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Kings and queens of tomorrow

Print edition : Sep 20, 1997 T+T-

New opportunities opened up by the spread of computer technology, combined with Viswanathan Anand's exemplary performance in international chess, have inspired a new crop of young players.

SUCCESS at the international junior level, which was confined to very few individuals in the 1970s and the 1980s, has now become commonplace in Indian chess. This success is best illustrated by the fact that the Indian national champion, Abhijit Kunte, and the zonal women's champion, S. Vijayalakshmi, are both juniors. The reason for India's continuous success in chess at the junior level is that participation in the game is today more broad-based than it was in 1980. The progress made in the last 30 years indicates that India may well be on the way to becoming a chess giant.

The Student Championship of the 1950s was replaced by the National Juniors in the 1960s and sub-junior category was introduced in 1975. The greatest changes in junior chess came about after the first Children's Nationals (with age group classifications) was organised at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai in May 1988. It laid the foundation for today's success in the junior category. The game gained in popularity after Viswanathan Anand's prodigious exploits, particularly after he won the World Junior Championship in 1987 and went on to become the challenger to the world title in 1995.

Many advantages now available to our youth were not available in the past, even to Anand until 1995, when he played for the world title. Technology is a great equaliser and the Internet revolution has gripped the game firmly. Important games played in remote pockets of Russia are now available for study by Indians at the same time as they are available to those in the West. This and the availability of software to browse and analyse games have levelled the playing field and prepared the ground for future successes.

Indians who have excelled abroad are the ones who have maintained some degree of consistency at the national level. Many players come and go, but very few win medals abroad; these medals motivate future medal winners and the cycle goes on. Today India has three outstanding chess talents: P. Harikrishna, Vijayalakshmi and Krishnan Sashikiran. Harikrishna's victory in the World Under-10 Boys Championship in November 1996 shook the chess world. But a large nation like India with a large and dedicated participant base has to produce a winner. Harikrishna's game had a tactical ability not seen in any other ten-year-old player in India. Within a month after the World Championship, Harikrishna showed that winning it was no fluke by finishing second in the World U-12 Rapid Chess Championship at EuroDisney, Paris.

Harikrishna is not strong in the opening front and will have to cover plenty of ground. The difference in playing strengths between an Indian and a European child is very narrow at a young age, but it widens as the children grow. The Europeans dominate as a consequence of constant exposure to high-level competitions. With exposure and a stronger opening game, Harikrishna can become a candidate for bigger titles. Age, sponsorship, a world title and now rating have transformed Harikrishna into a new star in the Indian firmament. The last one year has seen great changes in this wonder boy who has won two medals in world championships and three national titles.

Vijayalakshmi, 17, is a product of the children's festival, and has won virtually every national title for women. Rising to become the strongest Indian woman player ever, she is today strongly placed to become India's first Woman Grandmaster. She is approaching new heights in her career and is waiting for her first appearance in the interzonals. Serious preparation and adaptability to various cuisines hold the key to her further success. She became an International Woman Master in 1995 in Chennai by scoring two-thirds in the zonals (Frontline, June 16, 1995). She, who receives a monthly scholarship of Rs.2,500 from the Sakthi Sugars group, won the zonals last month and her career is at an interesting stage.

Sashikiran, 16, is a young Chennai player who works hard and has set his sights high. Sashikiran, who won a medal in the Asian Sub-Junior competition, performed excellently in the 1995 World U-18 Championship. Sashikiran puts in long hours at the game and has tremendous fighting spirit. Taking an active interest in his career, his parents pulled him out of school for one year (1996-97) to pursue his chess career. It worked. Sashikiran won the Commonwealth U-16 title. His performance in the British Championship this year in a field of Grandmasters and International Masters was remarkable. He secured his International Master (IM) title. If he is able to keep going for a few more years, there is no doubt that he will become a Grandmaster.

National champion Abhijit Kunte (Indian Oil, Pune) is a bright player. He has won the national junior title three times and holds both senior and junior titles.

Surya Sekar Ganguly of the Goodricke Chess Academy holds the record for being the youngest player to defeat a Grandmaster, which he did in Calcutta 1995 when he was only 11 years. A medal winner in the world age-group championship, this talented boy has more to achieve. West Bengal has many talented players and the number has begun to increase after the Goodricke Academy was opened.

Pallavi Shah. Safira Shanaz of Tamil Nadu. Swati Ghate.

Among girls, Swati Ghate and Pallavi Shah from Sangli and Kolhapur in Maharashtra have played well in title competitions inside India. Tamil Nadu's Safira Shanaz did well in the Asian Women's Championship in Salem and is a promising player.

Mention needs to be made of Delhiite Tanya Sachdev, who waited for her Indian success until May 1997. It is a well-known fact that Indian age-group championships are tougher than British championships, for the competition here is a lot more fierce. Chitra Sridhar from Bangalore is also developing into a tough campaigner after winning a bronze medal in the World U-12 Rapid Chess Championship in Paris last year.

M.R. Venkatesh (SPIC) is a promising Chennai player, but he has little to show for himself on the international front. J.E. Kavitha, winner of three national titles, is a talented player. She too is in the same boat as Venkatesh. In fact, there are several players in this category and they have to consider what they need to do to be successful rather than merely compete abroad.

Among the States in India, Tamil Nadu has benefited the most from age-group competitions, largely because of exposure to strong tournaments in the region and extensive coaching provided by unemployed chess players. Besides the exceptionally talented ones mentioned already, there are many others who could break into stardom.

Chess in India will progress faster in the next decade than it has in the last five years. We have the talent, the numbers, and a level of infrastructure to compete with the West. Such is the awareness about the game that it will soon join the ranks of more popular games like cricket and tennis.

The success of our young players could be greater if there were more competitions among them, particularly at the school level. Prize money and educational scholarships would be incentives most likely to stimulate parents to encourage their children to play the game. Playing outside India is particularly important; such play has been sponsored exclusively by the Central Government, which buys players air tickets to world championships. There should be private sponsorships for talented players such as Vijayalakshmi, Swati Ghate, Pallavi Shah, Abhijit Kunte, Sashikiran and Harikrishna. Chess has gained at the cost of a few other sports, but the growth in chess sponsorship has not kept pace with the growth of the game. There is much enthusiasm for the game, but sponsorship has not been forthcoming. And though training camps are not difficult to organise, they are not held for players ahead of international competitionss.

While India tries to stick to the rules and makes one entry in each age-group category, Russia and Armenia have been flooding world age-group championships with entries in order to expose their children to such championship. India should learn from these nations and effectively help its players win world titles at a very young age. Another way to get in extra entries in these championships is to organise this event in India.

Despite these factors, chess has grown rapidly. The future is always unpredictable, but free-flowing success from our unusually large participant-base of talented players makes one imagine that India can get to where Russia is in chess today.

Although India is slipping from its position in the men's Olympiads, the successes at the junior level have more than compensated for that loss; success at the junior level is where its future lies.