Grandmasters are not made in a day. Chennai’s chess industry is a well-oiled machine
“How does the rook move?” G Ramesh stands in the centre of the brightly lit room and begins with the most basic chess question. “Forward, backward and sidewards,” replies eight-year-old K Vishnuvardhan. The chess trainer nods and adds, “The rook cannot move…”. There’s a beat of silence in the brightly lit room before Vishnuvardhan and other students say in unison: “Diagonally.” And then they get back to their game. At Sai Chess Academy and other training academies in Chennai, chess is not a game—it is a religion.
Local heroes from Manuel Aaron, India’s first international master, to Vishwanathan Anand, have played a big role in perpetuating this. Nearly every home had a chess board a generation ago contributing to the chess culture. It is quite like how badminton has come to be associated with Hyderabad and coach Pullela Gopichand.
Over decades, canny chief ministers have promoted the sport within Tamil Nadu, ensuring that the love for chess is passed down to the next generation. When J Jayalalithaa was in power, she announced compulsory chess tutorials in government schools. And under MK Stalin’s watch, the Chess Olympiad came to India for the first time in its almost 100-year history. The UNESCO heritage site of Mahabalipuram played host to the Olympiad in 2022 and Stalin allocated Rs 1 crore to promote chess in schools.
“Chennai has always been the centre of Indian chess,” said the first Indian Grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand, who grew up playing the game at Tal Chess Club, which was set up by Aaron in 1972 at the Soviet Cultural Centre in Chennai.
Historical ties with the USSR apart, the sport is easy on the pocket when parents introduce it to their children for the first time. Its cerebral nature appeals to families—a genteel game without the rough and tumble of football, cricket, and other contact sports.
The chess-crazy capital of Tamil Nadu is reported to have more than 50 training centres where children as young as six years old start learning the rules of the game. Schools and training centres nurture dreams of discovering the next prodigy and future grandmasters. Of the 83 grandmasters in India, 29 are from Tamil Nadu, 15 of whom are from one Chennai school, Velammal Vidyalaya in Mogappair. But now, even Telugu-speaking Andhra chess players are storming the Tamil bastion too.
“For over 50 years, Tamil Nadu has been the most important state in terms of the national players, good players. Generally, the standard of the open tournaments in Tamil Nadu is considered to be much stronger than open tournaments in other parts of the country,” said Pravin Thipsay, Grandmaster from Maharashtra.
Thipsay said there were multiple tournaments across the state even in smaller cities like Coimbatore, Erode, and Salem. The first International Chess tournament in India was held in Trichy, Tamil Nadu in 1978.
“While in most parts of the country the middle class was drawn to the game, in Tamil Nadu even the labour class were into the game even in the 1970s,” he added.
The land of Vishwanathan Anand
At 5 pm on a Monday at Sai Chess Academy, as many as ten children learn to probe, thrust and parry their rooks, bishops, knights and pawns, their shoulders hunched over their boards. Most are between six to nine years old and sit in pairs, a table and chessboard between them, their foreheads furrowed in ridges. Ramesh stands in the centre of the room watching them manoeuvre the pieces on the board.
If Sunil Gavaskar and later Sachin Tendulkar inspired a generation of Mumbaikars to pick up a cricket bat, then Chennai (and Tamil Nadu) doesn’t lag behind in role models.
The state has many firsts to its credit—first International Master Manuel Aaron, first male Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, first female Grandmaster Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, and the first International Arbiter Venkatachalam Kameswaran.
“[Chess is] seen as a healthy activity for the brain and therefore families have always tended to pass it on [to the next generation]. We used to have lots of chess clubs and we’ve always built up from that base,” said five-time World Chess Champion Anand.
His success made chess a byword on the streets of Chennai in the 1990s. He’s as much a part of Tamil popular culture as Rajinikanth, AR Rahman, and Ilaiyaraaja.
“This is the land of Vishwanathan Anand, so there are many who get inspired seeing these idols and start playing,” said RR Vasudevan, International Arbiter and FIDE (International Chess Federation) instructor.
For 28-year-old domestic worker K Gayathri, sending her son Vishnuvardhan for chess coaching is a matter of pride. She doesn’t know how to play chess herself but was thrilled when her son expressed interest in it. She immediately got him admitted into Sai Academy. She pays a yearly admission fee of Rs 1200 for the beginner-level training. She hopes to see him grow in the sport to become the next R Praggnanandhaa (18) and Gukesh D (17) — the new heroes of the day.
Chess prodigy Praggnanandhaa, who became Grandmaster at 12, took home a silver at this year’s FIDE World Cup; Gukesh displaced Anand as India’s new number 1 in the first week of August. It was a title Anand had held for 36 years.
“Vishnu’s tutor told him that they [Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh] are the best young players from Tamil Nadu and has shown him YouTube videos of them as well,” said Gayathri.
But like any other sport, not every child will go on to become a national or international chess champion. Vasudevan acknowledges this.
“Parents love their children, the children love chess and the parents go to all extremes to support their child’s dream and love for the sport,” he said. “But chess is not a sport where you play one IPL [cricket] tournament and make crores of money, get retired and be happy for the rest of your life.”
