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Chennai’s Love for Chess and Its Champion

New York Times - Nov 22, 2013

As the Indian grandmaster Viswanathan Anand was losing ground to Magnus Carlsen of Norway in the battle for the title of world chess champion in Chennai, Mr. Anand’s hometown, the agony in the city was palpable.

“Anand has to play his natural attacking game; he is playing positional chess, which is Carlsen’s forte,” said Krishnamurthy Swaminathan as he guided me into the 100-year-old Solar House in Mylapore, the cultural epicenter of Chennai. Inside, a group of his family members and other chess lovers were discussing the fifth game of the World Chess Championship as it was unfolding live on the television.

“In the fifth game, it was easy to draw the game. Vishy somehow missed it and lost,” said  Subramanian Krishnamoorthy, a veteran chess player, throwing a pen in the air in frustration.

Mr. Swaminathan’s wife, Neelambal, declared, “Carlsen leads the match and is a favorite, but I have prayed to the Lord — he will save Anand. We all want Anand to win.” (Unfortunately for Mrs. Swaminathan, Mr. Anand was on the verge of losing the title as the 10th match began on Friday.)

Even though I was amused by their passionate reactions on the World Chess Championship, it was not surprising to see such emotion in Chennai, which is considered the chess capital of India. It even has its own magazine devoted to chess, Chess Mate, run by Arvind Aaron, a chess journalist, and his father, Manuel Aaron, India’s first international master.

The younger Mr. Aaron said about one-third of the World Chess Federation-ranked players in India are from Tamil Nadu, of which two-thirds are from Chennai. “This is, in my view, more than the city of Moscow, which has institutional backing in terms of financial support,” he said. “This is a massive achievement.”

Mr. Aaron said that in the early 20th century, most of the few official chess clubs that existed in India at the time were in Chennai. In those days, the game was often played in the thinnai, or narrow verandas, of most houses, in areas like Mylapore, Besant Nagar and Adyar.

The Solar Chess Club, which is part of the Solar House, is one of the foremost chess clubs in the city, started by the late K.S. Subramanya Iyer, who is also my great- grandfather, in the 1920s.

“This house was one of the oldest chess clubs in the country,” said Chandra Ramani, Mr. Iyer’s grand-daughter and my aunt, who helps run the club. “Even the British used to play in the Solar Chess club. They used to be playing chess here all day.

“We have been promoting the game in the city for almost a century, and even Viswanathan Anand has come here,” she added proudly.

Local chess clubs fondly remember the country’s first chess grandmaster, dubbed by many as “India’s Bobby Fischer” after he won the World Junior Championship in 1987.

“Viswanathan Anand used to visit us often, and he was a charming lightning kid, even at that age,” said Ebenezer Joseph, chief consultant for Emmanuel Chess Center, formerly known as the Tal Chess Club. The Tal Chess Club, named after the former World Chess champion Mikhail Tal, was one of the premier chess clubs in the city in the 1970s and has produced and nurtured numerous youngsters who have evolved into grandmasters today.

Though India has produced a number of chess masters before Mr. Anand, he has done the most to lift the profile of the game in the country, not just because of his fame, but also because of his efforts to promote chess and improve coaching camps.

“The impact of Anand’s World Championship victories has been remarkable,” said Prateek Chatterjee, vice president of the National Institute of Information Technology, which has been Mr. Anand’s principal sponsor for more than 15 years.

The institute runs the NIIT Mind Champions’ Academy, in a partnership with Mr. Anand, to promote chess to students across India. In the last 10 years, membership has grown to 1 million as children inspired by Mr. Anand’s world championship victories join the academy, Mr. Chatterjee said.

As more Indians have taken up the game and the quality of coaching has improved, more skilled chess players have come out of India, which is currently eighth in the World Chess Federation’s country rankings.

In Chennai, the growth of chess has been boosted by the Tamil Nadu government’s decision in 2012 to make chess compulsory in all public schools in the state. In addition, the state government has invested 290 million rupees ($4.6 million) to host the World Chess Championship in Chennai to further raise the profile of the city as the nation’s chess capital.

Even if Mr. Anand ultimately loses the world champion title, the love of chess is likely to live on in Chennai’s youth.

“I have taken a day off from school to watch this game, said Avinash Ramanathan, 9, who had come to the Hyatt Regency, where the chess tournament is being held, to watch the fifth game, which Mr. Carlsen eventually won. “Even though Anand is losing, I still enjoy being here. Many of my friends are watching the game online.”

This article can also be viewed at http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/chennais-love-for-chess-and-its-champion/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1

 

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