Gukesh D and the rise of Indian chess

Gukesh D. at the Candidates Tournament. (PTI)
Gukesh D. at the Candidates Tournament. (PTI)

Summary

Once there was only Viswanathan Anand, now India has 84 Grandmasters. Following Gukesh D's stunning victory at the Candidates Tournament, is Indian chess dreaming of domination?

After playing the biggest game of his life, Gukesh Dommaraju sat back in his chair, meditatively putting the pieces back on the chess board. Respect the board, he had been taught as a child. Gukesh had just drawn the last game of the exhausting FIDE Candidates Tournament in Toronto, Canada, on 21 April, against Hikaru Nakamura of the US. He had done all that was in his control to stay on the top of the leaderboard in a nerve-wracking final day, where four of the eight competitors, including Nakamura, were still in with a chance for the winner-takes-it-all title.

On the other board, the outcome of the other game between Italian-American Fabiano Caruana and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia would decide his fate. Gukesh had started the day half a point ahead of his three competitors, which meant even a draw would be enough to force a tie-breaker. The few minutes that the Indian had to wait seemed to stretch to eternity, and Gukesh, with his second Grzegorz Gajewski, went out for a walk in the dead of the night.

“It was possibly the most stressful 15 minutes of the tournament," he said later. After battling wits for nearly six hours, Caruana and Nepomniachtchi agreed to a draw. At 17, Gukesh was the youngest winner of the Candidates. The challenger to the reigning world champion, Ding Liren of China.

Gukesh is now a young star in an old, old game. For more than a fortnight, a monkish Gukesh hadn’t let anything faze him. Not the stakes, not the spotlight, nor the seasoned rivals. Pulling a veil over his emotions, the teenager navigated the 64 squares with efficiency and innovation.

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In contrast to the serenity that defined his campaign, Gukesh arrived in India to a mad frenzy of adulation. When Gukesh and his team landed in Chennai in the wee hours of April 25, they were met with an army of fans and media. Children from Velammal Vidyalaya, where Gukesh studied, stood in a queue, donning Gukesh masks—a fan phenomenon mainly seen at cricket stadiums before this in India. Before the sleepy-eyed Gukesh had time to process it all, a turban was placed on his head, a garland around his neck.

Whether Gukesh is ready for the superstardom or not, he has quickly become the mascot of India’s growing might in chess.

R. Pragganandhaa (left), and Vidit Gujrathi at the Candidates Tournament.
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R. Pragganandhaa (left), and Vidit Gujrathi at the Candidates Tournament. (PTI)

While the teenager’s win in the Candidates sent tremors across the chess world, five Indians making it to the elite tournament had already caught its attention. Along with Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa and Vidit Gujrathi competed in the Candidates Open tournament, meaning India had three representatives in an eight-man field, the most from a single country. It was the first time that an Indian, other than Viswanathan Anand, had made the cut for the tournament.

Koneru Humpy and R. Vaishali competed in the Candidates Women’s Tournament, also an eight-player field, and both finished in the top half of the draw. During the tournament, held in Toronto from 3-21 April, Praggnanandhaa and Vaishali also became the first siblings to compete at the prestigious event.

World No.1 Magnus Carlsen, who abdicated his world championship title in 2023 and declined to play the Candidates this year, had pointed out the “beginning of a chess revolution in India", in June last year. Chess icon Garry Kasparov labelled the Candidates show an “Indian earthquake in Toronto".

“In the last couple of years, we are seeing a surge when it comes to chess in India," Gujrathi tells Lounge. “When I play abroad, people just want to know how India has so many players coming up. Everybody is curious; I think there is a little fear as well. If there was any doubt left in people’s minds that India is the next big thing in chess, it has been dispelled."

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Grandmaster Koneru Humpy at the Candidates Women's Tournament.
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Grandmaster Koneru Humpy at the Candidates Women's Tournament. (PTI)

The Sporting Icon

Chess supposedly originated from an Indian game called chaturanga played around 600 CE. Some of the rules were developed and modified in the Persian version shatranj before it spread across Asia and Europe. In its earliest forms, it may have been a battle-game simulation, an exercise in tactical positioning.

The game evolved almost into the current version by the 16th century, but modern chess as we know it was championed by post-revolution Russia. For Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, chess became a symbol of intellectual superiority and international dominance. State-sponsored chess in the erstwhile USSR and its satellite countries kicked in motion a conveyor belt of chess prodigies. From Mikhail Botvinnik to Kasparov, Soviet players utterly dominated chess after World War II. US’s Bobby Fischer, who held the world title from 1972-75, was the only exception.

In 1988, Anand became the first Indian to earn the Grandmaster title.

A once-in-a-generation talent, Anand is one of the biggest sporting icons in India. He was also studious, earnest and non-controversial, which he believes made him the “sensible choice" for a role model. Especially for chess parents. His name entered textbooks and was etched on prestigious trophies. He won the first of his five world championship titles in 2000 (FIDE World Championship) and his sustained success inspired generations of Indian chess players. He was the India No.1 for an unbroken streak of 37 years till Gukesh dethroned him in the live ratings in September 2023. Anand, 54, still has the highest peak FIDE rating for any Indian—2817.

