13th May, 2003


D.K. Bharadwaj *

Chess, the cerebral game of 64 squares is India’s unique gift to the world. For centuries this game of mental warfare has been a favourite of countless people all over the world. People from all walks of life ranging from the intellectuals to the common peasants have played it, enjoyed it and adored it fervently. Originated in ancient India, when the game was known as Chaturanga, it is symbolic of the four units or divisions of the erstwhile armies comprising elephants, horses, chariots and soldiers on foot. From India, it reached Persia (Iran) where Chaturanga became Shatranj. From there it spread to the Arab countries and Europe and acquired its present universal name, chess. It is said that chess has been played in Britain since the thirteenth century. In the West, it developed on the scientific lines and gradually became a keenly contested competitive sport.

A Grassroots Game

Chess is universally acknowledged as having originated in India. But who invented it and when remains engulfed in the mists of time. Sseveral interesting tales, however, are narrated by the knowledgeables, which present a glimpse of the infinite possibilities this fascinating game possesses. In India, chess has been truly a grassroots game being played in the cities, towns, villages – everywhere by ardent fans- both literates and illiterates alike. Yet, surprisingly it did not get the status it richly deserved. Rather erroneously, it was treated as a time-wasting pastime, a recreation meant only for the idlers.

It is ironical that although best suited to the Indian psyche, chess remained largely neglected in the land of its origin. Whatever little support the players received came from the princes of the erstwhile princely states and a few benevolent wealthy patrons. The modern rules of the game were introduced by the British in the 19th century. Pandit Trivengadacharya of Pune (the author of Vilasamanimanjari, a Sanskrit book on chess), Ghulam Kassim of Madras and Mahesh Chandra Banerji of Bengal were some of the leading chess exponents of that time. Moropant Mehendle, Vinayakrao Khadilkar, Sripad Vishnu Bodas and Narayanrao Joshi of Maharashtra, Kishan Lal Sharda of Mathura, Gurbaksh Rai and Gurdasmal of Punjab were some of the leading chess players in the early years of the last century.

Mir Sultan Khan of Punjab, however, was the first one to leave the lasting imprint of his un-questioned genius at the international level. It is believed that Sultan Khan was uneducated and was an employee of Sir Umar Hayat Khan, who took him to Britain in the late 1920s, where he excelled as a chess player of enormous skill. Sultan Khan not only won the British chess championship in 1929, 1932 and 1933 but also represented Britain in three chess Olympiads as its leading player. Sultan Khan had the rare distinction of beating the legendary Jose Raoul Capablanca of Cuba, who was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. He also defeated Dr. Savely Tartakovar, a renowned player in a match of 11 games. The Indian chess sensation was rated among the world’s top ten chess players of that era. Sultan Khan’s glorious career ended prematurely, when he had to return to Indian with his employer in 1933. Otherwise he would have created many more milestones.

After Independence

If any sport received the necessary impetus for its growth only after the nation attained Independence, then undoubtedly it is chess. All the organised activities and efforts to revive chess in India began after Independence as if this ancient game was waiting for the end of the foreign yoke to breathe in the free environment. The All India Chess Federation was formed in 1953. The first official National Chess Championship was held at Eluru (Andhra Pradesh) in 1955, which saw the crowning of R.B. Sapre and D. Venkayya as the first national chess champions jointly. Initially, the National Chess Championship used to be held every alternate year but since 1971 it is being held every year. India first took part in the Chess Olympiad (the world chess team championship) in 1956 when it was held in Moscow and was placed 27th among 34 participants. The national champion, Ramdas Gupta (U.P.), B.P.Mahishkar (Sangli), S. Venkatraman (Chennai) and Ramchandra Sapre (Mumbai) had represented India in the Moscow Olympiad. The All-India Council of Sports accorded recognition to chess as a sport only in 1959. The first National Chess Championship for women was held in Bangalore in 1974 and was won by the eldest of the famous Khadilkar sisters, Vasanthie. Since then it has been held every year except 1980. It may be pointed out that the National Women’s Chess Championship too has a two-tier system of National ‘A’ and National ‘B’ Championships just like men’s National Chess Championship.


Two players, one a pioneer and the other a rare genius, deserve special praise for galvanizing the chess activities in the country and making India an emerging force at the international level. They are : Manuel Aaron, the pathfinder, and Viswanathan Anand, the inspiring megastar. Manuel Aaron dominated the Indian chess scenario from the mid-fifties till the end of the seventies, a very long period during which he won the national title nine times-five times in a row. He became India’s first International Master in 1961, a rare honour for an Indian chess player at that time. The coveted Grandmaster title was simply an elusive dream. It was a time when hardly any worthwhile chess literature was available in the country. Aaron was the first to realize the importance of learning the latest strategies in the opening moves as well as in the middle and the end game. He impressed upon his contemporaries and also the younger generation to improve their book knowledge as simply raw talent was not enough to excel at the higher level. It took India 17 long years to produce its second International Master (IM), when V. Ravi Kumar, also of Tamil Nadu, earned the IM title by virtue of winning the second Asian Junior Chess Championship held in Teheran in 1978. The next two IMs - Raja Ravisekhar and T.N. Parmeswaran – were also from Tamil Nadu. After that floodgates were gradually opened and a number of talented players acquired the IM title.

