The current crop of chess enthusiasts are all enamoured of Viswanathan Anand, and rightly so. He has encouraged a whole new generation and introduced them to the checkered board. While we celebrate Anand's successes, we often forget the first Indian who put the country on the world map of the game. It was Manuel Aaron who was India's first Grandmaster, who ruled chess in and around the subcontinent right from the 60s to the 80s.
His affiliation with the game started with his parents. Born in Burma, Aaron would watch his parents move pieces around the board, which helped him pick up the movement of each chess piece quite naturally. After World War II broke out, the family, including 6-year old Manuel, moved to Madras. Growing up, Manuel would religiously go through the chess columns with his sister teaching him the notations. It was later in college where he played his first chess tournament under the Indian rules.
He cemented his position as the nation's best by winning the national championship nine times, which includes 5 consecutive titles from 1969 to 1973. It was during these two decades (the mid-50s to late-70s) that the nation got a whiff of a game called chess, which was otherwise almost non-existent. Apart from his national dominance, he also won the Tamil Nadu Chess Championship 11 times during his career. This made it possible for the state to emerge as the country's chess hub, which would witness the birth of a future grandmaster in Viswanathan Anand.
Aaron became India's first International Master in 1961 after winning the West-Asian Zonal and the Asian-Australian Zonal. Despite coming last in the Stockholm Inter-Zonal, that took place in the following year, he showed his skills by defeating grandmasters Lajos Portisch and Wolfgang Uhlmann. His wonderful show of grit in Stockholm made him an Arjuna Awardee, thereby making him the first chess player to be bestowed with such a prestigious award.
Even after his playing days as a professional were long gone, he still made it a point to be connected with chess in one way or the other. He served as the secretary of the Tamil Nadu Chess Association between 1977 and 1997, and also was the chairman of the All India Chess Federation. He played a big part in spreading awareness about chess all around the country and was one of the first players to bring international chess practices to the country. A magazine called 'Chess Mate' was founded by him in the year 1982 which brought chess news from all around the globe to its readers.
Even at the age of 85, he continues to inspire and educate the young players on the witty game of chess.