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A Grandmaster for every square: What has Indian chess got right and what can it do better?

Indian chess has reasons to be proud. The latest world ranking should make it even prouder: India is placed fourth, behind Russia, United States and China.   | Photo Credit: AP

When Prithu Gupta became India’s latest Grandmaster (GM) last week, the world did not stop. Just as it doesn’t when an Indian pace bowler clocks 90mph.

But it wasn’t always so. An Indian getting a GM title used to be a rare occurrence, like the sighting of a genuine fast bowler this side of the Wagah border.

Now, let us take nothing away from Gupta’s feat, which he achieved at the age of 15, that too after beginning to play at nine — about five years later than most of his contemporaries.

In the mind game played over 64 squares, the Delhi teenager is India’s 64th GM. When The Hindu met Viswanathan Anand — the five-time World champion who single-handedly revolutionised Indian chess after becoming the country’s first GM — last September in Chennai, India had 54.

The genial genius had spoken of how unsure he had been about getting his GM title. He achieved it in 1988. It took India another three years to greet its second GM (Dibyendu Barua). The third (Pravin Thipsay) came along six years after that.

Now you find an Indian making a GM norm — one needs three for the title — in most weeks from a tournament in some part of the world.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that earning the GM title has become a lot easier (talented players such as P. Konguvel and K. Ratnakaran would tell you it hasn’t). It means that Indian players have become stronger and are getting more opportunities than their predecessors. Of an estimated eight million chess players across the world, only 1,680 are GMs.

So, Indian chess has reasons to be proud. The latest world ranking should make it even prouder: India is placed fourth, behind Russia, United States and China.

In the world’s top 100 junior players, there are 14 Indians; among the top 100 junior girls, there are nine. In the women’s top 100, there are seven.

A Grandmaster for every square: What has Indian chess got right and what can it do better?

There aren’t many truly global sports India is ranked as high in. Anand is, of course, the main reason for India’s rise as a chess power, but the All India Chess Federation (AICF) can also take credit for setting up a system that has helped produce a large number of players by conducting several State- and National-level tournaments — more than any other body — and helping them win World and Asian age-group titles.

The organisation will have to do a lot more, though, if India wants somebody other than Anand to feature consistently in the top 10, or to win the Chess Olympiad or to produce a serious challenger for the World title.

The men’s and women’s teams from China are the reigning champions at the Olympiad (the equivalent of tennis’ Davis Cup). Last year at the 43rd edition of the tournament in Batumi, Georgia, where 180 countries took part, India’s men’s team was placed sixth, while the women finished eighth.

Strongest players in the history of women’s chess

Although China hasn’t had a male World champion (Anand, in fact, remains the only Asian to wear the crown), it has had six female World champions. For India, Koneru Humpy, one of the strongest players in the history of women’s chess, approached the throne on a few occasions but could not quite make it. She is 32 now and World No. 4, so there is still the possibility of her winning the World title.

“Humpy certainly has the talent for it,” says Thipsay, the Mumbai-based GM who continues to play in addition to conducting training sessions. “But she needs to work on some areas of her game, like tactics in certain double-edged positions in which you have to play like a street fighter. She could do that with some of the top coaches of the world. We all thought she would surely win the World championship. She has another seven or eight years still to do it.”

And this period, the next eight to ten years, promises to be pretty exciting for Indian chess at large. It will be particularly interesting to see how the three prodigies, Nihal Sarin, R. Praggnanandhaa and D. Gukesh, develop.

Nihal (15) and Praggnanandhaa (13) have already caught the world’s imagination and many believe they have the potential to win the World championship. The expectations from Gukesh (13), India’s youngest ever GM, are also high.

After observing players like them, former World champion Vladimir Kramnik, who will train some of them for a fortnight next month, said that India had the strongest young generation of players ever for any country.

“I am not sure if that is a correct assessment,” says Thipsay. “Kramnik’s own Russian generation was stronger. But I, too, have great expectations from some of these young kids, like Nihal, who is a genius and a complete natural, and Praggnanandhaa.”

R.B. Ramesh, who used to be one of India’s sharpest GMs before becoming the coach of prodigies like Praggnanandhaa and Aravindh Chithambaram, believes India could take a leaf out of China’s book when it comes to nurturing exceptional talent.

“We have done well with our system to produce a large number of good players, but we often see our youngsters stagnate or fizzle out after a certain point,” says the Chennai-based coach. “The Chinese identify their potential World champions very young — and it would be a small number of players — and work extensively with them. We, too, should try to put a proper system in place for training the best of our youngsters on a long-term basis. And we should also have high-category tournaments in India, where players like Praggnanandhaa and Nihal can take part.”

Bigger tournaments needed

Indian chess would gain further if there were even bigger tournaments that interest the likes of Anand and World champion Magnus Carlsen. Since 2000, Anand has played just one tournament in India that wasn’t an official FIDE event.

That was possible because Tata Steel, which hosts a prestigious tournament in the Netherlands annually, decided to conduct a rapid and blitz tournament in Kolkata last year. The AICF should have tried to get corporate houses interested in sponsoring big events like that at least a couple of decades ago.

For a sport that boasts a legend like Anand and some of the world’s most exciting youngsters, it shouldn’t be that difficult to attract corporate interest. “Today, a top Indian player needs either sponsorship or a well-paying job,” says Thipsay. “We have to think about the future of talented players like S.L. Narayanan (India No. 10).”

You can always argue that chess is not a spectator sport; corporates wouldn’t care. But it is learnt that two decades ago, one of India’s largest multinational companies wanted to invest heavily in chess and had ambitious plans, including an exhibition match between Anand and actor Aamir Khan, a chess enthusiast. That could have helped chess get the attention it badly needed. The match didn’t take place, but the business house did sponsor a few promising Indian players.

The chess administrators should not have let that opportunity go. It still isn’t too late to meet top executives across a chessboard and talk. An Indian chess league or an idea of similar ambition will be a big step towards ensuring that the talent in the country realises its fullest potential.

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Printable version | Jan 13, 2021 12:48:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/a-grandmaster-for-every-square-what-has-indian-chess-got-right-and-what-can-it-do-better/article28726281.ece

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