Finish Line: Making Giant moves on the board

If the 2022 Olympiad was a stepping stone, Indian chess has scaled new peaks in 2023. A look at the rise of the next generation in the sport and how it all happened...
Indian Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa and during the first game of the Chess World Cup 2023 final against Norway's Grandmaster and World No. 1 player Magnus Carlsen, in Baku. (FILE | PTI)
Indian Grandmaster R Praggnanandhaa and during the first game of the Chess World Cup 2023 final against Norway's Grandmaster and World No. 1 player Magnus Carlsen, in Baku. (FILE | PTI)

CHENNAI: Chess has always held a pride of place for Indians. Cricket may have produced world champions in the 1980s but Viswanathan Anand had become one of the country's first individual winners of a world title. Anand's exploits over the chess board have been well recognised by the government awards that have come his way.

He was the first recipient of the Khel Ratna in the early 1990s. By a quirk, Manuel Aaron, the country's first International Master, had got the Arjuna award in 1961, in its inaugural edition. In a country filled with male superstars like Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, Leander Paes and Prakash Padukone, Anand was conferred with the Padma Vibushan in 2007, the first sportsperson to receive the second highest civilian honour. This is a roundabout way of saying India likes its chess players.

It was Aaron who developed a foundation for chess in Chennai. It was Anand who showcased what was possible on a square not more than 21 inches long on all four sides. While the 54-year-old has carried the responsibility for being India's flagbearer for almost three decades, that has slowly changed. Other players have had significant victories (Koneru Humpy won World Rapid gold in 2019, for example) while young players have frequently raised the bar when it comes to winning GM norms. Yet, for all of that, what was missing was a watershed moment.

D Gukesh.
D Gukesh.

It's why 2023 feels so significant. A watershed year when a whole host of Indians turned water into wine. R Praggnanandhaa opened the floodgates by qualifying for the Candidates. D Gukesh overtook Anand in terms of rating, a feat that hadn't been achieved for over 35 years. Vidit Gujrathi won the Grand Swiss to book his Candidates spot. R Vaishali became just the third Indian woman to become a GM apart from rubber-stamping a women's Candidates berth. Humpy is odds on to feature in that field because of a very consistent year. As long as Anish Giri doesn't feature at the podium in the upcoming World Rapid and Blitz, Gukesh will join Gujrathi and Praggnanandhaa in the eight-man Candidates field. Put it this way — out of the 16 Candidates, more than 30 per cent could be from India.

At one point of time, it was just Anand. Now, Anand's academy and other coaches are churning potential champions like it's the easiest thing in the world. RB Ramesh, one of those coaches responsible for sea change (his chess gurukul is one of the most prominent destinations to learn the board game in Chennai), picks up the story. "Change has been gradual but steady," he tells this daily. "20-25 years ago, it was just Vishy. Back then, most of us didn't even have the confidence that we could become a GM. In my case, I started playing chess at 12. When I was 19, I became an IM. Even at that point, I didn't think I would become a GM."  

These days, the teens have been able to marry confidence with ability. Here's Anand. "It's clear that all of them are comfortable when they play against the world's top five," he had told during the Chennai Grand Masters meet a few days ago. "There's nothing to suggest they are out place. They are a stable golden generation. In two-three years, we could have two-three in the top 20 (in terms of ratings). When I started the Westbridge-Anand Academy, I thought it would be great to get there in four-five years. But, boom, we have got there in half the time."

How did it happen? Precocious kids taking up the game at the same time is the rudimentary answer. Ramesh, whose academy handles a lot of these teens including Praggnanandhaa and his elder sister, Vaishali, is more intimate. "It started with (Krishnan) Sasikiran," he tells. "He was extremely ambitious. He started travelling abroad and made his IM and GM norms there. That kind of showed the way. We got a lot of young players who started travelling for their norms. This was basically the foundation for what's happening. You don't have to wait for the norms to come to India when you could chase the norms."

The available evidence bears this out. Sasikiran was India's fifth GM. A total of five GMs in 12 years. That number has compounded to 84 in 23 years. In fact, the country has seen at least one player going on to become a GM every year over the last 23 years save 2005.

If that sort of heralded the modern growth of chess in the country, it has turbocharged over the last six years with the pandemic sandwiched. Forty have achieved the third and final GM norm since the beginning of 2017.

Ramesh explains why. "Over a period of time, we also had players who had retired from chess to focus more on training which wasn't there earlier. So we (my generation) had to rely on foreign trainers. We started to have Indian trainers who understand Indian psychology better. All of this put together meant we have an ecosystem." This is true. Anand, Pravin Thipsay, Ramesh, Vishnu Prasanna, Srinath Narayan, Dibyendu Barua, Sandipan Chanda, Abhijit Kunte... they are all GMs who have coached or trained or mentored the brightest chess kids over the last five years or so.

Consider the examples of Gukesh (coached by Prasanna) or Prananadhaa (coached by Ramesh) who became GMs in 2018 and 2019 respectively. They have had Indian trainers and have had the opportunity to travel the world where they have played the best.


Here's where attitude also plays a big role. Just before the Olympiad, Ramesh had explained the metamorphosis of an Indian chess-playing teen and why it's different to the West.  "We don't frown upon hard work," he had said then. "In the West, there's a tendency to say 'you are missing out from having a complete childhood'. Here, fortunately we appreciate it. Many children take it up seriously at a very young age when they have fewer distractions (social media and video games). So, they are more hopeful and energetic. It’s the best age to learn. Anyone who starts young and works hard, they have a better chance.”

There's a saying that goes 'a rising tide lifts all boats'. The emergence of Anand was that moment. Now, though, is something bigger. Greater. 2023 stands testament to that.
7 — No. of Indians who became GMs in 2023

3 — No. of Indians who have assured themselves of a Candidates spot in 2024 (two more, D Gukesh and Koneru Humpy, are odds on to get there)

1 — Praggnanandhaa was one match away from winning the World Cup but he lost to Magnus Carlsen in the final

Gukesh achieved a peak rating of 2758 in August which enabled him to overtake Anand

Both Vidit Gujrathi and R Vaishali won the Grand Swiss titles in November

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