Playing and winning at chess “like a girl”, Tania Sachdev has come a long way

If anyone asked a 7-year old Tania Sachdev what she wanted to be as an adult, the answer would unwittingly come without any hesitation. One word. One word that would define her commitment and the brilliance she knew she had even at that age. The answer that invariably came was the word “Grandmaster.”

That 7-year old has now grown up into a woman with a continually increasing list of achievements that have come to be associated with her. Becoming a Woman Grandmaster was just one step in the journey. Now, Tania Sachdev is a well-established name not only in the Indian chess circuit but also globally. Not only is she a grandmaster, but she is also a chess commentator of repute. And as long as we are counting her achievements, achievements, add the Reykjavík Open and Commonwealth Chess Championship titles in 2016 to the list.

Being a sportsperson in a country like India is never easy. For the longest time, the vast discrepancy between the two genders when it comes to chess has been quite glaring. Out of the top 100 chess players in the world, a very insignificant number is made of women, and the trend extends in India as well. For her part, Tania has done well to break the preconceived notions enough to carve out a place for herself. Even the story of how she came to take up the game is something that one does not hear quite often.

“It started with my father. He didn’t know how to play, but he taught himself from one of those instructional booklets that came with a set we were given. It’s funny because he first tried to teach my older brother how to play.
I guess he didn’t think that a five-year-old would be interested, but I sat there watching them, and I thought that it looked like an exciting game. I picked up the rules, and two or three days after that I asked my dad for a game, and I beat him.”

In her own words, chess happened by chance. But once it did, there was no looking back. When she did take up chess at the age of 5, Indian chess was still reeling from one of its landmarks and probably the most significant achievements to date. Five years had gone by since Viswanathan Anand, the unassuming Tiger of Madras had achieved his grandmaster title and, in a few years, we would see him embark on an undisputed throne of being the World Champion for periods of varying length soon after. And while the culture of chess is not as developed in the Northern part of the country as it is in the south, Tania still found a way around it. With her quick and calm temperament and the ability to learn new things in the wink of an eye, the 5-year-old who was introduced to chess with the intention of making it into a hobby won her first major international tournament at the age of seven.

What is it about female sportspersons and the necessity that is thrown on them to prove yourself constantly. One single achievement is never enough. Even when you establish yourself as a credible name in the circuit, it is still not enough. When it comes to chess, statistics and the people indulging in them have made it a mission even to suggest a male “superiority” that assures better results from them. But that was debunked quite recently. A study published by the Royal Society found that men’s superiority over women at chess at the top levels can be explained by population size. Since many more men play, there’s a broader range of abilities, meaning more individuals at the very top. Such a simple explanation.

On numerous occasions, Tania has been quoted as saying something similar. ‘There have been many comments made to me in a joking way,’ she tells me, ‘but they all contain this underlying current of saying that women do not make great chess players. They’re saying over a glass of wine, or over dinner, and it’s subtle, but it’s always there. You get someone saying to you, “I would never have made that move. That was such a girl move to have made.” It happens to me continually, and it’s hard not to let it get to you.’

For her part, Tania never misses an opportunity to give back to the chess world all that she has gathered in experience. Taking the first steps towards achieving your dream at the tender age of seven is never easy. Dealing with the undue amount of expectations that come along with it is never easy. With the average age for taking up and achieving in chess rapidly decreasing, anyone with the relevant experience voluntarily guiding the young prodigies must be appreciated. And Tania has five simple steps for someone seriously following the sport.

” Work on your openings. It’s hard, but in today’s time and age, you can’t escape opening preparation. I suggest analysing at home and having big files that you look at an update now and then, but for that quick brush up before the game have a second set of short, easy-to-remember prep files on your computer,” she says. And once you’re done with openings, what’s next?

Practice, she says. Just pure, simple and dedicated practice. “Spend some time every day solving a couple of combinations. Keeps the brain working and improves tactical vision,” she explains. But merely perfecting your game is never enough until you get a sense of your contemporaries and opponents.

“Follow all the top tournament games. This is very important, and all professional chess players do it. Every. Single. Day. And yes, do it without an analysing engine on. Try and guess moves,” she says.

“Study a good chess book. These days I’m on Positional Decision Making by Boris Gelfand. It’s brilliant. There are many great chess books. So much to learn!”

And last but not the least, “Play tournaments and analyse your games. If done regularly, this will rapidly improve your game. Also, play blitz! Cause sometimes you just want to have fun.”

Tania Sachdev is an inspiration. Not just for women but also for young chess players. Here’s to the woman who fearlessly forged her way to make it this far.


Also read: Viswanathan Anand: The tiger cub from Madras