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Chess: Why hasn’t India produced another Viswanathan Anand?

India has the fifth highest number of chess grandmasters but only one world champion in Viswanathan Anand

Viswanathan Anand before his first game against Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov at the FIDE World Chess Championship in Sofia, 2010. (AFP)
Viswanathan Anand before his first game against Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov at the FIDE World Chess Championship in Sofia, 2010. (AFP)

The recently concluded chess24 Legends of Chess was a rather dismal tournament for Viswanathan Anand. The one-of-its-kind contest brought together 10 of the world’s top-ranked players and all-time greats. Anand, a five-time world champion, finished ninth. He won once and lost eight times.

Anand, who is part of the Indian team for the FIDE (International Chess Federation) Online Olympiad 2020 from 21-23 August, has offered no reviews of his performance. The tournament’s online-only format, necessitated by the covid-19 pandemic, meant there were no post-match media interactions either. But for all that he left unsaid, he has been open about his prospects for a while now. In his autobiography Mind Master, released last year, he wrote that he’s “in the sport for the joy of playing (rather) than the pursuit of ranking…. For running into greying old buddies and players old enough to be our sons; for telling the world we still love a good fight; and for the odd title we might luck out on."

At 50, he is the oldest player in top-tier competitive chess from India. The latest FIDE ratings place him 15th in the world; P. Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi trail him at 20th and 24th, respectively. Anand has been India’s top-ranked player for most of the past three decades. His hard work, perseverance and ability to play across all formats led to a revolution in Indian chess. When he achieved the grandmaster (GM) title in 1988, it was a first for India. India now has 66 GMs, the fifth highest in the world.

Yet, even as India’s tally of chess GMs increases, most players can’t seem to keep up the momentum to excel on the world stage. India only has four players in the world top 100. Among women, who are ranked separately, India has seven players in the top 100. After Magnus Carlsen beat Anand to win the world championship in 2013, no Indian has been able to make it beyond the qualifiers to challenge him—except Anand himself. Koneru Humpy, ranked second in the world in women’s rankings, came closest to the world title in 2011, finishing as a runner-up.

“In China, they say Ding Liren can be the next world champion," says Praveen Thipsay, a chess GM from Mumbai and a trainer. “In the US, Fabiano Caruana (world No.2) or Wesley So (world No.8) could be that. That way, we don’t have too many players whom we can project to be world champions today."

For the most part, chess in India flourished not because of the state but in spite of it. Archaic rules and a chronic lack of funding often came in the way—and still do. Manuel Aaron, India’s first international master (IM), a title short of GM, recalled in an interview with The Times Of India in 2013 that he couldn’t go to Delhi to receive the Arjuna Award in the 1960s because of financial constraints. “The award came by post. Broken," he added. In 1987, a year before he turned GM, Anand had to wait eight months for permission to import a computer. R.B. Ramesh, a chess GM turned coach, tells Mint he had to pose as a school student at age 18 to secure an internet connection in the late 1990s.

“Earlier, a boy taking up chess professionally was considered a ‘gone case’," recalls Varugeese Koshy, an IM from Bihar and president of the Chess Players Forum. But as Anand notched up wins and records, it prompted a shift in attitudes. “In the past 20-25 years, chess has become an alternative career. Private sponsors started coming in, government companies (like banks, petroleum and railways) started giving players jobs."

Two factors worked in its favour: A chess board came cheap, and many middle-class parents wanted their children to pursue it seriously, even if only in the hope of them landing a government job. “In Europe, you don’t start getting professional coaching at 7-8. They want their kids to decide," says Thipsay. “Here, the advantage—or disadvantage, depending on how you see it—is that parents don’t give much of an option to children."

States like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, where Anand was born, led the way by making chess compulsory in schools. Today, 24 of the country’s 66 GMs come from Tamil Nadu, including two of the youngest GMs in history: R. Praggnanandhaa and D. Gukesh, both of whom qualified at age 12. In the last 20 years, India has had several successes at world youth chess championships. Since 2000, its men and women chess players have won the under-18 thrice, the under-16 four times, under-14 seven times, under-12 eight times and under-10 nine times. The latest triumph came last year, when 14-year-old Praggnanandhaa won the world under-18 chess championship.

