Aaron’s Ark has neither sails nor oars. Nevertheless, it’s a copper-bottomed conveyance if your goal is chess glory. The two-storey building in Shastri Nagar, Chennai, is home to India’s first chess legend, Manuel Aaron, who in 1961 became the country’s first international master (IM), and is a nine-time national champion besides.
Aaron, now a sprightly 83, coaches dozens of youngsters at his house. His Aaron Chess Academy is a pioneer among the chess institutes—100 at last count—that have cropped up in Chennai over the past three decades. “When I became an IM, there was increased interest, and many youngsters took up the game. When Viswanathan Anand became India’s first grandmaster (GM) in the ’80s, there was a flood. As we’re both from Chennai, the city became the hotspot for chess, even though TN has had a strong chess culture since the early ’60s, with tournaments held across the state,” recalls Aaron.
The recent arrival of 12-year-old Praggnanandhaa as the second-youngest GM has further underlined Chennai’s status as India’s chess capital. “Now that Pragga has set a new benchmark, you’ll have another rush of little boys and girls eager to pursue chess. Chennai has never had it so good,” chuckles Aaron. His academy is already bustling with tiny tots poring over boards and making moves.
The arrival of an achiever and his elevation as an icon does inspire, as it did when Viswanathan Anand became India’s first GM in 1988, and then went on to win the world championship six times (see box). “The day after Anand became our first GM, I gave up cricket and took to chess. Many youngsters of my generation gravitated to chess, impacted by Anand’s ascent. We owe it to him,” says R.B. Ramesh, who became a GM before turning full-fledged coach. Pragga has been training at Ramesh’s Chess Gurukul for many years.
Ramesh, who is now accompanying the Indian team to the Asian Team Championship in Iran, says Chennai quickly emerged as a chess powerhouse thanks to Anand. For example, out of the five GMs representing India, three—B. Adhiban, K. Sasikiran and S.P. Sethuraman—are from Chennai. Out of 52 GMs produced by India so far, 17 have come from Chennai, as have 34 out of 100 IMs. Ramesh attributes this to a long history of chess playing in the state, an active state association which created a large base of players, and the dedicated academies that incubate these talents.
D.V. Sundar, vice president of the All India Chess Federation, points out that the TN association was the first to hold age-group tournaments that helped spot young talents. “We had tournaments for under-eight, 11 and 14 groups, and hundreds of children would turn up, as anyone with an interest could play. We also had tournaments for those with FIDE (World Chess Federation) ratings below 1,600, which proved to be a great leveller, as players of almost equal strength were sparring with one another,” he explains.
S.P. Sethuraman, one of India’s GMs, concurs. “We had a lot of tournaments happening round the year where we could play against strong players. As a kid, I duelled against many IMs, and when I won such a game, it was a tremendous boost to my confidence. Growing up, I also played against GMs from the city, including Anand. Today, when kids play against me and other GMs from here, they feel the same thrill I used to,” he says.
The game has also benefitted from a slew of patrons, including industrialists acting through their companies and as individuals. Industrial houses and textile mills regularly conducted large tournaments like the Palani Open and other open tournaments in Coimbatore and Madurai during the ’60s and ’70s. PSUs like the Neyveli Lignite Corporation would organise tournaments and have their own teams, recruiting players as employees. Once his talent became apparent, R.B. Ramesh was lapped up by Indian Bank the moment he crossed 18, even though he had just completed school. “The PSU banks and oil companies have played a huge role in keeping the chess flag flying in Chennai,” gushes Ramesh.
While Ramco Industries now backs Anand and Pragga, another Chennai-based firm, Microsense, has been supporting young stars like GM Arvind Chidambaram, Divya Deshmukh—the world under-12 girls’ champion—Leon Mendonca and M. Pranesh, as well as established GMs like Adhiban and Pentala Harikrishna. “We still need to support these players through specialised coaching and employing seconds to take them to the next level, where they can enter the world’s top ten,” says S. Kailasanathan, founder of Microsense and former state chess champion. Where corporate sponsorship has not been available, chess lovers have supported players through crowdfunding.
Another plus has been the involvement of schools in nurturing talent. Many schools refer talented children to good academies, or bring in coaches. Chennai’s Velammal School exempts its chess champions from attendance requirements and lets them travel the world to attend tournaments. It has already produced two GMs—Adhiban and Pragga—and Divya Deshmukh. Seeing the school’s support system, Leon Mendonca, a champion from Goa, readily shifted there. “If we spot a talented player, we offer him free education, plus any other backup needed to take him up the ladder,” says a spokesperson for the school.
Ultimately, much depends on the individual player’s hunger. “Family support, a clear growth chart from the coach, and the state association’s long-term involvement is what would keep a chess champion going. Pragga, even after becoming a GM, travels two hours by bus with a packed lunch to come to my academy and train throughout the day. Back home, he pores over his laptop to learn new variations and study games. It’s a lot of hard work, being a prodigy,” says Ramesh.
Kailasanathan cautions that Chennai’s sway over the game faces challenges from other cities like Hyderabad and Delhi, and small towns like Sangli in Maharashtra, which are also producing top players. “In these days of the internet, huge databases of games and moves are available to any devoted player. So for Chennai to keep its edge, it must keep producing more champions,” he says.
By G.C. Shekhar in Chennai