In July 2019, Prithu Gupta became India’s 64th chess grandmaster. It was a symbolic moment for Indian chess, they finally had one grandmaster for each square on the chess board.

It showcased not just how far Indian chess has come from having just one GM in 1988 but also how the recent years have indeed seen a flurry of youngsters attaining their GM norms and joining a very elite club.

But a closer look at those numbers reveals how one state has played a pivotal role in India’s chess story. Of the 64 GMs, West Bengal has produced 8, Maharashtra 7, New Delhi 6, Andhra Pradesh 4, Kerala, Telangana and Karnataka 3 each. But a whopping 23 GMs have come from Tamil Nadu.

The country’s first International Master, Manuel Aaron, grew up in Tamil Nadu. The first grandmaster (Viswanathan Anand), the first female grandmaster (Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi), and the first International Arbiter are all from Chennai.

But what gave rise to Chennai and Tamil Nadu’s incredible chess culture? How did one state get such a jump over the others? And what does the future hold?

A combination of Fischer and the Soviets

On the face of it, Bobby Fischer and the Russians were adversaries. The Cold War was at its height and a young 29-year-old American genius was challenging the domination of the Soviet Union.

Boris Spassky and Fischer were superb players but it was a storyline that caught the attention of the world. Chess, when Fischer won the title in 1972, went mainstream like never before.

“Since 1948, you know, chess title was firmly in the hands of Soviet players. This event was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War. Big intellectual victory for the United States, and you know, a hugely painful, almost insulting defeat for the Soviet Union, because Bobby Fischer was a great player but he was like a lonely warrior. A guy from Brooklyn taking on the mighty Soviet Chess School,” former chess world champion Garry Kasparov told Bill Kristol in an interview.

And Fischer’s triumph had a huge impact on the sport. For instance, after his world championship victory, membership in the United States Chess Federation swelled from just under 31,000 in 1972 to more than 59,000 the following year.

Manuel Aaron, who had become India’s first IM in 1961, remembers that Fischer’s victory had a huge impact in Chennai too.

“I started the Tal Chess club in the Soviet Cultural Centre in 1972,” Aaron told Scroll.in. “And I even studied Russian, I have a diploma, to be able to read the books. They saw that I was the national champion and that I was studying the language, so they asked me if I could start the chess club there. At that time, one has to remember they were the Soviet Union and they wanted to propagate their views everywhere and they looked at Chennai and me as a possibility for their propaganda.”

“And they gave us a lot of things. Chess books, chess sets, chess clocks… everything they used to import from the USSR for free. And they built a place for the club too. And we charged only 20 rupees per month as membership. Ironically, chess was at its peak in popularity in Chennai because of Fischer’s win over Spassky.”

In a way, Fischer and the Soviet Union worked together to give rise to a club that played a pioneering role in Indian chess. Before that, there were no clubs in Chennai. Players would formally gather at someone’s house to play. In Mylapore, they used to have this place called Solar chess club but it was more a hobby club. There were no chairs, there was no membership fee, they would just sit in the verandah and play.

“But it was quite popular,” asserts Aaron. “We had something similar in Madurai with the Mapillai Vinayagar chess club — but once again, they operated in the same way. They also had clubs in Calcutta, Delhi and Bombay but somehow our club was more successful than all the other clubs. Maybe because we had better players.”

The rise of Anand

Viswanathan Anand is India's greatest chess master. Illustration: Nithya Subramanian

One of those ‘better’ players was a youngster named Viswanathan Anand, who was introduced to the game by his mother in 1975 at the age of six.

One of the innovative things that Aaron used to do at the Tal club was giving lectures about chess theory. It wasn’t as much a lecture as a retelling. This is where his diploma in the Russian language came in handy. The Cultural Centre would give him access to Soviet chess magazines, he would read them and pass on the knowledge to all those present. Anand would attend almost every lecture.

“I benefited from having been part of a very active chess club,” Viswanathan Anand told Scroll.in. “And a lot of people who were part of the club then had a lot of passion for the sport, I mean, they wanted to organise tournaments, they wanted to keep playing. I mean, this was a very, very committed group.”

Anand added: “ We had the strongest players in the country. You know, this is pre-internet era, and pre-computer era even. So that transmission of knowledge happened as well. We were the closest to the best players. And so this knowledge passed along. It was kind of the Soviet Union in miniature in India. The reason why the Soviets are so good was because of their culture and there’s this transmission through the generations. That was happening here too. I think that partially explains the dominance. The other factor was that chess became an aspirational sport. I mean, a lot of parents want their children to play chess and I’m glad it’s spilling over beyond Chennai and into broader Tamil Nadu as well.”

But knowing chess theory is one thing and being able to put it in practice in the crucible of competition is quite another. The Tal club solved that problem by organising weekend tournaments. It allowed everyone to test themselves and test new theories too.

“If you now look back and think… ‘how did we do it’, but in those days, it felt quite natural. The fact that we had lots and lots of competitions to play was instrumental in my own growth as a chess player. So I was able to play a lot. And then this meant that the experience that would normally take me five years to acquire, I acquired in one,” Anand added.

