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From Anand to Pragg: Chennai's romance with chess continues

Before Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh, there was Viswanathan Anand. And before Anand, there was Manuel Aaron in the 1960s. Here's looking at how Chennai has managed to churn out an assembly line of chess world-beaters.

From Anand to Pragg: Chennais romance with chess continues

A graffiti to depict the two generations of Indian chess in Chennai. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)


Pritish Raj

Published: 24 Aug 2023 9:25 AM GMT

Chennai: Chess prodigy R Praggnanandhaa, who is currently locked in a three-day final against world number one Magnus Carlsen to decide the winner of the 2023 Chess World Cup, has broken new ground for India over the last three weeks in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The 18-year-old defeated the world number two, the world number three and his compatriot Arjun Erigaisi to reach the Chess World Cup final. He is the youngest in the world and only the second Indian after Viswanathan Anand in 2002 to feature in a FIDE World Cup final.

The common connection between Pragg and Anand - the two finalists with two decades separating them - is of course Chennai, the city that seems to love chess like no other.

Even taking a casual walk through the city is sure to throw up tokens of the city's fondness for the game of 64 squares. 'Thambi', the mascot of the 2022 Chess Olympiad, appears on pillars here and there. The iconic Napier Bridge, where vehicles make strategic moves to inch ahead in the logjams of busy traffic days, is painted as a chess board.

The iconic Napier Bridge during a night ride, with all the whites and blacks of the Chess. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)

That Chennai's chess culture is like no other Indian city's is evident from the number of Grandmasters coming from the state of Tamil Nadu. Out of a total of 83 Indian GMs, 26 are from Tamil Nadu, making it almost one-third of the list.

Two of the leading lights of India's current chess revolution, the 18-year-old Pragg and the 17-year-old Gukesh, are from here. But they are only the latest in a very long line.

India's first International Master Manuel Aaron, first Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand and the first female Grandmaster Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi are all from Chennai. The first international arbiter from India, IA Venkatachalam Kameswaran, was also from here.

But what was the reason for this tradition? How did Chennai become the chess hub it has become today? For that, we need to travel back in time and trace some history.

Soviets and Manuel Aaron - How Chennai's chess culture was born

It all started with a man who has been sadly consigned to pages of history.

Manuel Aaron, India's first IM in 1961, was a student of the Russian language at the House of Soviet Culture. Aaron had the privilege of understanding the majority of the chess literature of the time, which used to be written in Russian. It was this privilege that he leveraged to start something special, even if he would be beyond caring when his efforts bore fruit.

"It was the time when the world was talking about the famous Spassky-Fischer World Championship. That was when the Tal Chess Club was started by Manuel Aaron. It garnered interest from the youngsters in Chennai," chess coach RB Ramesh told The Bridge.

The Tal Chess Club, housed in the Soviet embassy in the city, provided a unique hub for local aspiring chess players. The Russians also provided support in building a culture at this club. When asked to pick a name for the club, Manuel Aaron chose to name it after his chess hero Mikhail Tal, world champion in 1960/61.

Manuel Aaron (left) playing in 1962 (ANEFO)

"The club had everything from chess boards made in the USSR to chess clocks and a lot of chess books. A young Viswanathan Anand also visited Tal Chess Club," Ramesh said.

Now 87, Manuel Aaron finds it difficult to speak, but Aaron's son does pick up the phone to speak about his father's role in Chennai's chess culture.

"My father was sensitive about the growth of chess as he played without a culture in his days... After his days as a player, he took up the administrative role and started spreading chess across the state and country. Tal Chess Club played a crucial role in the growth of chess," Arvind Aaron told The Bridge.

In 1983, there was a figurative passing of the baton when a 14-year-old Viswanathan Anand defeated Manuel Aaron, signalling the end of one era and the start of another.

After Aaron, There was Anand

Known as the 'Lightning Kid' in his younger days, Vishy Anand's rise in the 1980s and '90s also caused a boom in Chennai chess culture.

Manuel Aaron once mentioned that during his chess lectures at the Tal Chess Club, Anand was the only one asking relevant questions. That is when he knew Anand would be a world champion someday.

Anand attaining GM norm in 1987 had a great impact. More and more tournaments started surfacing for aspiring players.

"The rise of Viswanathan Anand came a big boost for the younger players who wanted to take up chess. I myself used to visit the Tal Chess Club till it was closed down in the 1990s due to a lack of funds... (Later,) playing in regular tournaments and reading all the literature available helped me and many others like me," recalled RB Ramesh.

The space that once housed the chess greats at Tal Chess Club is now the Exhibition Center of the Russian Culture Center. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)

After Tal shut down due to lack of funds following the Soviet disintegration in the early 1990s, players moved to different chess academies. Ramesh remembers how some players would spend hours at these academies, honing themselves into Grandmasters.

Once the internet made its presence felt in the 2000s, Tamil Nadu had already announced itself as the leader. Out of 18 players who attained the GM norm between 2001 and 2010, seven were from Tamil Nadu.

The Golden Generation - Aided by chess institutes, academies

There were four Indians in the quarterfinals of the 2023 Chess World Cup. Only one other country in history had managed to do this previously - Russia.

Termed the 'golden generation' by none other than Anand himself, the likes of R Praggnanandhaa, D Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi and Vidit Gujrathi have taken the world by storm. Two of these players are from Chennai, showing how the city has remained the 'cradle of Indian chess'.

"Chess has become younger across the world. In my academy, I have received admissions from the age of five. Pragg was seven years old when he came to me," said RB Ramesh, who runs the Chess Gurukul academy, one of more than 50 chess academies operational in the city.

"The parents look up to the likes of Gukesh and Pragg when they put their children into chess academies. When there is someone to look up to, the culture gets passed on to the next generation," said Ramesh.

RB Ramesh in his Chess gurukul, the place where R Praggnanandhaa honed his skills. (PritishRaj/TheBridge)

Chennai's chess culture is ubiquitous. It's at the corner of every street and at the back of every mind. While the chess academies are primarily responsible for churning out Grandmasters, institutions like the Velammal Educational Trust also play a huge role.

Along with Pragg and Gukesh, the school supports 17 Grandmasters. Among the last four GMs from Tamil Nadu, three belong to the Velammal Educational Trust - NR Vignesh, Bharath Subramaniyam, and V Pranav.

When Pragg and Gukesh were part of the Velammal team, they won the title of World School Chess champions in 2021.

There is no one phenomenon that can be pinpointed to explain the romance between Chennai and chess, but from Aaron to Anand to Praggnanandhaa, the circle of trailblazers continues, and having someone to look up to for the next generation is going to be the greatest strength for Chennai.

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