In a country where cricket has ‘checkmated’ other sports in terms of popularity, it’s heartening to note that India can still boast of world-beaters. Recently, Vishwanathan Anand became the No. 1 ranked player in chess, while our cricket team could not even qualify to be amongst the top eight in the ongoing World Cup. Although Anand is now based in Spain, he is originally from Chennai, where the game is immensely popular.
Popular sport in Tamil Nadu
Many attribute the popularity of the sport in Chennai and across Tamil Nadu to Anand's success. "He has given a boost to Indian chess," said K. Venkatesan of the Master Mind Chess Academy in Anna Nagar. "He has been at the top for many years and has won awards such as the 'Chess Oscar' and is one of the very few to cross the 2800 ELO rating," Venkatesan pointed out.
"Chess is a very unique sport where, because of Vishwanathan Anand, the sport has become popular," said Sports Editor of the Hindu, Nirmal Shekhar. "If not for Anand, chess would have perhaps still been a minority sport in the country," he added.
However, chess player and trainer Ebenezer Joseph believes that the sport was popular in Chennai even before Anand burst on to the scene. "Yes, he has been a major factor for the game's present popularity. However, I think the sport had a following way back in the 1970s," said Joseph.
Joseph - India's first and only FIDE-rated trainer - felt that the Russian Cultural Centre had a key role to play in the game’s popularity. "We had the Mikhail Tal Chess Club which was started in 1972," he recollected. "There was a craze for the game. Fischer and Spasky were the champions then," he added. Having begun chess at just five in 1972, Joseph maintains close ties with the Centre. His Emmanuel Chess Centre is located at the Russian Cultural Centre.
Many reasons can be given for the dedicated following of the game in the state. "Maybe it is popular in Tamil Nadu, as we have a history of good players. India’s first International Master Manuel Aaron is from Chennai," said Shekhar, who pointed out that currently the sport is most popular in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. Joseph feels that chess has been popular as many associate the game with intelligence. "We like intelligent games. Computing and logical thinking are areas we are generally interested in," he said. According to Venkatesan, other features that make chess popular are the fact that it is a safe game and can be played indoors. “Also it helps in improving concentration and decision-making skills which encourages parents to send their children for coaching," he added.
Lack of sponsors
However, sponsors are generally hard to come by for chess, not considered as a 'spectator sport.' "Generally, when we go to companies, they say that chess is not an 'action' sport. They want action for advertisements," noted Tamil Nadu Chess Association General Secretary and India’s first International Grandmaster Manuel Aaron. But he stressed, "Chess is a participant sport. Hundreds of players participate in our tournaments." However, he pointed out that Chennai-based companies had been supportive. "Some sponsors such as the ‘Adyar Times’ come to us seeing our work. Others helps us out if we approach them, such as Ramco Systems, Sakthi Sugars and the Velammal Group," said Aaron.
Unlike cricketers, chess players can hardly afford to rely on advertisers for support. Recently Bank of Baroda switched from Woman Grandmaster Koneru Humpy to Rahul Dravid as their brand ambassador. "Most (chess players) get employed by various companies such as ONGC, Indian Airlines, LIC and banks," said Aaron. Joseph, a Government Auditor, stated, "Apart from the Government, the Railways and public sector banks have helped players by providing employment. Now, the Petroleum Sports Control Board is doing a good job." Oil companies such as ONGC and GAIL have sponsored players such as Koneru Humpy and P. Harikrishna. Both Aaron and Joseph indicated that it is usually the Indian government that sponsors trips for tournaments abroad.
Joseph said that the situation for players had improved over the years. Narrating his own experiences, Joseph said, "I got many rejections as companies were scared that I would only play chess. So, I finally decided not to state the fact that I was a chess player and did get a job." However he did not quit the sport. "For one year, I stayed away from chess. The next year I took leave and played and did so well that I qualified for the Nationals," Joseph stated.
Even though chess may not be either spectator-friendly or fast-paced, Joseph feels that this should not prevent sponsors from coming in. He agrees that better marketing could help. "Unlike cricket, in chess, there is no defined system. Private companies are not sure on whom, how much and how long to sponsor," Joseph points out. However, he thinks that instead of supporting players, sponsors could perhaps look at supporting academies to promote the game. "I have trained over around 2000 students, including some very successful juniors. Yet not a single sponsor has backed any of these players," Joseph noted.
Inadequate media coverage
Joseph also lamented the lack of coverage of chess in the media, especially on television. "Chess will improve a lot if TV channels give it proper coverage, with the help of qualified experts. Sponsors would also be interested then," he added. "A lot more articles could be devoted to chess. No one even knows the names of the players," he said. "I think ‘The Hindu’ really made a difference over the years in promoting the game. However, of late, I feel the coverage is getting thinner," said Joseph. Aaron said, “Chess is a slow game. In other sports, media coverage includes the field of play where there is action. In chess, even after a win, one is dignified. We do not abuse anyone."
Shekhar agrees that perhaps chess is not given the coverage it deserves in the country. However, he felt that broadsheets generally did a decent job when it came to covering the sport. "On television, chess is nowhere in the race as it is not a 'spectator' sport. Thus, it gets step-motherly treatment," he pointed out. However, he agreed that with the increasing number of youngsters succeeding at the international level, it will be hard for the media to ignore the sport. "It is one of the few sports where we are competitive at the world stage,” he said.
Joseph indicated that the administrators had done a good job in the last ten years or so in marketing the game. "Even a company like Chessmates was instrumental in making Anand what he is," Joseph said. "Arvind Aaron gave up his playing career to start the company, which used to import materials from abroad that were useful to chess players in the country."
Tapping young talent
Joseph suggested that every school, especially Corporation schools should include chess. "These kids (pointing to the kids at the Centre) have the means. But what about the untapped potential?" Joseph asked. "A student of mine, R. Sharanya, was the daughter of a bangle-seller. When we sent letters to call her for coaching, it came back as she did not have a permanent residence. Luckily, with the backing of Ramco, she played in the Nationals where she succeeded. Such talents should not go unnoticed," he emphasised.
The popularity of the game has also resulted in many ‘coaching academies’ being set up. However, Joseph warned against this proliferation. "Not many trainers are successful. They need to be certified," he said. On the other hand, he pointed out that maybe these academies are the only option for former chess players to make a living. Joseph felt that parents should exercise caution. "I realised when I started the academy that one-on-one training does not work. It has to be in academies. Also, kids must be given freedom as well," he said. He referred to a situation where his student - a potential great player - wanted to play cricket with his friends and not chess. "In such situations, trainers and parents must understand and respect the child's needs.”