By the time children their age get hooked to Japanese toons, they’ve mastered the Sicilian Defence. They travel the world, handle the pressures of competition and excel at school. Exam stress doesn’t faze chess whizkids — teachers go the extra yard to help them keep up with the syllabus.
A new crop of prodigies is helping India emerge as a chess superpower. In January, minus Viswanathan Anand, we finished third in the world team championship.
It may not be as glamorous as cricket, but the money in the 64-square game is good. “India’s top players earn between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 20 lakh a year,” says Delhi-based chess coach Govind Ballabh Joshi.
At higher levels, lessons from foreign coaches cost students between 20 lakh and 30 lakh every year. Most players fall back on sponsors for support. But the sponsorship comes after they begin winning at the international level.
Curiously, more than one young champion has antipathy for the idiot box. “Why does one need a television?” asks Parimarjan Negi, 17, the second youngest Grandmaster in the world, “For entertainment, I have the Net.”
Negi is not the only young chess champion with disdain for television. Former under-10 world champ Sahaj Grover, now 14, asked his businessman father to keep the TV away at his north Delhi shop as it distracted him.
Grover’s unwavering focus can be unnerving. Why does he idolise Norwegian champ Magnus Carlsen? “Because he’s at the top of the rankings. And he’s just 20,” he says.
Like their predecessors, today’s prodigies respect masters such as Anand, Kasparov and Karpov. But they also closely follow the games of Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnick and Gata Kamsky.
Thanks to her chess exploits, the world has become a playground for Orissa teenager Padmini Rout. Training with Hungarian Grand Master Gyula Sax in Budapest these days, the Women’s International Master, 17, has been living out of suitcases ever since she won the Asian Youth Chess Championship at Tehran in June 2006.
Rout says everyone expects her to win in her category. “So I practise six hours a day and begin to study two months before exams,” says the DAV Public School, Bhubaneswar, student, who posted 82 per cent in class 10.
Rout’s celebrated rival, Arjuna award winner Tania Sachdev, is busy playing a tournament in Gibraltar. The poster girl of women’s chess in India won her first international title at eight. Then she added the world and Asian junior titles to her mantle piece.
“Tania is not bogged down by expectations,” says her coach Vishal Sareen. “A good-looking athlete, she walked the ramp at the India Fashion Week.”
Time management helps the Venkateswara College English graduate, 21, strike a balance between chess and leisure. “When I am playing or training, nothing else is on my mind. After that I do the things I like to do,” says Sachdev. The fashion industry fascinates her. “Given an opportunity, I’d love to be the showstopper again.”
Just because Sachdev has a chilled out attitude doesn’t mean she is not serious about the sport. Along with Grandmaster Koneru Humpy, 22, who became the youngest Indian woman grandmaster in 2002, she has gone from prodigy to pro with panache.
After a prodigy does well in age-group events, he or she has to garner international master (IM) norms and win the IM title. Then come the grandmaster norms and title. Eventually, whichever player rakes up the highest World Chess Federation ratings gets a shot at being in the chess hall of fame.
In January, Vishy Anand, India’s top ranked player, had a rating of 2,790. Behind him were GMs Sasikiran (2,653), P Harikrishna ( 2,672), Surya Ganguly (2,654), Koneru Humpy (2,614) and Parimarjan Negi (2,621).
Is early brilliance a passport to chess glory? Not necessarily, says Sareen. “Karpov, Kasparov and Anand became grandmasters only after 17 years, but went on to become legends.”
Make way for the grandmasters: India’s spunky board warriors are ready to strike.