‘It is rare to play anywhere in front of such packed audiences. It helps to feel this atmosphere and motivates us to perform better on the board. Just goes on to show how much people here love the game of chess.’
These were the words with which the gracious winner GM Hikaru Nakamura concluded his victory speech among thunderous applause at the end of the Rapid section of the Tata Steel Chess 2018 here at ICCR Kolkata.
Keeping aside the level of chess on display, the participation of hordes and hordes of chess lovers was what truly made this global event all the more special over the three days. For those who do not know of it, Tata Steel is the chief sponsor of one of the most prominent events on the chess circuit calendar: the Wijk aan Zee tournament, held in a small sleepy coastal town in Netherlands, which inspired the name of the event. It is one of the largest tourneys of its kind in the world and the Master’s section regularly features the top ten to fifteen ranked players in the world.
Wishing to extend this association with chess to India, Tata Steel group organized the Tata Steel Chess Rapid and Blitz event in India for the first time in 2018. Cricket may belong to the Mumbais and the Delhis, Hockey may be the bloodright of Chandigarh, Wrestling may be borne of the womb of Bhiwani, but chess in India has always found its home in Kolkata.
Even the Tiger of Madras, Viswanathan Anand himself considers Kolkata to be his second home away from Chennai. So it was natural that the City of Joy would play host to biggest tournament of its kind in India over decades, keeping aside the World Championship match between Anand and Carlsen in Chennai.
And boy did the city respond!
For three straight days, the games were played to packed audiences, with attendance being extended to standing space. And the biggest surprise was that the average age of the audience couldn’t have been more than 15. Everywhere you looked, there were throngs and throngs of little children from some of the Chess Academies of the city or with their parents, lapping up such world class chess with eager eyes. It was their enthusiasm which made this event all the more worthwhile.
Now coming to the chess. The ten contenders included 4 of the top 10 players in the world. The tail was brought up by the top 3 ranked Indian players besides Vishy and of course, the Indian wunderkind GM Nihal Sarin. Hunched over the board in tight concentration, the slight figure was a sight to behold as he went toe to toe with some of the biggest names in world chess. His bravery was on full display on the board as well with some of his moves launching his well-versed opponents in deep, long trains of thought. Nihal is a treasure, and with GM Praggnanandhaa, the future of Indian chess is in safe hands, if they are properly seen to, by the powers to be.
Speaking of the present of Indian chess, Vishy was a masterclass as usual, but the surprising(or maybe not) performance of the tourney was GM Pentala Harikrishna, currently ranked 25th in the world. He blew away the field, raking in a strong performance in the final round with a well-fought victory over the Armenian Levon Aronian, who brought up the tail of the podium.
All of the Indian players were in fine mettle as they fought and stood their ground against their sometimes-more-skilled opponents. There were quite a few cases of upsets too as is prone to be in Rapid and Blitz chess. The games made for a riveting afternoon of chess and an equally animated surge of discussion and dissection later on. It was great to experience first-hand the thirsty chess community of India thriving on the fine quality of gameplay served up in front of them.Fortunately for you, there’s more to come. After a rest day tomorrow (for the players only, there are organized activities aplenty), the game resume on the 13th and 14th for the Blitz section, a place where our King Vishy has a penchant of thriving under pressure. Keep your knights pointing forwards and your Kings standing upright. There’s a lot more to come.