Inimitable Anand

The emergence of Viswanathan Anand completely revolutionised the Indian chess. Known as the "Lightning Kid" in his younger days, the Chennai boy, Anand (born: December 11, 1969), has been making waves since the mid-eighties and is now rated as one of the all-time greats. Currently hailed as the "Speed King" in international chess circles, the Indian genius has won almost all the titles worth their name at the national and international levels. He won the Asian Junior Chess title twice – first in 1984 at Coimbatore and then in 1985 in Hong Kong. He calimed the senior national title three times in a row from 1986 to 1988. He became the first Asian to claim the World Junior Chess title in 1987 at Baguio City in the Philippines. He earned the International Master title in 1985 and the Grandmaster title in 1988. He was the first Indian to qualify for the prestigious World Candidates Championship in July 1990.

Anand’s first major tournament victory was in Reggio Emilia in Italy in category 18 tournament in January 1992 in which he defeated among others the then world champion, Garry Kasparov. In the PCA World Chess Championship Candidates Final held at Las Palmas in Spain in March 1995, he defeated Russian – born GM, Gata Kamsky of the USA and earned the right to challenge Kasparov for the PCA world title. However, later in the same year Anand lost the final 10.5 – 7.5 in 18 games held in New York. The Indian sueprstar won the final of the FIDE World Chess Championship held at Groningen in the Netherlands in December 1997 beating six strong Grandmasters, but missed the golden chance to win the world title as a tired Anand was unfairly compelled to face the world champion Anatoly Karpov of Russia, who was totally fresh in Lausanne, Switzerland, and lost the 6-game title match in the tie-breaker. However, Anand’s turn came two years later in the World Chess Championship-2000 held in New Delhi upto semifinals, while Teheran hosted the 6 game final. Easily trouncing the Latvian – born Spanish Grandmaster Alexie Shirov 3.5-0.5 in only four games, Anand became the 15th world chess champion, a fantastic achievement indeed. Anand also won the first two World Cup Chess tournaments held in Shenyang, China in September 2000 and in Hyderabad in October 2002 beating GM Evgeny Bareev of Russia and GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov of Uzbekistan respectively.

Currently ranked third in the world behind Russian giants Garry Kasparov and Valdimir Kramnik with Elo rating of 2764 points, Anand has won a number of international tournaments in both classical and rapid forms of chess. In rapid chess none can match him, not even Kasparov. He has been honoured with several national and international awards including the Arjun Award, Padmashri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, Hero India Sports Award, Soviet Land Nehru Award and Spain’s highest civilian award "Jameo de Oro". But from the viewpoint of excellence in chess, the highest honour he received was the prestigious International Chess Oscar twice, the first Asian and the only non-Russian apart from the American wizard, Bobby Fischer, to be thus honoured. Apart from placing Indian chess firmly on the world map, the inimitable Anand’s biggest contribution to the game has been to inspire a whole young generation through his stupendous achievements. Despite being an icon and a great achiever, he is unassuming, modest and level-headed, the qualities which made him an ideal role-model for the aspiring kids. Anand’s amazing deeds have infused a sense of self-belief in the new generation and the results are already there to see as a large number of highly talented young stars such as Krishnan Sasikiran, P. Harikrishna, Surya Sekhar Ganguly, S. Vijayalakshmi, Aarthie Ramaswamy, Koneru Humpy and Dronavalli Harika have already made their mark at the international level.

Woman’s Chess

The history of women’s chess in India is limited to merely three decades. The women’s senior National Chess Championship which began in 1974 was completely dominated by the Khadilkar sisters – Vasanthie, Jayshree and Rohini upto 1984. Of the ten championships held during this period, Rohini, the youngest, won five times, Jayshree won four titles, while the eldest Vasanthie won the championship in the inaugural year. It is said that the three sisters, daughters of a journalist, were so much thrilled by the historic world title clash between the legendary Bobby Fischer (USA) and defending champion Boris Spassky (USSR) held in Reykjavik (Iceland) in 1972 that they started playing chess seriously. Jayshree became India’s first WIM (Woman International Master) in 1979, followed by Rohini and Vasanthie. Rohini also won the first Asian Women’s Chess Championship held in Hyderabad in 1981 and retained the title in the second edition of the Championship staged in Kuala Lumpur in 1983.

