Can young India checkmate the world? Our gameplan for chess domination
Our junior players are making Russian and Chinese competitors quiver. But many then drop out. See what India is doing to advance on the world’s chessboard.
Quietly, move by move, India has been strengthening its position in world chess.
Viswanathan Anand earned India’s first Grand Master (GM) title back in 1988. Today, we have 47 GMs – about half of whom have earned their titles in the last five years. Optimists believe we have enough bubbling-under talent to have 50 GMs before the year is out.
Three Indians now hold the unofficial Super Grand Master title – they’ve each crossed 2700 points, putting them in the elite league.
But Frederic Friedel, the man behind the database firm ChessBase and a widely respected authority on the game, has predicted that India will dominate chess over the next decade. He estimates that India will have as many as 40 players in the top 100. We currently have seven.
What might cause this takeover? Players who are yet to break on to the battlefield. At the junior level, players under 20 have been crushing the competition. When they start competing in regular tournaments, they seem set to change the face of Indian chess.
RB Ramesh, who became India’s 10th Grand Master in 2003, has had a ringside view of the change. His Chennai-based academy Chess Gurukul has been coaching kids aged 5 and up since 2008. Many have won international titles within their age brackets.
Even five years ago, the Indian contingent would manage barely five of 22 medals in a championship. “Now, Indian kids take almost half the medals in Junior categories,” he says. “In the Under 8, we have six medals. In the Under 10, we have six more. In the 2015 World Championship, India won five Golds – Russia took two medals overall. If an Indian under 16 is the best in their age group at chess, you can be reasonably sure that kid is in the top three worldwide. We are now the benchmark.”
Last year, a Chess Gurukul student became the world’s youngest International Master (IM). R Praggnanagdhaa broke the 27-year record of Hungarian Judit Polgar, possibly the world’s greatest woman player. She was 11 when she became IM. Praggnanagdhaa was 10.
“Young India has been putting up a better and better show over the last few years,” observes Balaji Guttula, chief coach at the South Mumbai Chess Academy, whose 35 coaches train close to 500 schoolkids in India and abroad.
“When the Indian team shows up at tournaments in matching jerseys, and competitors know they’re playing an Indian that day, they get nervous.”
Guttula says SMCA started off in 1997, introducing chess as a casual game for kids. Talented players would play competitively and Guttula’s brother Nagesh, who owns the academy, would have to warn parents about committing time and money towards international matches.
“Today we don’t have to explain this,” Balaji Guttula says. “Nine out of 10 parents are serious about their kid achieving something at a young age, and are willing to invest in it.”
More GMs, IMs and top rated players have been roped into coaching. They help rookie players plan strategies rather than individual moves. “Training lets you think several steps ahead, anticipate outcomes and remember winning game patterns,” he explains.
THE INDIAN WAY
In India, most chess stars stumbled on to the game. Pune’s Mrunalini Kunte-Aurangabadkar, 44 and Woman International Master, was 11 when a coach noticed her play and began training her. When she lost a match and refused to go back, the Kuntes sent her eight-year-old cricket-loving brother, Abhijit, along for support. Both took to the game. Abhijit is now GM and both coach chess.
Balaji picked up the game from friends. R Vaishali, Praggnanagdhaa’s 16-year-old sister, was dispatched to chess classes at age 3 to break her addiction to cartoons. RB Ramesh was 12, and had hurt himself playing cricket when his father sought a safer alternative. “It was 1988, the year Anand became GM, so it was easy to switch to chess,” Ramesh says.
Ramesh recalls it being a simpler time. “There was a lack of everything – access to books, information, training, opportunities and therefore competition,” he says. “A reasonably smart person working reasonably hard could get to the top.”
Kunte-Aurangabadkar agrees: “We had no coaches or books or websites. Abhijit was the country’s fourth GM in 2000, but there was no GM to coach him.”
Today, kids learn from the web and from coaches who’ve played in tournaments. Ramesh says Indians have traditionally played risk-taking, hit-and-run games, like Armenians, rather than the slow, strategic Russians. “But young India is learning from both India and Russia because we now have the exposure.” We’re also changing our style.
“Indians begin with their King pawn; Europeans with the Queen pawn. No one knows why,” says Nagesh Guttula.
The greatest threat to India’s budding chess talent isn’t a foreign competitor or a playing style – it is India itself. By age 16, more than half of our promising players simply drop out, taking with them their rankings, medals, memories and India’s hopes. Balaji recalls coaching a player named Shiven Khosla who became IM at 13 and was top-ranked in Asia. “He took a break for his Class 10 exams. He never came back.”
Players fizzle out for several reasons. Kunte finds that urban kids get distracted by other activities while rural players struggle to find good coaches. Ramesh says some kids simply feel too entitled to continue the struggle; others, pushed too hard by parents, experience burnout.
But by 16, all players realise that there will be fewer and fewer quality tournaments in India. Local matches will feature the same players (few foreign players are flown in) and will be organised badly. “We once played two days of a state-level Under-13 tournament in a building’s parking lot,” says Kunte.
To earn the points and score a higher rating, players must go to Europe, where tournaments are held every week. Many parents, who have already been travelling to domestic and foreign tournaments every month with their kids by this point, decide to quit.
Rameshbabu, the father of Vaishali and Praggnanagdhaa, is a bank manager but has a physical condition that makes travel difficult – so their mother, N Nagalakshmi, a housewife, accompanies each kid on trips. “We didn’t want Praggnanagdhaa to join chess too because of the high cost,” he says. “If both the kids have tournaments at the same time, it’s impossible for us.”
India has little support for players that become GM. Many take up jobs with public-sector banks, oil and petroleum companies, the Life Insurance Corporation, Air India and the Railways, but their scores stagnate because they stop playing full time.
The good news, Ramesh says, is that players don’t have to chase those jobs anymore. “Over the past decade, chess-related activities like coaching, writing books, reporting on the game, commentary, and helping players prepare are good business.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
For now, India has a strong base. We have more young achievers than traditionally well-performing nations like Russia. But the Chinese identify talent early and invest in it better. Their players get better faster.
To help our Juniors shine as adults, coaches emphasise that kids should enjoy the game. The SMCA advises parents not to burden kids with other activities. Sports psychologist Janki Rajapurkar, who counsels chess players, says kids need to learn to enjoy playing the game, rather than winning it. “If you don’t like chess, the pressure won’t let you win,” she says.
Rameshbabu says that parents must understand the psychology of their children and set goals accordingly. “They may not be in the mood to learn, or be pushed, or they may respond better to the tone than the instruction.”
We also need better coaches. Not just those who’ve played the game but those who’ve played in the all-important foreign tournaments for older kids and are trained to bring out the best in another player.
Many like Kunte believe a league like the IPL in cricket, and better prize money, would motivate more top players. “I won an international tournament in 1996 and received Rs 1 lakh,” he recalls. “A similar event now has a prize that is just Rs 4 lakh.
The government must think long-term, Kunte believes. “Great Britain had just one Gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics,” he says. “But when they bid for the 2012 edition to be held in London they invested heavily in school sports initiatives. They finished third in 2012 and second in 2016, so you can see the lasting effect of their efforts.”