“For many years, it was one Viswanathan Anand. He was the catalyst," says Indian Woman Grandmaster (WGM) Tania Sachdev. “The Indian chess boom has taken off from him; it’s his legacy."

While Anand was the first Indian Grandmaster, the country now has 84 Grandmasters. The only nations that have more GMs than India, according to the latest FIDE charts, are Russia (183); many have withdrawn since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), US (105) and Germany (100). The competition has intensified in the last decade or so, with 54 Indians earning the Grandmaster title since 2013, and 19 of them since 2020.

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In 2019, Gukesh became the youngest Indian Grandmaster at the age of 12 years, 7 months and 17 days. He missed the record for the youngest GM (held by Sergey Karjakin then, but it has been broken since by Abhimanyu Mishra) by 17 days. Praggnanandhaa achieved the GM title in 2018, aged 12 years, 10 months and 13 days. Though Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa are the front-runners to take on the mantle from Anand, India has a group of youngsters— including GMs Leon Luke Mendonca, Arjun Erigaisi and Nihal Sarin—rising up the ranks.

As per the FIDE ratings in May 2024, Gukesh is No.6 in the world while Erigaisi, 20, is at No.7. It is the first time that the country has two players in the top 10 since November 2016

As per the FIDE ratings in May 2024, Gukesh is No.6 in the world while Erigaisi, 20, is at No.7. It is the first time that the country has two players in the top 10 since November 2016, when Anand was No.7 and P. Harikrishna at No.10.

Anand also started the first finishing school in Indian chess—the WestBridge-Anand Chess Academy (WACA) in December 2020, which holds online training sessions and seminars. He assembled an A team of trainers—Boris Gelfand, Artur Yusupov, Sandipan Chanda and Gajewski—to train the most promising youngsters, while Anand himself mentors them through the tricky terrain of high-stakes chess. The first batch of prodigies included Gukesh, Vaishali, Praggnanandhaa, Sarin, Raunak Sadhwani and Mendonca. Though WACA was meant to be a long-term project, within four years of its existence, it has produced three Candidates.

“USSR is the one (country) that created champions after champions, and now India is doing that," says Pravin Thipsay, the third Indian to earn the Grandmaster title. “India and to some extent China, especially in women’s chess."

This super generation of chess prodigies hasn’t emerged from a void. With Anand as the flagbearer, Indian chess has progressed slowly and steadily for the past four decades.

Players at a state-level speed chess game in Agartala.
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Players at a state-level speed chess game in Agartala. (Getty Images)

India had only three Grandmasters at the turn of the century, but has since produced consistent performers. Harikrishna, S. Sasikiran and Adhibhan Baskaran even breached the 2700 ELO rating. Humpy became the first Indian woman Grandmaster in 2002 and is still the India No.1.

What seems to have accelerated the growth of Indian chess in the last 10 years is access to information and the quality of coaching. A lot of Indian GMs have become ace trainers. R.B. Ramesh, whose star students include Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa, runs one of the finest chess schools in the country—Chess Gurukul in Chennai. Vishnu Prasanna played a huge role in moulding a young Gukesh while Srinath Narayanan trained Erigaisi and Sarin.

“When I was playing, there just wasn’t the same kind of guidance, direction and support in place," says Srinath, 30, to Lounge. For example, Sachdev had her first GM training when she was 17. “There were fewer GMs in India. So, getting trained by one was not simply not as common," he adds.

For the generation before his, Srinath recalls, becoming a GM was a goal in itself. For this new wave of chess stars, most of whom earned the title by the age of 15, it is only a milestone in their journey. Chess prodigies, the world over, are getting younger by the day. Abhimanyu Mishra, an American of Indian origin, beat Karjakin’s 18-year-old record to become the youngest GM in the world in 2021. He achieved the title at the age of 12 years and seven months. In April, a 10-year-old from Argentina, Faustino Oro, nicknamed the “Messi of Chess", beat World No.1 Carlsen in an Open event.

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“This change in the goalpost is largely because the examples in front of you have shown that it’s possible," Srinath adds. “I think the internet revolution has also played a major role. It gives so much exposure and opportunity. Someone like Pragg or Gukesh or Arjun can play against Magnus Carlsen or Hikaru Nakamura. Whereas, if they were in the 1980s or 1990s, they couldn’t have played against (Anatoly) Karpov and Kasparov the same way. But here when they play the best players in the world when they are like 12 or 13 and are able to compete against them. It makes a very big difference in their self-belief."

A chess revolution was already brewing in India when, in 2020, the covid-19 breakout sent the world into lockdown. It was the game’s Big Bang moment.

Forced indoors, a lot of people started playing chess, or returned to it. Online tournaments cropped up. Chess Grandmasters started streaming tutorials and games, including and engaging an audience in their world of mystique. FIDE held an Online Chess Olympiad in August-September 2020, where India and Russia were declared joint winners. The biggest online chess gaming platform, chess.com, had 30 million users before the pandemic. The number scaled up to 75 million users by November 2021.