In 1983, a 13-years-old Anand beat Aaron. It was a passing of the baton in more ways than one. The youngster now set his sights on bigger things and in 1988, when he became India’s first chess GM, ‘The Lightning Kid’ became the reason for the next big boost in Chennai.

The second generation

Every generation needs a hero. For Krishnan Sasikiran, Aarthie Ramaswamy and RB Ramesh, Anand was that hero. Among the thousands who took up the sport after his success, these three rose to the top very quickly.

Aarthie Ramaswamy became the world junior U-18 champ in 1999. Twelve years after Anand attained his final GM norm, 19-year-old Sasikiran became India’s fifth GM in 2000. And in 2004, Ramesh became India’s 10th GM. It’s interesting to see the break-up at this point — 3 GMs from Tamil Nadu, 3 from West Bengal, 2 from Andhra, 2 from Maharashtra. Pretty even. But then the chess scene in Chennai exploded.

The big difference was also what the Chennai district association, the Tamil Nadu chess association and the All India Chess Federation (which was also initially registered from Chennai) were all very active in the region in the early years. There were regular tournaments, in Madurai — Mapillai Vinayagar, which were held for a couple of decades, an annual tournament in Palani was also held for a couple of decades and the Spic open in Thoothukudi. So there were quite a few Fide-rated open tournaments which were a rarity back then and that in turn gave a big push to the game.

The State Transport corporation also employed a few of the top players in Tamil Nadu. So the fact that top players were getting jobs, coupled with the rise of young Anand was huge for the sport. It is important to remember that a few strong closed tournaments were organised specifically to help Anand earn the required norms and it was in one of them — the Sakthi Finance GM tournament in Coimbatore — that he earned his third GM norm.

There is also the ‘South Indians are smart’ stereotype but Ramesh, who also runs a very successful chess academy, doesn’t put this rise down to solely that.

“Two things go into making a very good chess player,” Ramesh told Scroll.in. “One is obviously, the talent part. The talent part plays a major role in determining how quickly you become a Grandmaster and how high you go after becoming a GM. Secondly, even for players who don’t have as much talent, they could reach the International Master level with other qualities like hard work and determination. You can kind of makeup for super talent to a level but beyond that, genius stands out. So I wouldn’t say South Indians have a special talent for the game but from an intellectual pursuit angle, it seemed to fit right in.”

Ramesh added: “Of course, one aspect we must remember is that we all had a star to look upto. It must not be forgotten that India’s first IM Manuel Aaron and India’s first GM Anand, both were from Chennai. So having star value that the young generation can look up to also plays a major part.”

Ramesh, himself, started playing chess at the age of 12. He took to the game at the end of 1988, just after Anand became a GM, and joined the Tal Chess club which was very active at that time. But after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, the Tal Club lost its charm.

Chess after Tal

Subsequently, Ramesh’s rise was helped by a certain Mr Dakshinamoorthy, from T Nagar in Chennai.

“I used to go to his house every day. He gave his first floor for chess. There will be 5-6 chess sets and clocks. Anyone who loved the game could just walk in there and play. He kept the house open from 8 am to 8 pm every day. When there was a big crowd, he would keep only one board and one clock and there will be 20-30 guys fighting to play. It was a simple ‘winner’s stay’ model and if you lost, it would take an hour or two to get another chance. So that also helped me because I learned at a very young age to play for the win and take huge risks to try and win the game. It moulded my style too,” said Ramesh.

“He also had a small library at his place and he would lend books to youngsters. It was like a treasure house and I would go there and finish as many books as I could,” Ramesh further recalled.

This is also when academies (in Chennai alone there are over 50 chess academies now) and the internet started making their presence felt. Suddenly, it was possible to follow the games of Grandmasters from all over the world. Aaron used to play correspondence chess, Anand used to rely on books and Aaron’s lectures but suddenly young Indians didn’t need to wait anymore. Access to chess was instant and so were the results.

R Praggnanandhaa, who is the 4th youngest to become a GM, is also from TN. Illustration: Nithya Subramanian

In the last five years alone, India has added an astonishing 35 GMs to its ranks. And some of them like B Adhiban are already starting to challenge the best in the world.

But still, when Anand comes back to Chennai, he makes it a point to meet the younger generation.

“I think it’s healthy, I think there’s a lot of things that human beings can communicate subtly that you cannot replicate on the internet,” said Anand. “So you know, if you interact with someone, they tell a story, you share experiences, these things are valuable. It isn’t entirely altruistic either. I think a lot of the older players would benefit from interacting with new ways of thinking, what the younger players are doing today, but every generation brings a fresh perspective. And I must say, most of these players do that. So you know, each generation interacts with the generation before them. Lessons to be shared, stories to be told... these things are valuable.”

And thus the circle continues. There is no one thing that one can accurately describe the phenomenon that is Chennai chess but we are a long way from the end game for now. The next generation might face a very different challenge but they’ll always know they have somebody to fall back on. And perhaps that might be Chennai and Tamil Nadu’s greatest strength.