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Chess – The Next Big Thing?

Although the game of chess is played on a wooden board with 64 squares, it is no less than a battle ground where the pawns, the rook, the queen and all the pieces come together to serve a victory to their king. This game can get as complex as an actual war, where one blunder from your side can cost you the victory. The tactical game is one of the best therapies for people suffering from ADHD or panic attacks. The recently released Netflix specials, The Queen`s Gambit, has given the chess world a makeover. An unexpected smash hit, the story that revolves around a girl child prodigy in chess has amused the audience all over the world. As such, chess has become one of the mainstream topics among kids and youth these days. But before The Queen`s Gambit popularized the game, there were Indian players and streamers who aimed at making chess the next big thing in the country during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Growing up, almost all of us have played may have played chess with a family member, friend or a relative. When we think of a popular chess player from India, the image of Viswanathan Anand lights our mind. This Grand Master (GM) has brought laurels to India by accomplishing the title of World Chess Champion during 2000–2002 and 2007–2013.

India stands at the fifth position in the list of ‘Most GMs in a country’, as it is the home to 66 chess grandmasters and also boasts of more than 93,000 players registered with FIDE (The World Chess Federation). It is believed that the game originated in northwest India during the Gupta Empire almost 1500 years ago, from where it spread to Persia and other parts of world. Even after having its original roots in India, the game is not popular among the Indian masses as much as cricket or badminton.

In today`s times, we have some of the best chess players in both men’s and women’s categories – we have child prodigies like Nihal Sarin and Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa and yet neither of these players are given the recognition they deserve. The game has been neglected by the Indian audience for long now, and now there is some ray of hope because of few chess enthusiasts who aim at spreading the game throughout the country.

During the lockdown, Indian chess audience has grown tremendously, especially with the YouTube streams of Samay Raina. This 23-year-old standup comedian by profession and a chess enthusiast by heart chose to stream chess in a world full of PUB-G streamers. The idea does sound absurd, “Who watches chess online?”, “What fun is it to watch this?”, “The game is so dull and boring that only the intelligent geeks can enjoy this”.

Well, I wasn’t a big chess enthusiast either, and I too had similar questions until I started watching Samay’s long streams of Indian gems like Viswanathan Anand, Vidit Gujarathi and many others. Samay Raina was taught the board game by his grandfather, whom he used to visit in Delhi during his holidays. “I instantly took to the game and would look forward to visiting Delhi to play chess with my grandfather,” he says. “I slowly started getting better and winning some games and hence loved this game.”

Through his streams, Samay first targeted  making chess fun and enjoyable for the mass by adding humor in the game, introducing some fun variants of chess, calling renowned chess champions (including the current world champion – Magnus Carlsen) and organizing a fun chess battle among the comedians. The audience`s response was overwhelming and what started as a fun pass time for him and the viewers with a mere of 40 viewers watching his live streams initially turned out to give a massive Indian audience to the chess community. Now almost each day there is a crowd of 10,000 or more waiting for his streams to start. The online chess Olympiad held in August this year was also covered by him and his friends. The tournament witnessed a massive viewership of 72000 people on his channel as India was fighting against Russia in the finals for gold, which is enough to fill a cricket stadium!

Well, India did win gold in this tournament and twitter was flooded with best wishes for the players including the tweet from our honorable Prime Minister, but the champs who were able to checkmate the opponent`s king were reduced to pawns few weeks after the Olympiad as they were asked to pay customs on the gold medals being delivered from Russia. The players had no support from our government for this tournament: while the China government arranged special auditoriums for their team and Russian government arranged high speed Internet connectivity for its players, the Indian team had to arrange everything on a personal level. After creating history by being the first Indian team to secure gold in chess Olympiad, this is what they had to face! After the matter reached the sports ministry headed by Kiren Rijiju the issue has been resolved with the announcement that the custom money will be returned back to the players, I believe the incident should not have happened in the first place.

The low-visibility this game is facing in India is evident from the fact that the last Arjuna Award received by a chess player was in the year 2013! In a time when we have special media coverage for tournaments like the Indian Premier League and the Pro Kabbadi League, no media house can be seen talking about the Tata Steel Chess India tournament which invites the top GMs of the world to compete against each other.

Of course to enjoy chess we need to have knowledge of some basics, we should know basic rules and other things but isn`t that similar to any other sport? I mean how can one enjoy cricket if he doesn`t know how the scoring works or when is it a no ball? How will the audience enjoy watching football if they have no idea what a penalty shoot-out is? It just requires some little efforts from the viewers before they get completely engaged in the game. And the online platforms are providing solutions for this too, by having a number of titled players teaching chess from scratch. During the lockdown, many players came forward to teach chess for free to their audience.

While the game is not a mainstream sport in India, people in some regions are more enthusiastic towards the game than others. If we look at the ratio of the number of GMs per state, we find out that more than half of grandmasters are from Tamil Nadu, while the north India has fewer players; the central India like the state of Madhya Pradesh has no chess grandmaster as yet. The major reason for chess being popular in the south is because of the rise of Viswanathan Anand. Anand is the reason why people started treating chess as a career and his influence had made Chennai a popular chess hub.

Garry Kasparov on being asked about his opinion on the Indian chess community says that ‘Sky is the limit’. He admitted that his knowledge about the Indian chess scene is limited to what he reads, but he has noticed that India has a vibrant chess community and things will only get better. “On big screen, football wins. You move to this smart phone screen — I am not sure you enjoy watching tennis or football, but you can watch and play chess.” says Kasparov.

Well, there are some public sectors which do support chess players like the Indian Railways, the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board, etc. that offer jobs to Indian players, especially the chess players where they are employed and are given a regular salary without going to the work daily so that they do not have to face any financial crisis while preparing for their tournaments. Over 100 Indian players have enjoyed this benefit and have acquired financial security.

While there is some help being provided by the Indian government for the chess players, there is a lot more the government must to, especially in organizing international and national level tournaments to motivate the players. In addition, we as the audience have to start treating this game as equal with other sports and have to give due credit and appreciation to the players. It needs a collective effort from the audience, the government and the players to make chess the next big thing in India.

-Priyanshi Mishra (Freelancer)

Picture Credits: Tata Steel Chess India 2018 /ChessBase India YouTube Channel



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