Delhi makes winning moves, emerges as new chess hub
It is late afternoon and Puneet Jaiswal is explaining to his students — children aged 7 to 12 years — the concepts of ‘isolated pawns’ and ‘pawn islands’ on a wall- mounted magnetic chess board. The children are a picture of concentration as they sit at their desks with chessboards laid out before them.
Soon, the theoretical lesson ends and the children get busy pushing the pawns ahead as part of a practice game. Jaiswal sits at his desk, which has a projector and a laptop. A bookshelf next to his desk has dozens of books on chess.
Jaiswal started his academy, Champions Chess Centre, at Delhi’s east Patel Nagar three years ago with 10 students. Located in a brightly-lit basement, the chess school today has over 150 students. “Delhi is playing chess like never before,” said Jaiswal, a well- known chess instructor.
“Parents are realizing that chess is a game that teaches lessons about life such as decision making and foresight. One of the most profound lessons we learn through it is understanding the consequence of our actions,” he said.
Chennai has often been called the chess capital of India, what with its vibrant chess culture and the record of producing the maximum number of Indian grandmasters, including former world champion Viswanathan Anand, but Delhi has emerged as a major hub of the board game in the past few years.
The capital , which until a few years back had only five chess academies, today has over 50, where one can see children and teenagers with bumfluff beards learning to make winning moves. Delhi is also home to six grandmasters and as many international masters. Women’s grandmaster Tania Sachdev is also from Delhi.
Growing recognition of the fact that chess improves children’s cognitive and academic skills has helped popularise the game and spurred demand for instructors in schools, said Bharat Singh Chauhan, president, Delhi Chess Association. “In the past three years, we have trained over 300 school teachers and other staff to work as chess instructors ,” said Chauhan.
Chess in schools
The All India Chess Federation, the apex body of chess in India, has also been instrumental in popularising the game through its ‘Chess in Schools’ programme, which seeks to introduce it as a teaching activity, said Chauhan. Over 1000 schools in Delhi-NCR have adopted chess as a sport in the past few years .
“Parents are as serious about their children’s progress in chess as in any other subject. During PTMs (parent-teacher meetings), they are very keen to know how their wards are doing in chess, and how they can improve. For many parents, chess is a way to connect with their children” said Jitendra Kumar Choudhary, who teaches chess at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road.
The number of chess instructors has grown exponentially in the past few years—about 200 chess coaches are working in schools, academies, offering private tuitions, and giving online lessons. Sandeep Chitkara, 42, the founder of Genius Chess Academy in Chittaranjan Park said, “When I started playing, we used to look for children interested in chess, but now children look for us.”
The chess culture in Delhi has picked up thanks to availability of quality instructors and increasing number of tournaments, said Vaibhav Suri, who started playing chess at the age of seven and became a grandmaster at the age of 15. “Parents are encouraging children to play chess at a young age,” he adds.
Delhi now hosts over 100 tournaments a year – most of them organized by the growing number of academies. The city’s biggest event is Delhi International Open Grandmasters Chess Tournament with a total prize money of ?1.01 crore. Organized by Delhi Chess Association in January every year, it saw the participation of 2,400 players in 2018, making it the largest chess tournament in Asia.
“Now we have many corporates coming forward to sponsor tournaments,” said Chauhan. “We are also getting a lot of support from the government; chess is a priority sport in the country.”
Hobby players turn pro
It is 6.30 pm and Jaiswal’s class has concluded. Most students say they joined the class at the behest of their parents, who are convinced that chess can be a game-changer for their academic performance.
“Before I started playing chess, I just could not focus on what the teacher was saying in the class; I would look at the classmates or the walls, but now I focus better on lessons and my performance in class has improved,” said 8-year-old Saransh Varma. Ayaan Sachdeva, his fellow student, added, “My mother sent me here because she feels it will help improve my concentration.”
Matrix Chess Academy in south Delhi’s Malviya Nagar prides itself on producing several top-ranking players, including two grandmasters. On a Wednesday evening, about a dozen students, mostly teenagers, are preparing to participate in the first Goa International Open Grandmaster Chess Tournament. The Academy’s founder and coach Prasenjit Dutta said most of his students are those who want to play chess professionally—and many come from outside Delhi, and rent room near the academy.
“My students have won many national and international tournaments under different categories. Many of them joined as hobby players and went on to play chess at international level,” said Dutta, whose academy offers coaching for beginners, and at the intermediate and advanced levels.
Walls at Matrix have the posters of world chess champions and his famous wards such as Vaibhav Agarwal, who won the Millionaire Chess Open in 2015 in Los Angeles, and of grandmaster Vaibhav Suri, who is described as ‘Academy Pride’. One of the rooms has dozens of trophies won by the academy’s students in various tournaments. Many of Dutta’s current students have a FIDE (World Chess Federation) chess rating of between 1,700 and 2,000. “I want to be an international master and am here to improve my present rating which is 1,400,” said Rahul Yadav, 18, a student of the academy.
Spectacle of the mind
Founders of these academies are chess players themselves and some of them, like Dutta, and Jaiswal are FIDE-certified instructors. Dutta and Jaiswal had FIDE ratings of 2,317 and 2,284 respectively. Dutta was also the coach of India’s under-16 at World Youth Olympiad team, in 2017, which won a silver medal. “Every instructor has his own techniques of teaching. I focus on teaching positional judgment,” said Dutta.
Chess lovers say their favourite game may not offer the physical spectacle of outdoor games like football or cricket, but it involves an invisible spectacle of the mind. People have been fascinated by the stories of grandmasters playing the games blindfolded, and playing several games simultaneously. Chess has had exalted status in popular culture too --- several movies have been made on the lives of players such as American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, including the 2014 Pawn Sacrifice, which chronicles Fischer’s struggle between genius and madness, and how he finds himself caught between the two superpowers during the Cold War. Well-known author Stephen Fry wrote in a review of Child of Change: an Autobiography by Garry Kasparov, “Only music and mathematics share with chess the phenomenon of the child prodigy.”
According to Vaibhav Suri, “ Chess is not so much about intelligence as it is about the discipline of the mind and ability to think critically. Chess has helped me develop a disciplined approach to various issues in life and taught me to make informed decisions.”
Chess, which has variously been described as a game, a sport, art, and science, has had its share of critics too. American author Raymond Chandler once said: “Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.”
But that is not what thousands of young aspiring grandmasters in Delhi think. Ask the students of Champions Chess Centre to name their favourite grandmasters and they reel off the names: Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand, Bobby Fischer, and Garry Kasparov. “I want to be a genius like them,” said seven-year-old Chehan Singh Sethi.
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