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Will the troubles at India's top chess body be finally over?

An 8-month long power tussle has paralysed the All India Chess Federation and taken a toll on players. Is the upcoming election going to end it?

Representational image. (Unsplash)
Representational image. (Unsplash)

Since March, the All India Chess Federation (AICF), the Indian chess administrator, has been split into two factions. One is led by Bharat Singh Chauhan, secretary of AICF, and the other by PR Venkatarama Raja, its President. The division, and the subsequent legal battle, started after a controversial election in February that saw Chauhan re-elected into the AICF and Raja and his panel of 15 nominees disqualified on technical grounds. But now, there seems to be a resolution in sight.

On Monday, the Madras High Court appointed J Kannan, a retired judge from Punjab & Haryana High Court, as returning officer to conduct elections at the All India Chess Federation (AICF). Advocate Sanjay K Chadha, who represents Chauhan at the Madras High Court, told Lounge that J Kannan is expected to announce the election dates soon. “The polls will be conducted in accordance with the National Sports Code,” he added.

An end to struggle at the AICF has been long awaited. But to many, most of it has been an ego-battle that’s come at the cost of Indian chess players and the initiatives to develop the game online during the pandemic.

Varugeese Koshy, founder of Chess Players Forum, a body representing chess professionals in India, says that one of the biggest casualties of this tussle has been the AICF's inability to capitalise on the surge of interest in online chess.

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“Online chess boomed during the lockdown,” says Koshy. “Websites like chessbase.in and chess.com, and bodies like the FIDE (International Chess Federation) and the Asian Chess Federation, tapped into it by organising multiple online tournaments. But AICF’s focus has only been the elections. There were no competitions held by any of its affiliates.”

The factionalism also took toll on the players, Koshy points out. Ahead of the FIDE Online Olympiad held in July and August this year, Chauhan and Raja declared two different teams to represent India in the tournament. In the ensuing fallout, grandmaster RB Ramesh resigned as the AICF chief selector saying he couldn’t take the interference from the officials of the two factions anymore.

Eventually, the factions agreed on one team. India also went on to be the joint winner of the Olympiad along with Russia. “But, in the process, it affected the morale of the players who were discarded,” said Koshy.

Bharat Singh Chauhan admitted that the rivalry at the AICF had taken a toll on the players. “In this difficult time, we needed to look after the community of chess, including our players. But this wasn’t done because of the standoff. I regret that,” he said. “But now the court has ordered election. I hope that’ll put an end to the controversy.”

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Even if the elections are out of the way, other issues remain. As Chess Players Forum pointed out in a letter to the Union Sports Ministry earlier this month, the AICF still hasn’t complied with the National Sports Code, 2011. One of the requirements of the Code is the inclusion of 25% eminent players as a part of the administrative body, which is sorely lacking from the AICF today. This, Koshy says, has led to several “anti-player” decisions taking place over the years.

“In my experience, not many top players are interested [in being part of the AICF],” says Chauhan. “We have nearly 70% players in our executive body and state associations but the National Sports Code says ‘eminent’, which is unclear to me.”

Nevertheless, he adds, once the elections conclude, the new management will take a call and put in place the necessary compliances. "As a player myself, I think there should be involvement of players in the AICF. It is important for a healthy organisation,” says Chauhan.

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