The excitement in India’s chess capital, Chennai, is tangible. The city’s famous Napier Bridge recently received a chess-themed makeover, painted entirely in black-and-white squares, as it hosts the 44th Chess Olympiad.
The first time that India is hosting the tournament, it began on Thursday and will run until August 10 in Mahabalipuram, a temple town, 60 kilometres from Chennai. The town is famous for its rock-cut temples from the 7th century and is currently in the grip of chess fever.
The Olympiad has attracted many corporate sponsors with an unprecedented publicity campaign. Metro trains and buses have been 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 has been composed by Chennai music maestro, and Grammy and Oscar winning composer A R Rahman.
Mahabalipuram, an hour's drive from Chennai and known for its seaside resorts, has been given a facelift and is hosting tournament players, arbiters and organisers. About 2,000 players have flown in, along with coaches and officials, special guests, delegates and volunteers, meaning more than 30 nearby hotels have been booked and mock drills conducted. Every aspect from power surges to sanitation has been handled.
In February it was announced that the International Chess Federation (Fide) had banned Russia from hosting the prestigious Chess Olympiad. Fide's president Arkady Dvorkovich was looking for a new host country and India jumped in, arranging the requisite guarantee money and won the bid to host the event.
“We are thankful to the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, and his government for their stupendous efforts for bringing the Olympiad to Tamil Nadu, and also the All India Chess Federation for their efforts to make this event a successful one,” said grandmaster Shyam Sundar, who started an academy called Chess Thulir in Chennai during the pandemic.
“Chess has reached a new profile and popularity, and I hope it attracts more sponsors for budding players to elevate their playing.”
The game, which originated in India more than 1,500 years ago, has enjoyed a resurgence in the country in recent years. Significantly, almost 50 per cent of the world's best under-18 players are Indian, making the country a chess superpower of sorts. About 1 million people play local tournaments across the country.
The growth has also been spurred by online chess and videos of the game, as well Netflix's The Queen’s Gambit. Chess influencers in India, such as Samay Raina, have played a part in popularising 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 was also given a boost when Sagar Shah, an Indian chess player and chartered accountant, and his wife Amruta, started ChessBase in 2016. The couple have built up a strong following on social media, their website has proven itself to be an important source of chess journalism and it sells chess software at discounted prices.
Chennai, in southern India, and its nearby districts have been associated with chess since the 1950s. It began when Manuel Aaron, who was born in Myanmar, moved to Chennai at the age of 6. He went on to become 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 centre in Chennai that organised tournaments for the weekends, as well as lectures on the game, and provided books and chess sets for a nominal fee of 20 rupees ($0.25).
Competition in chess is intense and the dropout rate is high, with many young people shifting their focus to academic studies. Champions, such as Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, known as R Praggnanandhaa or Pragg, 16, who earned the international master title at the age of 10, have devoted parents who travel around the world with them.
It was at 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 following his dream, from Krishnan Sasikiran in 2000 to Aarthie Ramaswamy in 2003. The numbers today speak for themselves — of India’s 74 grandmasters, 26 come from Chennai and Tamil Nadu.
“Chess has always had a home in Chennai,” says Anand, who is now a mentor to the Indian teams, referring to Praggnanandhaa, as well as Dommaraju Gukesh, 16, better known as Gukesh D, and Vaishali Rameshbabu, 21. "When I was in my early teens, we would play at the chess club for hours together. There were many places in Chennai where chess players used to meet casually and play. We do have a large share of grandmasters and a long tradition of chess. Among the young talent we have three promising names from Chennai: Pragg, Gukesh and Vaishali.
“Today there are chess academies everywhere and tournaments have more than 1,000 players. This is definitely very different from when I started, but it’s nice that chess and Chennai have never grown apart. For me, I am enjoying seeing chess being the rage in the city. Events like this create a new wave of talent and I am sure Chennai will see a chess boom."
Today, Chennai has about 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 couple set up Chess Gurukul in the heart of the city in 2008, and they have produced some of the best talent, including Praggnanandhaa.
“It all began with Viswanathan Anand and his success starting in 1988, which inspired generations of players,” Ramesh says. "I was a young boy inspired by his game, and Chennai has been lucky to have many players like him and grandmaster Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman providing inspiration.
“Chess associations in the city and state have been highly proactive holding tournaments and supporting the game. Of course, back in the day, it was more a hobby than a sport or a profession, but today there is much more money in the game not only for players, but also for coaches, YouTubers and authors of chess books.
“Chess championships were always of interest to the chess community, but this the first time that the general public has shown so much interest in chess thanks to media coverage and government support for the Olympiad.”