Monday, May 20, 2024
HomeViduraAnand... and now, Gukesh and others – chess spearheads India’s rise in...

Anand… and now, Gukesh and others – chess spearheads India’s rise in sports

For all the progress made by India in several sports, it is in the game of 64 squares that the country has made really rapid strides the kind of which would have been unimaginable not too long ago, says Partab Ramchand, as he describes why the standing of Indians in the FIDE rankings is nothing short of staggering

For several years, India was nowhere in international sport. The teams fared badly and individual sportsmen and women came a cropper at world meets and the Olympic Games. Indians could generally hold their own when it came to the Asian or Commonwealth Games but at the truly international level they failed to deliver. Sure there was the occasional bit of cheer brought about by the feats of Milkha Singh or Ramanathan Krishnan, Prakash Padukone or P.T. Usha that made them talked-about personalities for a while on the world stage. But the overall impact was hardly felt symbolised by one single fact – in four Olympics at Montreal in 1976, Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992 – India drew a blank in the medals tally. No, not one single solitary bronze medal brought home.

The bronze won by Leander Paes at Atlanta in 1996 proved to be a path-breaker, for, thereafter, India has not returned empty-handed from any Olympic Games. Not only that the number of medals won by Indian sportsmen and women kept rising, culminating in an unprecedented seven medals won at Tokyo three years ago, and along the way there have been two individual gold medals won by Abhinav Bindra and Neeraj Chopra – something thought impossible in the days when the squad was drawing a blank. By now, Indians were making waves in sports like shooting, wrestling, athletics, boxing, badminton and weightlifting, there was a resurgence of sorts in hockey and they were making a mark in world meets. It certainly is a much happier scenario these days as far as Indian sports is concerned.

But there has been no sport in which Indians have really excelled on the international stage than chess. They have progressed so much that India is now a heavyweight in a sport in which FIDE the world governing body has 201 countries affiliated to it. Along with traditional powerhouses like Russia, China, the East European countries and US, India over the last 30 years has initially emerged as a leading contender before finally dominating the scene like few countries have, culminating in the recent feat of producing the youngest winner of the Candidates tournament, D. Gukesh, for him to have a shot at the world title.

The standing of Indians in the FIDE rankings is nothing short of staggering. There are four Indian men in the top 15 and nine in the top 100. There are three women in the top 15 and seven in the top 100. In the just concluded Candidates tournament in Toronto, there were three Indian men among eight contenders in all, and two women. That the future will continue to be bright is underscored by the fact that there are seven Indian juniors in the top 20 and three in the girls category. And according to the latest FIDE countries ranking, India is second behind the US and ahead of Russia and China. The top ten active Indian chess players have an average rating of 2703, the second highest in the world, behind the US. The top ten active women Indian players have an average rating of 2429, the second highest in the world, behind China.

Little wonder than that former world champion Garry Kasparov spoke in terms of an “Indian earthquake in Toronto”’ while hailing Gukesh whose triumph according to him marks the “shifting tectonic plates in the sport’s global order”. It was Kasparov’s record that Gukesh broke while qualifying for a shot at the world title. Kasparov was 22 when he qualified in 1984 to clash with Russian compatriot Anatoly Karpov. Besides Gukesh winning the title, Praggnanandhaa finished fifth and Vidit Gujrathi sixth among the eight competitors.  

Kasparov, who was clearly referring to the Russian domination in the past, has always had a healthy respect for five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand and his unique contribution to Indian chess. “The children of Vishy Anand are on the loose,” he wrote on X. “Look at the names of many of the top junior players in the USA and England to see that the Chinese and Indian Diaspora are just as passionate to achieve at chess.” Kasparov was ranked world No. 1 for a record 255 months overall from 1984 until his retirement from regular competitive chess in 2005.

Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand became the country’s first GM in January 1988.
Photo: Wikipedia

It was in 1995 that Anand has his first shot at the world title when he played Kasparov in the championship match in New York’s World Trade Center. Anand lost narrowly before winning the first of his titles in 2000. Anand’s role in proving to be an inspirational figure for Indian chess players can never be over-emphasised. He became the country’s first GM in January 1988 and, currently, India boasts of 84 GMs, including three women players holding the esteemed title – Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli and R. Vaishali. At the Candidates, Humpy finished second and Vaishali fourth.

Every single player who has achieved international stardom openly attributes his success to the help and guidance he has received from Anand, besides speaking about the inspiration he has provided. Gukesh for one was all praise for Anand on his return to Chennai following the triumph at Toronto. “Vishy Sir has played a huge role in my career. I have greatly benefited from playing at his academy. I am truly grateful to him and wouldn’t have been close to what I am now if it wasn’t for him,” he said, referring to the advice given by Anand in his formative years and also ahead of the Candidates.

Gukesh has trained for long at the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy which came into existence in 2020. Surely, no single Indian sportsman has done as much for any sport in India as Anand has. At 54, he is still an active player, is currently ranked No. 11 in the world, besides being deputy president of FIDE. Oh yes, for all the progress made by India in several sports it is in the game of 64 squares that the country has made really rapid strides the kind of which would have been unimaginable not too long ago.  

(The writer is a veteran sports writer who spent his career working for The Indian Express, and The Telegraph and Sportsworld. He lives in Chennai.)

RELATED ARTICLES