The origin of Chess in India dates back to 6th Century AD. Yet, it took India 38 years to get its first Grandmaster (GM) after the title was officially introduced in 1950 by The Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE), the governing body of international Chess. Vishwanathan Anand was the first Indian to receive this prestigious title in 1988. Anand won the World Chess Championship from 2000 to 2002, but at the time, the World Title was split. He gained international acclaim after becoming the world chess champion in 2007 and was able to retain his title in 2008. After this victory, Anand became the first player in history to have won the World Championship in three different formats: knockout, tournament, and match.
While Vishwanathan Anand is undoubtedly the man who put Indian Chess on the world map, the first seeds of the thriving chess culture we are experiencing today were planted by Manuel Aaron, much before Anand was born. Aaron dominated the game from the sixties to the late eighties. He was the first Indian to win the International Master (IM) title in 1961. He also won the national chess title nine times.
Chess has been growing from the past six to seven years following Anand’s triumphs. The number of GMs in India has risen drastically. From having only one GM in 1988, three during the 90s to now having a total of 66 GMs this year, the nation has come a long way. There are various reasons for its rise.
Firstly, Chess is better funded now in comparison to the 60s and 70s. Secondly, the resources have grown with the internet boom. Technology has played a vital role in bridging the gap in technical knowledge. The advanced methods of coaching are just a click away. As a result, it has led to higher participation, strengthening those at the top of the pyramid. Thirdly, there has been an increase in the number of tournaments held in the country every year. The All India Chess Federation (AICF), the national body for Chess in India, has started hosting around 300 tournaments every year. Besides, six-eight norm tournaments are organized in the country for the players’ convenience to compete for the IM and GM titles without traveling abroad. Fourthly, states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have made Chess compulsory in the curriculum. Today, 24 of the country’s 66 GMs come from Tamil Nadu, including two of the youngest GMs in history: R. Praggnanandhaa and D. Gukesh, both of whom qualified at the age of 12.
Chess is thriving due to the lockdown caused by COVID-19. Recently, Indian stand up comedians have contributed significantly to the popularity of the game. The beauty of this game is that it does not require a digital version like virtual cricket. It is mainly because of the game’s cerebral nature, where one is not required to be present in person. This game also has an overpowering online presence where one can compete with high ranked players. It gives the flexibility to choose the quality of the opponent based on their world ranks.
The game of Chess is enjoying the phase of an unprecedented following. The pandemic has proved to be a boon for Samay Raina, an Indian standup comic. Raina created his YouTube channel in March 2020, where he began streaming the game. He wanted to break the myth associated with the game, which is primarily considered a preserve of serious players. Initially, he started by bringing in his co-comedian friends on the platform to make chess fun. The stream’s success motivated him to get the Grand Masters like Anand, Vidit Gujrati, Anish Giri, Adhiban, Teimour Rdjabov, and few others to join his stream. He has inspired thousands of people to play Chess. Raina has also raised Rs. 25 lakhs over charity streams for various causes like Delhi’s waste pickers, background dancers in movies, stray dogs’ welfare, the Amphan cyclone that hit West Bengal, and the Assam floods. He now has around 330k subscribers on his channel.
Though India has achieved a milestone in Chess’s game yet, there is still a long way to go. Of the 66 GMs, only four are currently in the top 100 – Anand (World Rank 15), P Harikrishna (World Rank 20), Vidit Gujrathi (World Rank 24), and B Adhiban (World Rank 83). Among women, India has seven players in the top 100. Koneru Humpy ranked second in the world in women’s rankings, came closest to the world title in 2011, finishing as a runner-up. She is the current women’s rapid world champion.
The royal game is gaining traction amongst Indians, and its popularity is on a rising slope. This will not only aid in the onboarding of some of the best minds but also create a conducive environment for sponsorships to flood in and take the game to an altogether different level.
Anshula Thakwani Pattanayak