Despite recording high levels of success in youth championships, not many seem to keep up the wins as they turn older. Says Thipsay, “The entire system is geared towards making GMs. A sense of complacency seems to set in after."

At the elite stage, a player’s success can depend on the coaches they can afford. And good coaches come at a cost. According to an ESPN report last month, Vidit Gujrathi pays €400 ( around 35,000) for a 6-hour session. Baskaran Adhiban, ranked fourth in India, pays €60 an hour. Both are employed by public sector undertakings and can afford it, but those without jobs or sufficient sponsorship have to pass up opportunities for quality training.

“At the highest level, the opponents look for all kinds of weaknesses of the opponents," says Thipsay. “If you don’t play well, if, say, you tend to not play well if your C6 square is not protected, they will prepare for that." So the chess body needs to organize tournaments to get the top players, or “super GMs", to play against each other, he adds. “But in India there are barely any such tournaments organized." An estimated 150-200 players fly to Europe every year for such events. But not everyone can afford it.

P. Harikrishna, the 1996 world under-10 champion, currently ranked second in India, believes the absence of such tournaments did have some impact on his growth curve. He cites the instance of his wins in under-10 and under-14 world chess championships. On both occasions, Teimour Radjabov from Azerbaijan was the runner-up. Today, Radjabov is the world No.9 and a three-time challenger for the World Chess Championship. Harikrishna is world No.20.

“At a young age, Radjabov played in the Linares tournament in Spain," Harikrishna says. The tournament, held in Spain every year, is known as the “Wimbledon of chess". “When you play the best in the world, you learn a lot, no matter how you play.... It’s a hypothetical thing to say but had I played such events at an early stage, things might have been much better for me."

Bharat Singh Chauhan, secretary of the All India Chess Federation (AICF), says they have tried to make the most of their resources. Today, he says, the AICF organizes a number of youth championships at the state and national levels. Top-ranked national players are sent abroad for “exposure trips", their stay and travel expenses for world tournaments paid for. In recent years, the AICF has also started a sessions for young players’ parents in an attempt to prevent burn-out among youngsters.

AICF’s annual budget is about 8 crore. “It costs up to 5 crore to organize a tournament featuring elite players like Anand or Carlsen," says Chauhan. “I would rather invest that amount in a chess school and have thousands more players coming up."

A possible solution could be to set up a chess league, on the lines of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Although this is part of AICF’s “2020 vision" document, as uploaded on its website, Singh says they ruled out its formation “due to some issues". R.B. Ramesh, who quit as chief selector at the AICF last month citing “interference", says the federation was unsure chess could be marketed as a spectator sport. However, as Harikrishna points out, “several countries like China or Iran have a chess league. You won’t believe it, but even Bangladesh does".

The erstwhile Soviet Union had a system backing its players; a similar model is now under way in China. In the US, an academy by billionaire Rex Sinquefield has been leading the chess renaissance in the hope of creating “the next Bobby Fischer".

But for all the systemic issues, says R.B. Ramesh, one can’t discount the fact that India is one of the fastest growing countries in chess. “We started from a point when we didn’t have books, internet, media attention or private sponsorships. Today, we are producing three-four GMs every year. That is huge," says Ramesh.

India are seeded seventh in the FIDE Online Olympiad. “The average rating of the team (2419) does not reflect our true playing strength," team captain Gujrathi told The Hindu last month. “Our juniors are most talented and grossly under-rated (as per rapid ratings)." Although India have only won a medal once—a bronze in 2014—Gujrathi said the team this year was “among the favourites".

“World champions are not produced because we want it," says Ramesh. “Anand is a one-time phenomenon. When Bobby Fischer became world champion, chess in the US was non-existent. Norway is the size of Chennai, yet it produced a Carlsen. Given where we started, and where we are, I feel we are just as capable as anyone else."

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