess Federation) is organising many training camps for the Indian teams at senior, junior and sub-junior levels. We should have regular training camps by strong coaches throughout the year.”

 

And finally, by when can we expect a world champion to emulate Anand?

Both Vishal and Ramesh sound understandably cautious in hazarding a guess.

In Vishal’s view, “A world champion in men itself does not look so easy, and in women as of now it looks impossible. We have to really invest a lot of time, energy and money in women’s chess. Currently, we have very few girl talents in India compared to boys. Hope this pool keeps increasing.

Ramesh puts it differently. “Chess is ultra-competitive these days and it is getting tougher by the day. I believe we can have an Indian world champion in men in another 10-15 years when the current young crop of players like Gukesh, Nihal Sarin, Praggnanandhaa, and a few others reach their mid-20s. Among women, it is much tougher as we are not getting that many talented players like in the case of boys.”

Overall, the path to becoming a chess power looks bright. But India, though on course, has a long, long way to go.