India’s chess capital prepares to host the International Olympiad

The excitement in India’s chess capital, Chennai, is tangible. The city’s famous Napier Bridge recently got a chess-themed makeover, painted entirely in black and white squares, as it hosts the 44th Chess Olympiad.

India’s first time hosting the tournament, it started on Thursday and will run until August 10 in Mahabalipuram, a temple town 60 kilometers from Chennai. The city is famous for its 7th century rock-cut temples and is currently in the grip of chess fever.

The Olympiad attracted numerous corporate sponsors thanks to an unprecedented publicity campaign. Subway trains and buses were adorned with posters depicting the mascot Thambi (Tamil for “little brother”), a burly horse draped in the Desi attire of a dhoti and shirt. The official tournament anthem was composed by Chennai music maestro and Grammy and Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman.

Mahabalipuram, an hour’s drive from Chennai and known for its seaside resorts, is getting a makeover and welcoming players, referees and tournament organizers. Around 2,000 players flew in, along with coaches and officials, special guests, delegates and volunteers, meaning more than 30 nearby hotels were booked and mock drills were held. Every aspect, from power surges to sanitation, has been covered.

In February, it was announced that the International Chess Federation (Fide) had banned Russia from hosting the prestigious Chess Olympiad. Fide President Arkady Dvorkovich was looking for a new host country and India scrambled to find the necessary guarantee money and won the tender to host the event.

“We are grateful to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin and his government for their prodigious efforts in bringing the Olympiad to Tamil Nadu, as well as to the Chess Federation of India for their efforts in making this event a success,” said grandmaster Shyam Sundar, who launched an academy called Chess Thulir in Chennai during the pandemic.

“Chess has achieved a new profile and popularity, and I hope it will attract more sponsors for budding players to elevate their game.”

The game, which originated in India over 1,500 years ago, has seen a resurgence in the country in recent years. Significantly, nearly 50% of the world’s top players under the age of 18 are Indian, making the country something of a chess superpower. About 1 million people play local tournaments across the country.

Growth was also driven by online chess and game videos, as well as Netflix. The Queen’s Bet. Chess influencers in India such as Samay Raina have played a role in popularizing the game among Millennials and Gen Z.

Online coaching has also spurred the growth of chess, especially during the pandemic when many were confined to their homes. The game also received a boost when Sagar Shah, an Indian chess player and chartered accountant, and his wife Amruta launched ChessBase in 2016. The pair built a strong following on social media, their site Web has proven to be a major source of chess journalism and sells chess software at discount prices.

Chennai in southern India and its neighboring districts have been associated with chess since the 1950s. It all started when Myanmar-born Manuel Aaron moved to Chennai at the age of 6. He became the country’s first international master in 1961. The country’s first female grandmaster, Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, is also from the city.

The Tal Chess Club was opened by Aaron in 1972, as part of the Russian Cultural Center in Chennai which held weekend tournaments, as well as lectures on the game, and provided chess books and sets for a nominal amount of 20 rupees ($0.25). ).

Chess competition is intense and the dropout rate is high, with many young people focusing on college studies. Champions like Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, known as R Praggnanandhaa or 16-year-old Pragg, who achieved the International Masters title at the age of 10, have devoted parents who travel the world with them.

(LR) Nihal Sarin, who became a grandmaster at 14, with grandmasters Pravin Thipsay, RB Ramesh, Adhiban Baskaran and Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa.  Photo: GB Ramesh

It was at the Tal Chess Club that India’s first grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, whose nickname is Lightning Kid, improved his game as a teenager in the 1980s. He became the hero of his generation and the next, with his impressive rise in the game, and had many people follow his dream, from Krishnan Sasikiran in 2000 to Aarthie Ramaswamy in 2003. The numbers speak for themselves today – of India’s 74 grandmasters, 26 come from Chennai and Tamil Nadu.

India's first grandmaster Viswanathan Anand inspired generations of champions.  Photo: Viswanathan Anand

“Chess has always had a home in Chennai,” says Anand, who is now a mentor for Indian teams, referring to Praggnanandhaa, as well as 16-year-old Dommaraju Gukesh, better known as Gukesh D, and Vaishali Rameshbabu, 21 years old. I was in my early teens, we played chess club for hours together. There were many places in Chennai where chess players used to meet and play casually. We have a large share of grandmasters and a long chess tradition. Among the young talent we have three promising names from Chennai: Pragg, Gukesh and Vaishali.

“Nowadays there are chess academies everywhere and the tournaments have over 1,000 players. It is certainly very different from when I started, but it is good that chess and Chennai have not never separated. For me, I love seeing chess being all the rage in the city. Events like this create a new wave of talent and I’m sure Chennai will see a boom in chess.”

Today, Chennai has around 100 chess academies run by professionals and grandmasters. One of the most prolific is managed by husband and wife champion duo, Grandmaster Ramachandran Ramesh, better known as RB Ramesh and his wife, Ramaswamy. The pair established Chess Gurukul in the heart of the city in 2008, and they have produced some of the best talent, including Praggnanandhaa.

After quitting his full time job, Grandmaster RB Ramesh established Chess Gurukul in 2008 in Chennai with his wife Aarthie Ramaswamy and they have trained some of India's finest players in recent years.  Photo: GB Ramesh

“It all started with Viswanathan Anand and his success from 1988, which inspired generations of players,” says Ramesh. “I was a young boy inspired by his game, and Chennai was blessed with many players like him and grandmaster Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman as an inspiration.

“The city and state chess associations were very proactive in organizing tournaments and supporting the game. Of course, back then it was more of a hobby than a sport or a profession, but today there is a lot more money in the game not only for players, but also for coaches, YouTubers and chess book authors.

“Chess championships have always been of interest to the chess community, but this is the first time that the general public has taken so much interest in chess thanks to media coverage and government support for the Olympiad.”

Updated: July 29, 2022, 6:02 p.m.

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