Chess Olympiad: Chennai still holds sway as the ‘mecca of chess’ as it readies to host high-profile Chess Olympiad

Coaching institutes are typically not the most modest of places. After all, flaunting the success of their students via advertisements and using prominent signage is practically part of the business model and an important way to reel in more students. But Chess Gurukul, evidently, does not play by these rules. For an institute which has possibly produced more chess Grandmasters (GMs) than any other, there are no signs indicating its presence on Vaidyaraman Street in Chennai’s bustling T-Nagar where the ocher building is located, near the state BJP office.

Then again, Chess Gurukul might not need to advertise its presence, with its roster of talent including chess prodigy R Praggnanandhaa, who beat world champion Magnus Carlsen in February, and a host of other GMs. RB Ramesh, who set up Chess Gurukul in 2008 with his wife, Aarthie Ramaswamy (both of whom are Grandmasters), cannot quite pin down the number of GMs the academy has produced. “Maybe 20? Maybe more,” says the soft-spoken 46-year-old, with a laugh. Soon after, three students troop in, one from Indore, one from Sivaganga and a third from the UK. “I had a friend in Chennai who recommended I come here to train with Ramesh sir,” says Soham Lohia, 13, who otherwise lives in London.

That youngsters serious about chess continue to zoom in on Chennai to hone their skills is a testament to the city’s reputation as a mecca of the ancient game of strategy, one that’s only seen to be burnished when it hosts the 44th Chess Olympiad in less than a month. But the game itself has seen quite a few shifts since the last time the seaside capital hosted a major international chess event, the legendary World Championship of 2013 when hometown champion and title defender Viswanathan Anand faced off against a young Carlsen. For one, there is the surge in interest in chess, particularly online, during the pandemic fueled by the success of the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit and India’s win at last year’s Olympiad, held online.

Aiding this was the rise of “chess influencers” like comedian Samay Raina, who streams matches on YouTube peppered with memes and jokes, which attract a considerable following from those who might otherwise not track the game, especially among Gen Z. “What influencers like Raina brings to the game is relatability. He breaks things down so that even a non-chess playing viewer can understand it,” says Niranjan Navalgund, community manager at India and a FIDE Master.

The offline Olympiad, which India won the bid to host after the International Chess Federation (FIDE) decided to move it out of Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is expected to attract a new set of viewers and players. “Chennai is a chess center and is home to the maximum number of Grandmasters. The city, and Tamil Nadu, has a big chess culture,” Bharat Singh Chauhan, secretary of the All India Chess Federation (AICF), says while discussing why the city was selected to host the Olympiad. Chauhan says around 2,000 players from all over the world, including world champion Carlsen, are expected to congregate in Mahabalipuram for the two-week event.


The “chess culture” Chauhan mentions is one that has coursed through the city’s veins for years. The state chess association which began its existence as the Madras Chess Club, in fact, predates the AICF, having been set up in April 1947, says Manuel Aaron, who became India’s first International Master (a title below GM) in 1961. Back in the 50s and 60s, there were no formal clubs but there were pockets where people used to play informally, recalls Aaron, at his apartment on a tree-lined street in upmarket Adyar. Chess classes are still held at the flat opposite his, at the family-run Aaron Chess Academy. “Groups of people used to play outside Ramani Press in Mylapore, at the YMCA and even on the lawns of the Egmore hockey stadium,” says Aaron, now 86.

The state and, later, district associations were active in organizing matches, which gave opportunities to local players. Soon after, the city’s schools too began conducting tournaments over weekends regularly. Tamil Nadu was also fortunate to have generous patrons of the game, such as the legendary N Mahalingam, who headed the Coimbatore-based Sakthi conglomerate and was also the president of the national and state chess bodies. “He was the first person to offer monetary incentives to International Masters and would always reward people who performed well,” says Aaron.

Aaron himself played a pioneering role in popularising the game, winning titles and setting up the Tal Chess Club at the Soviet Cultural Center on August 14, 1972. The Soviets did not charge him rent, gave him chess books for free and flew in Soviet players . Aaron also used to give weekly lectures on new developments in chess, translated from Russian and a regular attendee was a certain 9-year-old who invariably asked a lot of questions, much to Aaron’s annoyance at the time. “I knew at the time that the boy would go far — but I didn’t know this far.”


That nine-year-old was, of course, Viswanathan Anand, inarguably India’s most famous chess player, five-time world champion and a pivotal figure in fueling the chess culture both in his hometown, Chennai, and the state. As Aaron pithily puts it, Anand popularized chess simply by playing well. “Anand was a young achiever and when you achieve something at a young age, it gets a lot of publicity. A lot of youngsters came to the game because of him,” says AICF’s Chauhan. He continues to inspire players across ages, in different ways. For Shyam Sundar, India’s 31st GM who now runs the Chess Thulir academy, the fact that Anand continues to play at the age of 52 years eggs him on. “I haven’t played that much in the last two years after I started coaching full-time. But whenever I start thinking that training is my career, I look at Anand and feel inspired,” says the 30-year-old.

For freshly minted GM Bharath Subramaniyam, 14, meeting Anand was a turning point. “Anand sir had invited Bharath to his home after he became International Master. Meeting him in person gave Bharath a lot of confidence,” says Bharath’s mother, Yamini. Bharath himself cites Anand as an inspiration. “Back when he started playing, there wasn’t as much of a chess culture but he still made it,” says the teen who got the GM title in January. Players today have some things easier, says PV Nandhidhaa, 26, a Grandmaster from Sangagiri in Tamil Nadu who would travel to Chennai for coaching. “When I was starting out, nothing was easy — whether it was getting a coach, finding where the good tournaments are and traveling to them, and getting sponsorships. Kids today know how to navigate all this better,” she says. “There are also alot more coaches today who are Grandmasters.” Others, too, say there has been a proliferation of chess academies and institutes, as this is one avenue of employment for players who might otherwise find it difficult to get a job.

Another sea change has been the influence of computers and the internet on the game, such as the fact that players no longer need to wait for months to know the latest moves and strategies. “When we used to play, it would be two months before new moves in Europe traveled to India. But with the internet, we can watch games live, which has made a big impact on Indian chess,” says Chauhan.


But among all the changes are some that are disturbing and might pose a challenge to the city’s chess culture. “Earlier, children would be introduced to the game, they would become ambitious and parents would support them. But today, parents expect children to fulfill their ambitions even though the child might not be keen. So, for instance, if Pragg became an IM at the age of 10, they want their child to be an IM at the age of 9,” says Ramesh.

Many insist on one-on-one classes with coaches who are GMs although this is usually unnecessary. If one coach refuses, they will find another who is willing. A personal class with a GM might cost Rs 2,500-3,500 an hour but parents don’t mind paying even if they can’t really afford it, says Ramesh. The result is children who are scared to play and try not to lose out of fear of their parents. “They don’t play creatively, they don’t take risks — they just try to survive.” Sundar agrees that children today are more under pressure compared to the previous generation. “Parents feel they are giving their children what they could not afford, but this is not a cattle farm.

Children should be able to do what they like,” he says. This kind of pressure is not what is likely to produce inspiring players. To secure the future of the game, Ramesh hopes that chess players will have more employment opportunities via centers of excellence, like MRF’s Pace Foundation in Chennai for cricket.

For the moment, however, excitement is running high among players, young and old, as the city gears up for the Olympiad. “The Olympiad in general is very exciting and this time, even more so because it’s going to be in Chennai,” says Subramaniyam, the young GM. He echoes the hope of millions when he adds, “I think India can win a gold medal.”


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