How did Chennai become India's chess hub?

2 Apr

The city has long played host to the country's top players. Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa pose with a chess board at a school in Chennai. 

Chennai is home to most of India's top chess masters, including Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, the world's second youngest chess grandmaster. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the International Chess Federation has moved the venue for the 44th Chess Olympiad from Moscow to Chennai.

Chennai, which is widely known as India's "mecca of chess," quickly pounced on the chance to host the prestigious event. With a promise of 1 billion rupees (€11.9 million, $13.1 million) budget, the Tamil Nadu state government announced that the event will be held in the historic town of Mahabalipuram on the outskirts of the state capital Chennai.

Over 2,000 players from about 150 countries, including icons like Magnus Carlsen, will participate in the event from July 28 to August 10, 2022. The state's Chief Minister, M K Stalin tweeted, "A proud moment for Tamil Nadu! Chennai warmly welcomes all the Kings and Queens from around the world!" 

Tamil Nadu leads way with grandmasters

Tamil Nadu has given rise to at least two dozen grandmasters, including the five-time world chess champion Viswanathan 'Vishy' Anand and the 16-year-old Rameshbabu "Pragg" Praggnanandhaa, who recently made international headlines. The country's first international master, Manuel Aaron, grew up in Tamil Nadu. The country's first female grandmaster, Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, is also from the state.

The All India Chess Federation (AICF)'s secretary, Bharat Singh Chauhan, told DW nearly a third of all emerging young chess talents in the country hail from Tamil Nadu. With such a high density of chess players, the state's capital Chennai has become a hotspot for chess events over the past decades. "When I was playing, tournaments would happen only in Tamil Nadu, and most of them in Chennai," Chauhan said.

Even as other cities, including New Delhi, were considered for the 2022 Chess Olympiad, Chauhan said that the AICF chose Chennai as the event would gain better visibility in a city that had a "wider chess culture." Irrespective of the political party in power, the Tamil Nadu government has supported the sport consistently, says Srinath Narayanan, a 27-year-old grandmaster from Chennai. He was also the non-playing vice-captain of the Indian team for the first online Chess Olympiad.

"For example, when the Indian team won the Olympiad in 2021, the Tamil Nadu government was the only one in the country to confer a state-level reward for the winners," he said. Narayanan added that the state's efforts to set clear eligibility for different awards motivates youth to win the different titles. "Players from the state clearly have an edge as administratively it is easier to be a chess player in Chennai," he said, adding that the 2022 Chess Olympiad will attract even more young people from across India to participate in chess.

Decades of tradition

The popularity of chess in Chennai stretches back to the 1950s, according to well-known grandmaster and five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand. "The culture of playing international chess existed in Chennai even before I became a grandmaster. This is because Chennai always had a wonderful group of volunteers who used to run chess clubs," he said.

One of the first well-known clubs in Chennai was started in 1972 by Manuel Aaron, who dominated chess in India from the 1960s to 1980s. The monthly membership fee was just 20 rupees (€0.24)($0.26) at the time. Similarly, many other chess clubs were formed in Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu. Today, the players from these clubs offer tough competition to their Russian contemporaries.

Anand said that these clubs generated many grandmasters from the state, who in turn inspired more youth to pursue chess full-time. He remarked that grand sporting events like the Olympiad would leave a deep impact in young people's minds, as many of them will get to know what an event looks like and get to see their favorite chess stars in person, he added.

"All chess players have fond memories of events like these. It leaves an impact. This Chess Olympiad will do that for many youngsters from Chennai and the rest of India," he said.


Author Sushmitha Ramakrishnan

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