Is chess emerging as the second most favourtie sport in the country after cricket? As the World Chess Championship is hurtling towards a finish in Chennai, where defending champion and local ‘lad’ Viswanathan Anand is pitted against Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the spread of the chess at the grass root level is very much evident.
At Hyatt Regency, the venue of the title clash, there are more children per 100 spectators, than one sees at the Chepauk cricket ground. Moreover, the game is as much a draw as the battling icons which is a huge draw for the young.
Eight year old Vedanth and his six year old sister have not had time to change out of their Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan school uniforms, as they have headed straight to the Hyatt Regency, where tournaments are being held for children on the days Anand and Carlsen have a match. “They are both very serious about chess,” says their father.
Isha Bhave, a Pune based Class XII student wants to crack the national law school entrance exams soon her brother Kaushik is in Class XI, and should be preparing for SAT tests.
However, the siblings, who train under Grandmaster (2000) Abhijit Kunte have flown down to Chennai to watch the match. The siblings are among the many such youngsters in the city.
Experts believe that the board game is emerging as a huge hit with school children in the last few years, and the fact that the World Chess Championship is being held in its entirety in Chennai (in 2000, only six of the twelve World Chess Championship games were held in Delhi, the rest were conducted in Iran) has brought the board game closer home to children.
Mumbai-based Ravindra M Dongre, President, Asian Chess Federation and Treasurer, All India Chess Federation, says the ‘chess in schools’ program is the way forward for the sport.
“Apart from Chennai’s Viswanathan Anand factor, India has produced at least two dozen Chess Grandmasters and hundreds of quality players and coaches. Chess is not a game for a privileged few anymore, but is accessible to all,” he adds, referring to the ‘chess in schools’ program.
Tamil Nadu introduced chess as part of the curriculum in government and government aided schools last year, following the lead of Gujarat.
Henrik Carlsen, father of 23-year old Magnus Carlsen the challenger in the ongoing championship says he is overwhelmed by the amount of support for his son.
“Everyone has been extremely hospitable, and they all love the sport” he responds when someone tells him that his is a rock star in a city that simply loves ‘local lad’ Viswanathan Anand.
Quite a few school children— it is obvious they are not from privileged backgrounds—track the game, displayed on screens at the venue.
Others like 11-year old Kumaram say they watch the match being telecast on DD at home. His father is a part-time driver and mother a house help.
He says he got introduced to the sport when he was handed down a chess set by the lady of the house where his mother worked. “She taught me how to play, and I have grown to love the game,” says Kumaran.
Clearly, shatranj ke khilari is not a sport of merely the rich and the privileged. However, it is too soon to expect chess champions to sprout from the grassroots level, say experts.
“One needs to put in long hours of practice and follow the game globally, and not all children may have the privilege to do so. However, if the momentum of the chess in schools program is maintained, it is a matter of time before grandmasters emerge from disadvantaged backgrounds,” they add.