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Chess returns to its roots
In a sentimental way, you can say it is a kind of homecoming. The game of chess is blossoming in India where it originated more than 14 centuries ago.
The catalyst responsible for this upsurge, of course, is 43-year-old world champion Vishwanathan Anand who has been described by some as “the Sachin Tendulkar of chess”, a role model to thousands of Indian school children and “arguably one of the country’s most successful sportsmen.”
Until he became India’s first Grandmaster and won international acclaim as world champion in 2007, chess in India was hardly considered a really top class sport despite the fact that its origins can be traced back to the ancient Indian game of Chaturanga.
Since then, however, chess has taken flight throughout the Indian sub-continent, particularly in Delhi, Calcutta and across the southern states.
In recording the extent of this development since Anan’s first triumphs, Bharat Singh, secretary of the All India Chess Federation, notes that the number of Indian grandmasters in India has tripled in that time frame to 27 today. The number of international masters in the country has also tripled to 75 in that period, and India itself is in the world’s top ten rankings.
A report in the BBC News Magazine points out that 15-year-old Vaibhav Suri is the latest Indian to acquire the Grandmaster title. What seems quite interesting is that this success has been equal for both men and women. Koneru Humpry is the country’s most accomplished female player, holding the world number four spot.
The opening up of India’s economy in 1991 also helped to boost this growth noted Devangshu Datta, a chess commentator and journalist. It enabled more players to travel abroad and play tournaments and achieve rankings.
“Increasing internet use is another reason why India jumped several levels so fast and why Anand and his generation broke through,” he added. “From the early 90s onwards, you had data bases where, at the click of the mouse, you could work your way through millions of games.”
A solid foundation is being established for future growth, says the magazine.
The game is growing at the grassroots, and is now on the curriculum in the states of Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. It is also being taught in schools across the country and chess coaching clubs are springing up at a fast rate.
“We get as many as 50 calls a day from interested parents,” says Dhanajay Ramraje who runs the Chanakya Chess Club in Mumbai. Ramraje coaches children in the game at their homes and schools, charging as much as US$30 an hour.
The educational value of chess is also gaining recognition, says the magazine. This is why many Indian parents are encouraging their children to play the game. Indians place great emphasis on their children’s learning and chess is now seen as a welcome addition.
“Chess helps you to make good decisions in your life,” says Dr Shubangi Tekukar, mother of four-year-old Aadya, one of Ramraje’s trainees.
“It is a game in which there are many moves and out of that you choose one best move. Like that, in your life also, chess helps to improve your ability to make the best decisions.”
According to the AICF secretary, the general perception is that if children play chess it would help them with their studies, especially in logical reasoning, mathematics, physics, and there are surveys which prove that chess players are better mathematicians.”
Growing recognition that India is the birthplace of the game, it seems, also helps to account for its widening popularity. “I think we Indians have some kind of knack for the game, maybe it’s because it originated here,” observes Manuel Aaron, India’s first international chess master who is writing a book on the history of chess.
Inspite of its popularity, however, chess in India still has some way to go before the sport can match the establishment of the traditional chess playing countries. While the game is attracting more money and corporate sponsorship, it is still difficult to make a full-time living from playing the game, says Pravin Thipsay, another Grandmaster.
Thipsay who runs coaching workshops still works in banking and believes more needs to be done to encourage people to take up the game at the highest level. “We’ve had more world junior champions than any other country, but at a really senior level, aside from Anand, we will struggle to overtake countries like Russia. It’ll take ten to fifteen years to do that.” He notes that while India has embraced the game, it still hasn’t fully accepted chess as a profession.
So that while chess has returned to its roots, it still needs to grow up.
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