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Indian Chess – in a Mess?

"Not even Garry Kasparov has made Vishwanathan Anand look as fallible as Magnus Carlsen did in 2013, when he was the challenger and Anand was the reigning World Champion."
By Punarvasu Pendse

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My very first memory of being awed by Viswanathan Anand was back in the year 2001. Anand had just become World Champion a few months ago, he was the topic of conversation in every chess circle, and I daresay in a lot of other circles as well.

I was playing in an Under-8 tournament in Sangli, Maharashtra, organised by the storied Nutan Buddhibal Mandal – an institution with over 60 years of experience in hosting chess tournaments. I had just won my first game where the opponent had a flag down, so it naturally took more time than normal games, and I had only a small interval before the next round began. For the uninitiated, older chess clocks were mechanical as opposed to today’s digital clocks, and they had a little strip of plastic that marked the 11 o’clock position. When you won on time, the minute hand stretched over this little ‘flag’ and it folded when the minute hand reached 12 o’clock (five minutes of tense, stretched flag action). The modest halls of the school where the tournament took place displayed fascinating blackboards with all the previous champions, and led the eight year old me to a board which proclaimed that Anand had won here in 1986.

India is irrevocably linked to the history of chess, being it’s birthplace, and Anand was the first World Champion – the first truly elite modern chess player – we produced. ‘Vishy’, as he was known, became the kind of celebrity that wasn’t ever seen before in chess – the face of brands like AMD, NIIT, Horlicks, and Parle (which I particularly recall being spammed with on the telly). It has been 3 decades since Anand burst on to the scene, and he hasn’t had a rival in India in all that time. Only one other Indian has broken into the Top 10 FIDE (World Chess Federation) Elo rankings – P Harikrishna.

In recent years, though, Anand has been outclassed by the prodigious Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen. Not even Garry Kasparov has made Anand look as fallible as Magnus Carlsen did in 2013, when he was the challenger and Anand was the reigning World Champion. One cannot say Anand is on a decline – far from it – but Anand reached his peak Elo rating of 2817 in March 2011; and is currently resting at 2786. He is presently seventh in the world, in a realm dominated by the young – six out of the Top 10 are in their 20s. His biggest rival at the moment is the twenty-six year old Carlsen, who also happens to be the first World Champion in the modern age of chess-specific computers. Is this an indication of the end of an era for Anand, and for Indian chess in general?


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In my humble opinion, not quite. Unlike during most of Anand’s career, the past few years have seen other Indians in contention for top tournaments. India currently has as many as 25 players with an Elo rating above 2500, twelve of whom are under the age of twenty-five. More Indians are playing in the upper echelons of the chess world than ever before. Seven Indians are currently a part of the Top 100 – V. Anand, P. Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi, B. Adhiban, Parimarjan Negi, Krishnan Sasikiran, and Surya Shekhar Ganguly.

Harikrishna, in particular, will have quite a few things to prove in the coming years. 31-year-old Harikrishna pushed past Anand’s three decade stranglehold as India’s strongest player for a brief period last year, even managing to draw against him in February 2016. A formidable player in his own right, Harikrishna became only the second Indian chess player to enter the Top 10 FIDE chess ranks in November 2016. Having slipped a few places since then, Harikrishna will look to make a strong showing at the FIDE Grand Prix in Geneva next month, taking on some of the best players in the world, and also furthering his quest to achieve a spot in the Candidates Tournament for the 2018 World Championship.

India, however, has a much better showing in women’s chess, despite having only six players in the Top 100, compared to seven in the men’s list. The women’s list includes K. Humpy, Dronavalli Harika, Tania Sachdev, Eesha Karavade, Padmini Rout, and S. Vijayalakshmi – with both Humpy and Harika in the Top 10. Humpy has consistently been a strong contender in women’s chess since the early 2000s, becoming only the second woman after Judit Polgar to reach a 2600 Elo rating. Harika, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength after getting her final Grandmaster norm in 2011 and breaching the Women’s Top 5 last year. It is quite likely that India will see a Women’s World Champion much earlier than another Men’s World Champion.

India doesn’t really have an immediate successor to Viswanathan Anand, but that doesn’t mean Indian chess is lagging either. On the contrary, statistics show Indian chess is incontrovertibly evolving despite this fact. The road ahead is certainly going to be exciting, with better awareness being generated about the game, and plenty of high ranked young Grandmasters who champion its cause.


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​The author, Punarvasu Pendse, is a sports journalist. His work focuses on football and e-sports.​

Tweet at Punarvasu: @PunarvasuPendse



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