Chess fever is not just in the air in India, it has also permeated the water. In a promo for the ongoing Chess Olympiad in Mahabalipuram, scuba divers went to the bottom of the sea near Neelankarai Beach in Chennai and played a few moves. One of the divers, Aravind, wore a mask of the mascot, Thambi the knight. Yes, we saw a horse around a chessboard on the ocean floor, and we weren’t on an LSD trip. (More Sports News)
The marketing of a big event can get formulaic. But the Olympiad promotion has been creative. Chess, an intellectual pursuit, might have found it beneath itself to embrace populist measures to spread its word. That it did not do so is encouraging for its future.
AR Rahman and Rajinikanth brought glamour to the pre-Olympiad activity. The choreographed promo by Kavitha Ramu, which went viral within hours, brought out the rich tapestry of the game and of Indian classical dance. Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen-conqueror Praggnanandhaa, folding their hands in a namaste in the official song, represented India’s multi-generation prowess in the game. PM Narendra Modi opening the event lent it prestige.
Then there is the chess itself. The game was born in India. Nearly every Indian has played it – the poor under trees on chewed up cardboard, the rich with intricately carved chess sets. Chess has been portrayed in films and art. Cricket is the ultimate Indian sport in the physical sense. Chess is the ultimate Indian sport in the mental sense. It fits our image of a studious, intelligent breed. We do well in academics, cricket and chess.
“Chess was born, if not brought up, in India,” Raghunanda Gokhale, Dronacharya Award winning chess coach, tells Outlook from Prague, where he is accompanying trainees at a tournament. “Chess has always been a part of Indian culture. In the Ramayana, chess is mentioned in the context of the marriage between Mandodari and Ravana.”
Gokhale is keeping tabs on the events in Mahabalipuram. One of his students, Bhakti Kulkarni, is a member of the India ‘A’ team. Besides, the FIDE elections will take place at the Olympiad on August 7. Anand is contesting for the vice-president’s post. He is in Team Arkady Dvorkovich, the current president, who is expected to be re-elected. Dvorkovich is also a former deputy prime minister of Russia.
If Anand becomes FIDE VP, it could have major implications for chess in India.
“FIDE has 195 member nations, second only to FIFA,” says Gokhale. “Once Anand gets there (to VP), he can push for the inclusion of chess in competitions like Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, maybe even the Olympics. If that happens, chess will get its rightful place in sports. This Olympiad will give it a big boost as well.”
Indian sport has made a lot of improvements in the last couple of decades. We now consistently find success in disciplines other than cricket. A track and field gold medal at the Olympics or World Championships, once an impossible dream for India, is now ours to lose, thanks to Neeraj Chopra. In badminton, winning a few rounds at the Thomas Cup used to be an achievement. Now, we are the reigning champions. Players like Lakshya Sen, HS Prannoy, Kidambi Srikanth, not to mention PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, are genuine achievers who have proven themselves at the highest level.
But there was a time when, cricket and hockey aside, chess was the one game that consistently brought us success.
India has produced 67 Grandmasters, 124 International Masters, 20 Woman Grandmasters and 42 Woman International Masters. Anand was the first to qualify for the honour in 1988. Leon Mendonca, a 16-year-old from Goa, is the latest. Two of India’s young stars, Gukesh D and Praggnanandhaa, became GMs at 12. To be exact, Gukesh became GM at 12 years, seven months, and 17 days, and is the youngest Indian GM ever. The earlier record was held by Praggnanandhaa, who was 12 years and ten months when he became GM.
Chess has also given Indian sport one of its true icons – Anand. It is not easy to translate junior level promise into success at the senior level, but Anand did that, winning five World Championships. He is the Schwarzenegger of the mind, fully deserving of all the accolades and honours he has received, including Padma Vibhushan.
The role of chess in stemming the patriarchal forces in Indian society also needs to be acknowledged. For decades, chess has given Indian women the opportunity to step out of their homes, travel to distant places, compete and make a name for themselves. Pictures of women chess players were a fixture in sports magazines of earlier eras. And women players continue to be an important part of Indian sport.
Koneru Humpy was the first Indian woman to become an open Grandmaster (competing with men). S Vijayalakshmi was the first to become a Woman Grandmaster (competing with women). Before and after them, players like Anupama Gokhale, Bhagyahsree Thipsay, Harika Dronavalli and Tania Sachdev have excelled at the game.
Some years ago, a cola advert urged Indian cricket fans to bleed blue, a nod to the colour of the team’s uniform in white ball cricket. At times like these, though, many Indian fans bleed the black and white of the chess board.