School kids, mad media scrum and chants of 'Gukeeeeesh, Gukesh': How the champion was welcomed in the wee hours of Thursday

All India Chess Federation treasurer, Dharmendra Kumar, chess enthusiasts, Sports Development of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) officials and some 100 school students were all part of the reception for the chess teen.
D. Gukesh, Youngest Grand master arrives at Chennai Airport after winning the FIDE Candidates chess Tournament held in Toronto.
D. Gukesh, Youngest Grand master arrives at Chennai Airport after winning the FIDE Candidates chess Tournament held in Toronto. Ashwin Prasath | EXPRESS

CHENNAI: The international arrivals and departure lounge can be a very emotional place. At 3.00 AM on Thursday, those emotions were front and centre as the city welcomed D Gukesh, who had won the Candidates earlier this week in Toronto. Just before the 17-year-old addressed the media in a chaotic press conference, he sought out his mother, Padma, who hugged and kissed him. A very proud son returned the compliment before addressing hordes of media persons in the wee hours.

All India Chess Federation treasurer, Dharmendra Kumar, chess enthusiasts, Sports Development of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) officials and some 100 school students were all part of the reception for the chess teen. At 1.30 AM, the arrivals lounge wore a slightly deserted look but 30 minutes later, the first signs of hospitality had made its presence felt. Students of various classes, complete with balloons and Gukesh masks, formed an orderly queue. Nearby, Bharat Singh Chauhan, a veteran chess administrator, and Kumar were waiting to go inside the terminal to welcome Gukesh.

Just as the students formed a guard of honour, the exiting passengers, battling sleep and humidity, were quizzically looking at them. Some passengers even hung around to see what all the hype was about. Soon, the shutterbugs began to work overtime as they positioned themselves directly in front of the hall to capture the passengers.

As soon as he appeared, there was excited chatter. A few teachers tried to get the students to clap for a returning hero (some half-hearted chants of 'Gukeeeeeeesh, Gukesh' cut through a warm summer night). In a blue blazer and turban on top of his head, he looked like a king.

But, thanks to the commotion and the utter chaos that had consumed everybody present during the occasion, he was moving like a pawn. Not more than a few inches at any given time: by the time he walked the 25 metres or so, 45 minutes had passed by. At one point, it became so bad that a few cops formed a shield to escort him.        

This hospitality is usually reserved for larger-than-life film stars. However, chess players are also received warmly in this part of the country. When Magnus Carlsen landed at the airport for the Olympiad in 2022, he was surrounded. Wherever he went, his team members had to protect him from being mobbed by the masses. When Viswanathan Anand came back after winning several world titles, he was treated to rose petals from the public.  

Gukesh was also treated to rose petals from a few of the students. When he finally addressed the media, he spoke about being thankful for the kind of attention chess receives. "I couldn't have asked for a better homecoming," he said. "It is a special achievement for me. I was in good shape throughout the tournament. Though the seventh-round loss (to Alireza Firouzja) was a blow, I was able to get out of it as I was in a good frame of mind. From the beginning, I was confident that I could win the Candidates and it went accordingly with luck on my side."  

When asked if he would like to play the title clash at Chennai, he was diplomatic. "It's a bit early to say," he said. "I would be happy to play the World Championship anywhere. (Ding) Liren is a strong player but I have full belief that I can beat him. I will prepare well. Waiting eagerly."

Considering it was Chennai that officially lifted him into the stratosphere -- he won gold while playing top board at the Olympiad in 2022 -- in 2022, he would privately be thrilled if the city gets the chance to host it. He also has other pleasant memories -- at the end of 2023, the Chennai Grand Masters event helped Gukesh qualify for the Candidates.

While the International Chess Federation (FIDE) will open the bidding process in May, India have already expressed an interest. "We are definitely interested, there's no question," Kumar said before Gukesh had landed. "The process will begin soon and once we get the go-ahead, we will decide about the venue." If India do win the bid, the Tamil Nadu government will be front and centre (privately, they have already expressed an interest). It's expected that the final will be between November 20 and December 15.  

As he belatedly left, he was serenaded off by a handful of children wearing Gukesh masks. 

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