The last time chess made national headlines, the year was 2013. Nearly a decade since, marquee chess returns in the form of an Olympiad that will run between 28 July-10 August – with delegates from over 180 countries descending in Mamallapuram, just outside Chennai city in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
I am looking forward to being in Chennai for the inauguration of the 44th Chess Olympiad at 6 PM tomorrow evening. This is a special tournament and it is our honour that it is being held in India, that too in Tamil Nadu, which has a glorious association with chess.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 27, 2022
A WEEK ago, a video anthem was released wherein A R Rahman and Chief Minister M K Stalin are walking along Napier Bridge, which is painted black and white to resemble the squares on a chess board. Both are clad in all-white, flanked by dancers in black, resembling the pieces on a board, humming the anthem and shyly jiving.
India has won a medal only once in the biennial team competition – a bronze in 2014. Then seeded 19th, they were surprised podium finishers. This time, India goes in as a serious contenders – seeded second, right behind the US – a testament to the country’s growing pool of strong, young grandmasters.
The Indian teams are mentored by five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, led by a bunch of successful coaches and comprising some of the world’s most exciting talent. They will find themselves at the front and center of attention at home.
Indeed, from Napier Bridge to Guindy, from Adyar to Tambaram, the chess buzz has never enveloped Chennai as it has now. The grand old International Master Manuel Aaron, who began the city’s first chess club in 1972 at the Soviet Centre for Culture Studies, where Anand polished his game, feels his life is fulfilled.
The former world champion and one of Chennai’s own, Viswanathan Anand, could not hide his excitement. “I have never seen the city so excited about chess. I was so happy to see the bridge painted black and white and I am sure that everyone in the city would know about the Chess Olympiad,” he said.
Into the melee dropped superstar Rajinikanth, when he invited fledgling chess stars R Praggnanandhaa and his sister R Vaishali as well as their parents to his house. If the confluence of the biggest politician in the state, the biggest actor and the biggest music composer does not strike a chord, perhaps nothing would. The ambitious Tamil Nadu government, riding a wave of goodwill since the curbing of the pandemic, has pulled no shutters to celebrate the Olympiad.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen, too, was blown away by the city decked up to celebrate. “Tamil Nadu or say Chennai is the hottest hub of chess in the world now. So just to be there and be a part of the chess celebration is a reason in itself,” said Carlsen, who has abdicated his crown, announcing recently that he would no longer participate in the World Championship.
A total of 30 Indian players across six teams (three each in the Open and the women’s sections) will represent the country at the event. They’ve been put together in team training sessions over the past few weeks. Some have been away, playing tournaments, and are still fighting jet lag. The euphoria and pressure of a major home tournament are perhaps yet to kick in. The first Open team carries a steady line-up in Pentala Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi, K Sasikiran, SL Narayanan, and Arjun Erigaisi, but it’s the “B” team that threads together a more interesting bunch.
Seeded 11th, it’s stacked with India’s brightest teen grandmasters – R Praggnanandhaa, D Gukesh, Nihal Sarin, Raunak Sadhwani, and the 2014 medal edition warhorse, B Adhiban.
The Indian women’s team, featuring two of its strongest players – Koneru Humpy and a heavily-pregnant Harika Dronavalli – is seeded first and is expected to chase a podium finish. It also includes Tania Sachdev, R Vaishali and Bhakti Kulkarni.
Opening and closing ceremonies have a day each to themselves and matches will run from 29 July-9 August. The matches will be played over 11 rounds with a rest day in between and the teams will be made up of four players each and there will be one in reserve.
India finished among the medals in the first two editions of the Online Olympiad which was played with faster time controls over the past two pandemic-marred years. It can’t, however, be compared to the classical chess Olympiad that takes place over the board every two years and will soon be underway in Chennai.
Typically, a host nation has a couple of years to prepare for an event of such magnitude. India, stepping in as last-minute hosts in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, has had all of four months.
The Tamil Nadu state government was prompt with its $10m (£8.3m) surety bid, and the All India Chess Federation (AICF) has been pulling all-nighters to host over 1,700 players for the 10-day event.
– No team plays the same opponent more than once, and the difference of match points of two teams paired should be 0, or as small as possible.
– The “A” teams usually comprise the highest-rated players of a country while the “B” team carries the second-best bunch of names.
– Matches are scored by points – two for a win and one for a draw, and no points in case of a loss.
– The competition is divided into two sections – Open and women. Open is open to players from both genders to encourage competition.
This edition of the Olympiad, from July 28 to August 10, is the first the country will host. India are seeded second in the open segment, fielding six teams, three each in men and women’s sections, with top-seeded USA and third-placed Norway, helmed by Carlsen, expected to put up a stiff challenge. But the gold that India shared with Russia in the last edition has infused a sense of optimism that they will win the Olympiad at home.
So much so that about 300 km from Chennai, in Thirupoovanur, a 14th-Century Shiva temple has gathered sudden attention because it’s called “Sathuranga Vallabhanathar”, literally translated as “King of Chess”. The story goes that the temple was built at the location where Shiva beat the daughter of the local king in a game of chess (“sathurangam” in Tamil) to marry her, an avatar of Parvathi.
For the home team, this campaign could well end in a historic finish. Regardless, a generation of young casual Indian sports fans bred on cricket and European football might suddenly find chess ambushing their social media feeds over the next week and a half. It might just be a good enough reason for them to get to know their country’s best chess players by name.