After the sudden fading away of the Khadilkar sisters, Bhagyashree Thipsay (nee Sathe) and Anupama Gokhale (nee Abhayankar), both from Maharashtra, dominated the women’s chess in the country. Like Rohini Khadilkar both of them won the women’s national chess title five times. Anupama Gokhale emulated Rohini by winning the third and fourth Asian women’s Chess Championships held in Dhaka in 1985 and in Hyderabad in 1987 respectively. Bhagyashree Thipsay too won the fifth Asian Women’s Chess Championship held in 1991 at Bhopal.

Then emerged a new rising star in Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi, popularly known as "Vijji" in the chess circles, to end Maharashtra’s stranglehold on the women’s chess. The Chennai-born girl Vijayalakshmi, who had won all the national chess titles open for the women from the under-10 girls title to the National "A" Chess Championship in 1995, won the five senior national titles in a row from 1998 to 2002. In all, so far she has won the national chess championship for a record number of six times. Apart from winning the Asian Zonal women’s chess crown at Teheran, Vijayalakshmi has won the women’s title in the Commonwealth Chess Championship twice. But her most creditable performance has been in the two successive chess Olympiads held respectively at Istanbul (Turkey) in 2000 and at Bled (Slovenia) in 2002, where playing on the first board she won a silver medal in both Olympiads. She is the first Indian girl to earn WGM (Woman Grandmaster) title. She also holds the men’s IM title.

The story of women’s chess in India will be incomplete if two girl prodigies from Andhra Pradesh – Koneru Hampy and Dronavalli Harika – are not mentioned. Born on March 31, 1987 at Gudivada, Koneru Humpy has amazing deeds to her credit. Sixteen year old Koneru has won four world titles – under-10, under-12, under-14 and Junior Girls’ World Title. She is the youngest woman player to earn the men’s GM title at the age of 15 years, one month and 27 days, eclipsing the earlier record of the legendary GM Judit Polgar of Hungary, who had accomplished this feat at the age of 15 years, 4 months and 28 days. In the latest FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs) ratings, Koneru is ranked fifth in the world with Elo rating of 2496 behind Judit Polgar (Hungary), Antoaneta Stefanova (Bulgaria), Almira Skripchenko (France) and Maia Chiburdanidze (Georgia). Like Judit, Koneru prefers to play in men’s tournaments and was captain of India’s men’s "B" team in the Asian Team Chess Championship recently held at Jodhpur. The 13-year old Guntur-girl, Dronavalli Harika, won the gold medal in the Reserve Category for securing 6 points in 7 games while playing for India’s women’s "A" team in the same championship at Jodhpur. Dronavalli has the distinction of being India’s youngest WIM (Woman International Master) replacing Koneru Humpy as the youngest WIM in Asia. Dronavalli, who turned 13 on January 12, 2003, had accomplished this feat on December 17, 2002.

Rosy Picture

Chess in India has undergone a huge transformation in the last two decades or so. The game which not so long ago seemed neglected and stagnant, is now thriving and kicking and presenting a rosy picture. The All India Chess Federation is very active with its dynamic Secretary, P.T.Umar Koya, also the Vice-President of FIDE, is leaving no stone unturned to make India a real power in chess. More and more national and international level various age-group events as well as big open tournaments are being organised every year in the country and the results are there for everybody to see. Apart from various Asian level tournaments and also Commonwealth Championship, India has hosted a World Cup and the FIDE World Chess Championship-2000 in the recent years. The most welcome development is that more and more parents are encouraging their wards to play chess. Some of them are so keen that their children excel in chess and for that they are ready to make any sacrifice. An example in this regard is that of Koneru Humpy’s father, Ashok, who gave up his teaching career to devote fully to the coaching of his daughter. Not so long ago, it was unthinkable for a person to earn his living through chess. But now things have changed completely. A number of small chess academies have sprung up like mushrooms all over the country, though there are some top class chess academics also. Many established chess players have taken to coaching . The All India Chess Federation’s latest plan is to set up an International Chess Academy at Kozhikode, Kerala which will start functioning soon.

The chess scenario has changed so much that while till mid-eighties there were only a few IMs and no Grandmaster, today there are eight GMs- Viswanathan Anand, Dibyendu Barua, Pravin Thipsay, Abhijit Kunte, Krishnan Sasikiran, Pendyla Harikrishna, Koneru Humpy and Surya Sekhar Ganguly, nearly 33 IMs, two WGMs- Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi and Aarthie Ramaswamy and 15 WIMs. These figures are bound to rise further in the coming years as more and more children are creating waves at a very tender age such as Sahaj Grover, Parimarjan Negi and N. Srinath-to name a few. The Indian chess is sure to get further impetus as chess has been included in the 15th Asian Games to be held in Doha (Qatar) in 2006. Without doubt, a very bright future awaits the Indian chess.

* Senior Sports Writer


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