The Indian city of Chennai (Madras) is hosting the world chess championships, which could end the six-year reign of local man Vishwanathan Anand. Mahesh Sharma reports on the craze around the game in the city and how Anand’s popularity has triggered a chess revolution among the young.
Three years ago, K Priyanka, a school girl from Coimbatore in southern Tamil Nadu state had barely touched a chess piece and could only have dreamed of travelling hundreds of miles to a luxury hotel in the state capital, Chennai, to watch India’s chess star Viswanathan Anand compete for the world championship.
Now Priyanka practices for six hours every day, in addition to her normal studies. And last week she was among the hundreds of children who travelled to Chennai to play in the many promotional junior chess events being held alongside the three-week-long, 12-match world chess championships between Anand and Norway’s 22-year-old superstar Magnus Carlsen.
When a young Anand became a national hero by winning the world junior chess championship in 1987, he single-handedly transformed the game into much more than an obsession in India: for a new generation it’s now a way of life. Chennai alone has some 25 chess clubs.
“I like chess because I can become famous by playing it,” Priyanka said.
“I first played in school and won some some prizes, so I got interested in the world championship and just wanted to come here and play on the side.
“My favourite is Judit Polgár from Hungary. She’s the only female player who can beat Anand.”
The bashful, bespectacled 12-year old Priyanka became the first of her group of female friends at a local school to start playing the game in 2010, and Chennai is just the latest stop in her junior chess world tour. She won gold at the Asian championships in Sri Lanka, attended the world championships in Brazil, and will travel to Dubai in December for the world youth championships.
It’s a life that has been made possible through the support of her parents, special schools and businesses.
“In Anand’s time things were different,” says K Ganesan, secretary of the Chennai District Chess Association. “Now there are sponsors eagerly waiting to give you money. If you perform well you will be given that opportunity.
“These days sponsors take the students on picnics or to tournaments in their own vehicles.”
Chennai’s Velammal Matriculation School attracts the best players from around the state and the country, and allows star students to compete in tournaments for eight months of the year.
Their great hope is 14-year-old senior master Karthikeyan Murali, who has a chess rating of 2,444 and needs 56 more points to become a grandmaster (Anand has a rating of 2,775, while Carlsen has achieved the highest-ever rating of 2,870).
The soft-spoken Karthikeyan has played in more than 150 tournaments and tries to practice for seven hours every day, in a bid to emulate his idol, Anand.
“My father and mother played chess, so seeing them I got interested,” Karthikeyan said. “My father told me if I kept playing I would meet Anand.
“Anand is very simple, so I want to be like him. I went to London in 2011, where I won a world championship, and he congratulated me and asked ‘how are you?'”
Karthikeyan said his parents were very proud of his achievements and encouraged him to pursue his chess career.
Mr Ganesan said that chess had surpassed school as the most important activity in the lives of this new generation of budding chess champions.
“The IQ of those who play chess is high enough so they can complete their studies easily,” he says.
At the luxury hotel’s lobby during the weekend in Chennai, Priyanka, Karthikeyan and dozens of other young competitors finished their games and watched the world championship game on a big screen TV.
Though many experts are expecting Anand’s young Norwegian challenger Magnus Carlsen to take the title, the young chess players swear their allegiance to the Indian star.
“He developed chess in India,” Karthikeyan said.
“Before he became a grandmaster nobody knew much about chess – but after he beat everyone in the world and became the first Indian to get a points rating above 2,800, chess became popular with the young.”