CHENNAI: “I have a word for the grown-ups,” said Magnus Carlsen last week in Kolkata, when asked about the future of Indian chess. “There are young talents popping up. The future is bright. Just make sure that the kids don’t lose the love for the game. Let them enjoy chess and let them be kids.”The words of the world champion rang true in several ways. With a high rate of producing Grandmasters and the lowest age of achieving that title getting lower, India is one of the strongest chess nations, fourth on the FIDE list of countries, based on the average ratings of the top 10 players. Those ahead of India are Russia, USA and China. There are incentives and inspirations for children in India to take up chess.
And yet, nobody has emerged after Viswanathan Anand who spent a considerable amount of time among the elite of world chess. Pentala Harikrishna reached a career-best ranking of 10 in 2016, Krishnan Sasikiran was 21st in 2006 and 2007 and recently Vidit Gujrathi has moved up to an impressive 30. However, they have not become regulars in the top bracket in terms of getting invitations from blue-riband tournaments, where a man turning 50 on December 11 continues to be the lone Indian. Nobody after him has qualified for the Candidates tournament, the winner of which challenges the world champion.
So despite 13-year-olds securing GM tittles and the country producing more than 30 of them in the last six years, India’s search for the next Anand continues. It may be unfair to an extent on the other players to judge them against one of the all-time greats. On the other hand, is it too unrealistic to expect the next generation to at least make it to the premier league without becoming a world champion?
“One big difference between Anand and others is he lived, trained and played in Spain for a long time,” says Dibyendu Barua, the second Indian to become a GM. “This helped his development in several ways. He was in an atmosphere which strengthened his game, as rubbing shoulders with superior players does. More importantly, he didn’t develop the typical Indian mentality of being content with little.”
It’s often said in the fraternity that the average Indian player doesn’t aspire to reach a higher level. They are happy with a draw against a better player. “You may not believe, but that is what was often taught to us. Players are encouraged to be satisfied with one or two good performances, to play safe instead of taking risks and going for victory. One reason why Anand reached where no Indian has was he never developed this mentality,” says Barua.
In the Grand Swiss tournament in October, teen sensation and GM D Gukesh played a variation with white against veteran Peter Leko that is known to favour a draw. While there is nothing wrong about drawing a game and that was a move players are known to employ when they want to split the point, the youngster’s reluctance to go for a win with white in the first round was surprising. It also emphasised a point Barua and others are trying to make.
“We have lowered our target and the system is breeding mediocrity,” says veteran GM Praveen Thipsay. “To achieve immediate success and to gain rating points and GM norms, coaches are compromising the future of players. They are happy becoming GMs and not aspiring to aim higher. There is a complacency that has been created, with a false image of prosperity. So we see a rise in the number of GMs, but not in the number of top players. It’s a reflection of the way we are thinking. Becoming a GM has become an end in itself, while actually it should be the starting point.”
In the Grand Chess Tour leg held in Kolkata and won by Carlsen, Anand finished a disappointing seventh. Perhaps more disappointing was the sight of two other Indians in fray — Harikrishna and Gujrathi — bringing up the rear. Although the format was rapid and blitz, it showed the gap between the cream of world chess and what India after Anand has to offer.