Raj Guha and wife Sujata still remember that day at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Five years ago, they had come all the way from Calcutta to see off son Mitrava, all of five, who didn’t even come up to the knees of the officials chaperoning him. Mitrava was flying to faraway Vietnam, all alone for two weeks to play in a chess tournament. “My wife didn’t sleep a single day for those two weeks. There are sacrifices to be made to see your son as a chess champion,” says Guha. Like it is to excel in any field. But Vishwanathan Anand’s fifth reign as world champion, after beating Israeli challenger Boris Gelfand in Moscow, has brought the focus back on the familiar black and white board with the little armies standing on it.
Vishy’s win has given the game a further boost, but then chess is anyway the fastest growing sport in Indian cities in the last few years. Why didn’t he push his son towards cricket, people would ask J.B. Singh Negi 10 years ago, when, to everyone’s surprise, his son Parimarjan showed more inclination towards knights and bishops than the cover drive or reverse swing. Now, parents pose a different query about his son, who at 13 became the youngest Indian chess Grandmaster: could you give us tips on how to turn our child into a chess master? Negi Sr isn’t surprised. “Back when Parimarjan started playing, some 15-20 children used to appear for the state championship in Delhi. Now there are at least 500 kids,” he says. There has not been a better time for the game with chess clubs, academies and chess coaches springing up by the dozen in cities big and small. There are 27 Indian GMs today and young stars like Parimarjan, Harika Dronavalli, Humpy Koneru, Vaibhav Suri and N. Srinath are all heroes in their respective states, all Anands waiting in the wings to join those already on their way like, P. Harikrishna and S. Vijaylakshmi.
Children practise their moves at Delhi’s Russian Cultural Centre. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)
For some, it’s the new cool but for others it’s the intellectual workout that attracts them to the board. Which is what drew Pratibha Thakur to a chess club in Delhi to engage her son, Vinay, 6, though she rues the lack of “systematic training” for kids who know nothing about the game. “No doubt, chess has the ability to take a child’s IQ way higher,” says coach Nasir Wajih at the Botwinnik Academy. It also helps channel restlessness and develops focus. “When Mitrava was 2-3 years old, we found him to be overly listless. We gave him a chessboard to fool around with, and he started playing with it unconsciously, just moving the pieces about. Now he’s 11 and I can see how much the game has shaped his mind,” says Raj Guha.
At the A2H Chess Academy in Hyderabad. (Photograph by P. Anil Kumar)
It’s not just practice, but a great deal of sharpness and a solid memory that works in the favour of chess player, say former players. Playing analytical games, focusing on planning and strategies and observing the games of top players goes a long way to up your skills. For 19-year-old Parimarjan Negi, what clicked was an innate curiosity about the 64 squares. “Every game seemed like a puzzle to be solved. Plus, having a competitive streak helps, like the motivation to beat your opponent whatever it takes.” So do the coaching centres at every corner in the cities help? “Well, they have mushroomed all over the country, which makes it hard to determine quality. It’s best to consult with a known chess player before joining one,” suggests Calcutta-based GM and coach Dibyendu Barua. The internet and many world-class chess-based software are essential tools to master modern chess (see graphic). It’s absolutely imperative that your child keeps up with the latest openings and strategies by practicing on the computer, and reads up on the latest chess literature, advises fide (World Chess Federation) instructor Praful Zaveri, who runs the Indian Chess School in Mumbai. “We prefer to train players in groups, for if you play against one person all the time you get bored,” says coach Raghunandan Vasant Gohkale, the only Dronacharya award winner for chess. “I believe it is necessary to play at least one hour a day. Of course, most kids increase the number of hours as they become more serious. Now, with the internet, it’s easy to play opponents from across the world 24 hours a day,” he says. Coaching fees can vary from Rs 1,000 an hour to Rs 10,000 to learn the moves with a GM. Many community coaching centres, in cities like Mumbai and Bangalore, charge between Rs 500 to Rs 800 an hour.
Raj Guha with son Mitrava at their home in Calcutta. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
But chess can also be a lonely pursuit, it can make children aloof, avoid other classmates and outdoor games. One tip that all experts have for kids taking up chess: take up another sport and exercise on the side. So you have Harika Dronavalli, all of 21 and one of the top players in the country, who loves to go for a run whenever she can manage an hour out from her schedule, even while touring. Or Parimarjan, who is a regular at the gym. Or an even younger Devashish Gupta, a 10-year-old budding player in Delhi who also plays the guitar and can hold his own on a tennis court. Vishwanathan Anand says he takes long walks to relax (see interview). “Chess is a very psychological sport, where cognitive skills are in focus. So a distraction like developing a hobby and indulging in a physical sport works well for a serious chess player’s regimen,” says psychologist Shraddha C. Sankulkar, who has helped young chess and cricket players deal with the pressures of professional sport.
Most senior players are also coaches, which gets them a steady income. But chess as a career is still a tough option. “We prefer not talking about financial issues surrounding Parimarjan’s game when he is around. Why burden him with it when he is already under tremendous pressure to be consistent?” reasons Negi’s father. Pressure, sometimes, cannot be avoided, feels Raj Guha. “Financial support is hard to come by, which means often my wife and I can’t accompany our son on tours.”
But a star player like Harika makes light of such pressures. She says you have to have fun playing chess, or there’s no point. “I train for at least seven hours a day, but it comes easy to me. When I take a break, I watch a film or listen to music.” Ask her how she stays motivated and she giggles over the phone from Georgia, where she is away at a tournament. “Chess is a habit for me, I can’t do without it. That’s what keeps me going.” The winner, clearly, is chess here. Viva Vishy.
How to equip your child for life on the 64 squares
The young rooks who are making a name for themselves
Magnus Carlsen The Norway chess prodigy is No. 1 in the world, and he’s just 21. He beat our own Vishwanathan Anand in 2010’s Chess Oscar by a small margin.
Sergey Karjakin The 22-year-old Russian prodigy became the youngest International Master at age 11, and the youngest Grandmaster at age 12.
Harika Dronavalli Only the second Indian woman to win a GM title, the 21-year-old chess player already has an Arjuna Award in her kitty. She’s now eyeing the women’s No. 1 spot.
Parimarjan Negi The 19-year-old talented star become the youngest ever Indian to win the Grandmaster title at 13, and is the second youngest GM in the world.
Anish Giri The prolific 17-year-old star from the Netherlands is among the few pro chess players who attends regular school, writes articles on chess.
N. Srinath The latest star on the firmament, Srinath won the Asian Junior Chess C’ship in Tashkent last Thursday, beating V. Jahongir of Uzbekistan. Earns his first GM stripes too.
Vaibhav Suri 15-year-old Vaibhav is the newest spark in Indian chess, bagging the Grandmaster title only last month.
Padmini Rout The talented young player from Orissa is now a Woman GM, and even has an Eklayva award to her credit.
By Neha Bhatt with Akhila Krishnamurthy and Smita Mitra
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