The efficacy of developmental programmes

ANY sequence of triumphs generates optimism and promotes faster development. In India this applies to competitive chess.

ANY sequence of triumphs generates optimism and promotes faster development. In India this applies to competitive chess. As more and more players court titles and trophies the focus is getting enlarged. It is not merely in numbers that chess has prospered but also in attracting worldwide appreciation for possessing a huge talent base.

Against this backdrop, there was nothing to be surprised about India's performance in the Asian championship in Jodhpur. The disappointment perhaps was the inability to show that measure of consistency to outwit a major power like China for the men's gold. Surely, there were signs of our men accomplishing it but that proved a mirage.

The fact that India fielded three teams underscored the growing depth of talent. Amidst the distress of not winning the gold, there is some consolation that the men improved their ratings, to silver from the bronze at the last edition in Shenyang in 1999.

An objective evaluation of what brought about this mood of well being will throw light on the pragmatic steps taken towards development by the All India Chess Federation. Time was when it had to plough through a lonely furrow, discarded even by the Ministry of Sports. But administrators like Dr. Mahalingam and Manuel Aaron, worked assiduously to improve the profile. Once the talent began to flourish on the international scene, chess gained a lot of media attention. The successive set of office-bearers with the enterprising Ummer Koya, the present Secretary, rightly structured the route for development.

What cannot be ignored is the fact that the proliferation was prompted largely by the financial rewards available. Not only did the sport acquire the organisational sophistication but the high point was the acceptance of professionalism. Though the prize money offered is nowhere near what is available in soccer, golf or tennis, it is attractive enough to lure highly rated competitors.

The spate of international competitions, including the World championships, underline the range and depth of skilful players. True, there was a phase of turbulence with the International Federation suffering a split, forcing a divide between administration and the players. Again, the problem at the core was the economics of prize money.

If chess got a shot in the arm from that iconoclastic genius, Bobby Fischer, in 1972 at the Reykjavik World championship, in India the man who propelled the revolution was Viswanathan Anand. It is difficult to ignore the seeds sown by Manuel Aaron, who became the first International Master in 1961, but the rise of Anand on the world stage really put the sport on a lofty pedestal.

The growth would not have been as sustained as it is now but for the administration giving opportunities for the players to show their mettle both at the national and international stages. Very few federations have such organised programmes to reach children in the age group of seven to 10 as AICF. Take for instance, Grandmaster Koneru Humpy, whose progress can be traced as a participant from the age of nine or earlier. She won the World under-12 title twice.

Hearteningly, the list of GMs, IMs is growing every year projecting a new dimension. That India could take on powers like China on equal terms and even beat such nations occasionally goes to prove the enlarging strength of players who are determined to continue their progress.

The AICF is also responding well to that urge by widening the base and organising more and more international competitions within the country. The last World junior championship at Goa, the recent Asian championships at Jodhpur and the current Commonwealth event in Mumbai testify the efficacy of the developmental programmes.

The progress thus far has been extremely encouraging but there cannot be room for complacency. The rating in the Olympiads shows that India is yet to acquire the status of a world leader like Russia, or even matching the stature of several erstwhile Soviet and Eastern bloc countries. Anand, no doubt, continues to be the polestar, but the task of leading India into a different zone lies in the hands of Sasikiran, Barua, Harikrishna, Kunte, Humpy, Vijayalakshmi and Aarthie, to name a few in the galaxy. They have the proficiency, passion for pursuing excellence and professional support not only from the sponsors like Indian Airlines, WIPRO and Bank of Baroda, but from a responsive administration.

Clearly, everything is on board for these CAISSA's prodigies, and, at the moment, in no sport does India stand a chance to be counted on the world level as much as in competitive chess.