Chennai, India - Chennai was the cynosure of all eyes earlier this month as Norway’s Magnus Carlsen went head-to-head with Vishwanathan Anand for the 2013 FIDE World Chess Championship crown in the southern Indian city.
Carlsen won, dethroning homegrown heartthrob Anand, plunging Indians into collective despair. But yet, not everything was lost for them as they found solace in the many local chess grandmasters in attendance at the event.
Anand’s loss, though a setback, has not checkmated Chennai’s craze for chess. It was and is India’s chess capital.
The city and its nearby districts remain the hub of the game with many firsts to its credit.
The country's first International Master grew up in Tamil Nadu. The first grandmaster, the first female grandmaster, and the first International Arbiter are all from Chennai. The list goes on.
Overall, the city has produced 12 out of 34 world grandmasters from India.
"You can’t exactly put a finger on why," says R R Vasudevan, the press officer for FIDE (Fédération internationale des échecs or World Chess Federation) in Chennai and a former player himself. "It is like a soil effect…people here take a natural affinity to chess."
Vasudevan says although chess in India has been around for 1600 years, Chennai took centre stage when Manuel Aaron became the only Indian to play against Bobby Fischer in 1962.
I am seeing a new [chess] aspirant joining my academy almost every day
Aaron, considered as one of the key personalities for popularising chess in India and in Tamil Nadu particularly, went on to become India's first international master.
Aaron was considered a torch bearer of the game not only during his playing days but also later when he led the Tamil Nadu Chess Association for two decades.
But then in the 1980s, Anand arrived. Anand in his younger days used to frequently play at the Tal Chess Club, named after Latvian world chess champion Mikhail Tal.
"This was the only club where people in Chennai could play quality chess those days," says Vasudevan who used to play at Tal. "Around the time when Vishy became India’s first grandmaster, many began taking chess seriously."
From then to now, the sport and the way it is perceived has seen a major transition. Currently, there is a chess association for each of the 33 districts in Tamil Nadu. In Chennai alone there are close to 50 chess academies that run various chess tournaments and training courses.
Young grandmasters from the city are now getting to play competitively and prepares for international tournaments.
"Chess is a culture here in Tamil Nadu,” Praveen Kumar Chandrashekar, a 24-year-old international master, says. “I would go to some of my friends place and the chess board and the pieces would automatically appear."
Chennai’s Adhiban Baskaran, 21, who became the second youngest grandmaster from India when he was 18, says things have changed rapidly from the days of just one chess club. But he says the level of support has been more than satisfactory.
"It is not just about the increasing number of tournaments, there is also a favourable ecosystem for people playing chess here," Baskaran says. "I found a school that allowed me to be out playing for over six months in a year. And I eventually got a good job through sports quota, which means I can still play various tournaments without being worried about absence from work."
Some parents living in Chennai find chess to be an extracurricular activity that can add to academics, without breaking the bank.
|"Sandhya has been learning [chess] since she was 5 years old," Badrinath Vishwanathan says about his daughter. [Umika Pidaparthy/ Al Jazeera]
"You get access to top players at a very affordable price,” says Badrinath Vishwanath, who is the father of budding chess player, 8-year-old Sandhya Badrinath. "You really can’t go anywhere else to see world chess champions."
Chess is also being actively supported by the state government at the school level. The state of Tamil Nadu has made chess mandatory in public schools. In August this year, the state government organised school-wide chess tournaments in which over a millions school students participated.
"The results are amazing," Vasudevan says. "We are now training every physical education instructor in government schools to play chess and the trainers will go and teach the game in their respective schools," he added.
While Chennai is emerging as a national destination for the board game, internationally the city has good ground to cover.
India ranks eighth in the global standing with 34 grandmasters and 76 international masters, according to the latest FIDE statistics. Russia on the other hand has produced over 221 Grand Masters and a whopping 501 international masters.
Aaron, who has been watching the game grow in Chennai from the 1960s, says the game is gradually catching up in the rest of the country too. Aaron himself runs a chess academy in Chennai, which is a busy place these days. He says he is witnessed a rekindled interest since the championship.
"I am seeing a new aspirant joining my academy almost every day,” Aaron says. “Around the time when Vishwanathan Anand lost to Carlsen, a 14-year old boy from Chennai, Aravindh Chithambaram, won the Chennai Open International Grand Master tournament held in the city. It was almost as if Anand's replacement has already been found."
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