The champions at work
When Gukesh displaced Anand from his number one spot, there was a collective gasp across India. Newspapers and magazines devoted stories predicting the dawn of a new era in chess. And it put the focus back on the prodigy’s home town, Chennai.
His mother Dr Padmakumari Jagadeesan does not hide her pride. Gukesh used to play chess at home for fun, she said. But both she and her husband observed his keen interest in the game. His school teachers at Velammal Vidyalaya suggested that he be trained to play professionally. At the time, Gukesh was six-and-a-half years old.
“He is constantly travelling for his matches and is at home in India for just 90 days. I dearly miss him and feel lonely sometimes,” said Jagadeesan. But she’s quick to add: “It is his passion and we support him completely.”
Chess started evolving into an organized report in Tamil Nadu with the formation of the Madras Chess Club on 26 April 1947. It’s not the oldest in India—that honour goes to the Calcutta Chess Club, established nearly a century earlier by John Cochrane in 1850.
Today, the Madras Chess Club is called the Tamil Nadu State Chess Association, but its goal is the same—to spread awareness of the game, identify talent and mould a new generation of grandmasters.
Aaron, in an interview with The Hindu, attributed Tamil Nadu’s success with chess to the “visionary presidents” of the state associations, good infrastructure, and tournaments.
Aaron’s Tal Chess Club, named after the eighth World Chess Champion Mikhail Tal, was a hub for chess lovers in the city in the early 1970s.
The club was a training ground for many of the chess legends in the state including Anand. For the chess grandmaster, the memory that stands out during his training in Chennai, “is simply going to the chess club, seeing my friends and then having all these blitz games there.”
Tal Chess Club suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. When the centre was renamed the Russian Cultural Centre, the club was asked to pay rent and eventually the Tal Club shut down.
But by then, schools, chess training academies, and state associations were ready to enter the fray. Anand’s victory in the 2000 FIDE World Chess Championship final against Alexei Shirov marked the beginning of a new era in chess.
Grandmaster V Vishnu Prasanna recalls how his mother introduced him to the game after Anand became the world champion. She enrolled him into a chess club at the age of 12. Today, Prasanna coaches Gukesh, runs an academy at Anna Nagar in Chennai, and the GM Vishnu’s Chess Club. He trains young talent, international masters and grandmasters.
“The only way to improve is to keep playing,” he says. In that respect, chess is no different from other sports. And there will come a time when children and their parents have to decide whether they want to pursue it seriously. To play the sport for sheer interest is one thing, but becoming a grandmaster is an altogether different ball game.
“You need to spend a lot of time on the game if you want to become a grandmaster—at least eight to ten hours a day for six to seven years,” said Prasanna.
What starts out as a hobby for many can easily become a time-consuming affair.
“We study how a kid looks at the chess pieces and how they utilise the moves. Accordingly, we reevaluate their involvement in the game. It’s like a puzzle and how you solve it,” said Vasudevan about identifying potential grandmasters.
An expensive sport
As a hobby, chess is inexpensive. But playing it professionally is an investment that can run into lakhs of rupees. Coaches, tournament fees, travel, and stay all add up.
“It’s more like a lifelong journey. You need at least 15 years and approximately Rs 75 lakh to become a grandmaster and then again once you become a grandmaster, you have another long journey ahead,” added Vasudevan. Every grandmaster wants to be world number 1.
In many states, it’s not unusual for professional players to give up chess once they realise that it does not pay well compared to other sports.
“After a point, if you’re not at the top of the game in chess, you don’t make a lot of money,” said Prasanna.
Talking about the financial burden that the family had to go through, Gukesh’s mother Padma added that until 2020, despite being doctors, the family felt the sport was “financially taxing”. With chess culture booming right now, she hopes that the government will also provide more support to the players.
In September 2022, the Stalin government proposed chess coaching for school students, especially for those in government schools, in the form of online and offline classes. Stalin wants to involve the state’s best coaches and grandmasters in this initiative. For now, the proposal is still in the pipeline.
As senior deputy president of FIDE, Anand said that efforts are on to make chess more popular across the world. “We have had some very big prestigious events in India, like the Chess Olympiad. Now we’re going to have the Tata Steel India Chess Tournament (Rapid and Blitz) in Kolkata. So India is a country that will continue to be very actively involved in chess.”
In the run-up to the 44th Chess Olympiad, an ancient Shiva temple in Thiruvarur district—believed to be 1,500 years old—made headlines because of its connection to the game.
Shiva is said to have defeated Rajarajeshwari, an avatar of Parvathi, in a game of chess here. This form of Shiva is worshipped as the presiding deity at the ‘Sathuranga Vallabhanathar’ temple or the temple of the Master of Chess.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi made note of it at the inauguration of the Olympiad.
Chess is part of Tamil Nadu’s lore, history and culture and children like Vishnu are beginning the journey that countless others have taken.
At Sai Chess Academy in Chennai, the clock strikes 6 pm. Class is over, but Vishnu and his friends can’t stop talking about the game. He runs up to his mother Gayathri who is waiting for him.
“Amma the best piece in chess is the queen, she can move in any direction,” he says.
By AKSHAYA NATH