Indians had more than one reason this week to celebrate the country’s progress at the global level. Whilst we derived a lot of pride from ISRO’s landing on the moon of our rover – Pragyaan, elsewhere the 18yr old chess Grand Master Praggnanandhaa made it to the final of the FIDE world cup, only losing in a tie-break to the legendary Magnus Carlsen. Pragg nonetheless made it to the candidates tournament to decide the challenger for the World Championships. The event was not just about Pragg’s success but India’s arrival on the global chess scene – 4 of the 8 quarterfinalists at the world cup were Indian. Susan Ninan, who co-authored the book ‘Mind Master’ with former world chess champion Vishwanathan Anand, writes for the Indian Express on this progress in Indian chess.
“For generations of Indian players, five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand was the reason they picked up, played, and considered chess as a career option. Anand grew up in a different time, as an outsider in the Soviet-dominated game. The choice of leaving his Chennai home and moving to Europe in the early 1990s was a pragmatic one. It was the only way to become a successful professional player. Access to resources, training and tournaments then hinged on geography — talent alone wasn’t enough. Proximity meant visibility and invitations to play more tournaments.
…Today, the country has three players under 20 — Praggnanandhaa, Gukesh and Erigiasi — in the top 30. Nihal Sarin, also part of this promising teen pack, figures not too far below. Gukesh sits a spot above Anand at No. 8 in the live ratings. Anand, now a semi-retired player, Fide deputy president and mentor, doesn’t mind the tidal wave of youth taking over.
India has 83 GMs now. Six new GMs have already arrived this year. Its regularity almost makes it seem like an unremarkable feat. The playing numbers have risen sharply and there are more Indian players at the top than ever before. This World Cup has been a preview of what possibly lies ahead.
For those who haven’t made it big yet, every tournament arrives with the question of how long their families can punt on their dream. Take someone like Daakshin Arun, who has a remarkable live Elo rating of 2427, the highest in the Indian Under-14 group. His father quit his job as a college lecturer to accompany him to tournaments in India and abroad. His mother does the heavy lifting of being the sole salaried member of the family. There are no sponsors yet, and they have their backs to the wall.
Praggnanandhaa’s parents — Rameshbabu and Nagalakshmi — have been a touch luckier with support. They often had to borrow money to keep Praggnanandhaa and his sister, Vaishali, in chess. At least till one of them did something outrageous enough for help to arrive. In 2016, Praggnanandhaa became the world’s youngest International Master at 10 years, 10 months and 19 days. Soon after, a sponsor agreed to take care of the siblings’ chess expenses. Within two years of becoming IM, he became the second-youngest GM in the world (today he’s the fifth).”
Here’s what Carlsen had to say after his win: “Gukesh is clearly the strongest classical player right now. And then, you have Pragg and (Nodirbek) Abdusattorov who are strong but also mentality monsters….But what I think is pretty clear is that chess is in good hands for the future.”
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