Between 1988, the year Vishwanathan Anand became the first Indian to earn Grandmaster (GM) norm, and 2000, India got only four GMs in chess. In 2022 alone, India got five Grandmasters in the sport.
While the focus has been entirely on cricket and Olympic sports like shooting, javelin and wrestling in recent times, a revolution has been taking place on the chessboard.
The 18-year -old R Praggnanandhaa, who turned GM in 2018, recently stunned the world by becoming the youngest and only the second Indian after Vishwanathan Anand to reach the Chess World Cup final.
Praggnanandhaa hails from Tamil Nadu which has given 27 GMs (including two women), which is almost 2/3rd of India’s total number of 83 as of now.
Together, the southern Indian states account for more than half of country’s GMs, with 44. Among other states , Maharashtra and West Bengal have given the country 11 GMs each.
Tamil Nadu also accounts for 34 of the 124 International Masters (IM), which is a grade lower than the GM whereas the southern states add up to just less than 50% of the total. West Bengal and Maharashtra also have sizeable presence.
Tamil Nadu also dominates the list of Women Grandmasters (WGMs) with seven of the 18 coming from the state.
Delhi’s lone representative in the list of Indian WGMs, Tania Sachdev, who is also an IM and International Women’s Master (IWM ) besides being a commentator, attributes the success in southern states and West Bengal and Maharashtra to not just culture but also tournaments, coaching camps and infrastructure, something the Capital lacks.
Parimarjan Negi was the first Delhiite to win the GM norm in 2006. Soon Abhijeet Gupta, Vaibhav Suri, Sahaj Grover, Aryan Chopra followed suit. But even today, the initiative has to be personal.
“The chess scene in Delhi has improved from when I started three decades ago,” said the 37-year-old Tania, who is still actively competing even while doing her commentary duties. “However, a lot more needs to be done.”
In an interview with Patriot, Tania explains how the chess following has increased in Delhi but infrastructure, among other things, needs to improve further to produce champions since it is largely a supplementary activity.
How do you see chess now from when you started?
It has grown. When I started 30 years ago and during the decade that followed, there was no chess activity in Delhi, no proper training. I always had to travel for tournaments outside city.
There were very few people playing chess who had the ambition of playing for the country. So, it was difficult. Most tournaments were in south India. There was barely any training in Delhi. But now there are tournaments and events in Delhi. While the Delhi Chess Association has come a long way – there are open tournaments that happen in Delhi now — the state government needs to play a role in bringing out professionals.
While chess is popular at school level in Delhi, it appears not many want to take it as a career?
Chess is the ultimate mind-game. Even if not from a professional angle, parents want their kids to play chess. Schools want chess as part of their programme. Because it has incredible social as well as educational benefits. But it is different when you talk of becoming a professional player.
Everyone recognises that [it can be taken as a career] as it is such a widely played sport. Also, the infrastructure that is required to make people take up chess is not difficult to achieve.
I think work is being done at the grassroots but slowly. Also, I feel that once a player decides to become a professional player, there is not enough support to make it happen.
How does Delhi compares with other states?
There is a federation that is working on improving chess. But I feel in other states, we see a lot more initiative and then we see a lot more results from there, especially the southern states, Maharashtra and West Bengal. A lot more tournaments, coaching camps take place in these states, which is why more professional players come from there.
Do we have coaching camps or clinics for chess in Delhi?
You get to attend camps when you are part of the Indian national team. But [for regular coaching clinics and camps at grassroots], Delhi can do so much better with the support from state government. What we need to realise is that if there is one star player, it can inspire an entire generation. Because kids feel that they can make a life out of it.
At the moment, a lot more needs to be done to produce ambassadors for the sport, like those who win medals for the country. Also, those who have done well need to be given recognition for the hard work they’ve put in. Across the country if you see, the states that have invested in the sport are the ones that have got results. You will see more players performing at international level. You won’t have one or two Grandmasters/International Masters/Women Grandmasters but have them in 10s and 20s. There are few Grandmasters in Delhi as compared to the states that are doing well.
What is the scene of chess clubs in Delhi?
There are small chess clubs being run privately in Delhi. Many schools have got interested in chess. Everyone knows the benefits of the game, and how big chess is. When I started playing, the sport was considered supplementary to academic life. It has now become an alternative. People are playing because it promises an incredible and amazing career if you can make it big. Also, the glory that comes with it. But of course, to become one of the best, there is a big journey between starting and getting there.
I still feel Delhi doesn’t have a big chess culture. We have the talent, and players are willing to put in the hard work. But we see so many drop out because it is a difficult journey.
Do you think R Praggnanandhaa’s success – reaching World Cup final – will have an impact?
I would definitely think so. What Prag’s done is going to inspire the whole country and a generation. But it started with Vishy (Viswanathan) Anand. The country was inspired by him. He has been the man, on whose shoulders, chess has been built. Then we saw others like Prag taking that legacy forward. For a city to grow in sports, its people, when they start the journey, have to feel that they will have the support in terms of infrastructure. How much ingrained chess is in the state defines success. You feel it has to be worth the effort if you take up the sport.