“Chess became popular because it is the only sport that is played online in its original form," says Thipsay. “It is estimated that 700-800 million people worldwide play chess, in India the number is about 70-80 million."

Chess, so long the niche, nerd sport, is entering the mainstream.

Elitism In The Sport

India is being talked about as the next “USSR" because of a glut of chess talent emerging from the country. But while the Soviets institutionalised the sport by establishing chess schools and fervently organised tournaments, most of the Indian chess stars are a product of their, and their families’, efforts and sacrifices.

“What is making India look good in chess is the success of these players," says Sreekar Channapragada, the co-founder of MGD1, a chess business and athlete management firm.

“There is no structure," says 29-year-old Gujrathi, who earned his GM title in 2013. “It is still a bit unorganised. Also, not a lot of big tournaments are held in India. I play abroad 95% of the time. Unless somebody is going out of their way, to become a professional, it is a complicated path. I had to hustle a lot. I had to travel within the state, travel abroad to play tournaments. It’s not easy."

While the Soviets institutionalised chess by establishing chess schools and organised tournaments, most of the Indian chess stars are a product of their, and their families’, efforts and sacrifices.

India hosts only one elite event on the international calendar—the Tata Steel Rapid and Blitz Tournament, which is held in Kolkata.

It was only last week, on 4 May, that the All-India Chess Federation, figuring that they need a strong grassroots and elite programme to sustain the momentum, announced that they will pump 65 crore into the Indian chess ecosystem. This includes a cricket-like annual contract system for the top players in India: Top five male and female players in the country will each receive 25 lakh while the players ranked 6-10 will receive 12.5 lakh each.

People playing roadside chess in Kolkata.
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People playing roadside chess in Kolkata. (Getty Images)

At first glimpse, chess may seem like a pretty accessible sport. After all, all you need is a chess board, however cheap or expensive, real or virtual, to get started. People play it in public parks and private clubs.

But the elitism in the sport reveals itself once you go higher up the order. The hierarchy in chess is clearly defined: you need a minimum FIDE rating of 2300 to become a FIDE Master (FM), a rating of 2400 to become International Master (IM) and a rating of 2600 to become a Grandmaster (GM). The costs go up exponentially when you make a jump. Training and travelling for tournaments take up most of the funds. Online events may be a hoot, but players have to compete in physical tournaments to earn rating points.

A lot of Indian players remain under-rated because they don’t have the resources to train or travel for the bigger tournaments.

“We have borne the expenses all along," says Lyndon Mendonca, Leon’s father. “We have been spending about 7-10 lakh every year since 2014. He became an IM at 12, GM at 14 and each year has brought up new challenges. At this stage, he needs to spend a lot more on training. Foreign coaches start at about €50-70 (around 6,000) per hour. If you are training with them for a day, a decent coach will be about €500 per day."

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Most of India’s chess stars hail from economically steady backgrounds. Mendonca’s father was in the Merchant Navy and mother is a doctor, Erigaisi’s father is a neurosurgeon and mother the managing director of the hospital they own, Gukesh’s father is an ENT surgeon and mother a microbiologist while Gujrathi’s parents are doctors. Even then there are financial setbacks because, since most of the chess players start excelling when minors, at least one of their parents has to travel with them for tournaments. Mendonca gave up his job to focus on his son’s career, so did Gukesh’s father, Erigaisi’s and Gujrathi’s mothers. As Vaishali and Praggnanandhaa’s father works at a bank in Chennai, their mother chaperoned them to tournaments.

“The problem is also that most of them don’t get the support when needed," says Thipsay. “They only get it when they reach a certain stage, by which time they are already doing well." A case in point is, the AICF spent 2 crore on the five players to prepare for the Candidates only after they had qualified.

A lot of chess players’ brilliance is lost in translation. Unlike adrenaline-pumping, packed stadiums in popular sports, chess takes place in venues that have all the charm and atmosphere of an examination hall. Players are trained not to betray emotion. Mental agility and chess aesthetics just don’t filter down to an audience as easily as a grunt-worthy lassoed forehand by Rafael Nadal. When it comes to seeking sponsorships, chess is a hard sell.

“We have to try and explain to sponsors that this is not mass visibility, but a niche visibility sport," adds Channapragada. “What we are trying to tell them is its more signalling for your brand to kind of align with an intellectual sport. The brands then that come on board are the ones that like to portray themselves as intellectual, like a tech firm or a trading firm." The options are limited and takers few.

The Chennai Ecosystem

If Mumbai has cricket and Kolkata football, Chennai has chess. Apart from it being Anand’s hometown, the capital of Tamil Nadu is the engine that runs Indian chess enterprise. From the state government to private investors and chess academies, Chennai is the only place all the mechanisms are in place. When it comes to the Game of Kings, it has developed a culture of excellence.

“Clearly Chennai has the ecosystem there," says Gujrathi. “There are lot of players, lot of coaches, lot of GMs there. The state government is also very supportive. If someone does well, they immediately incentivise them. Chennai is miles ahead than any other city right now. That’s still an issue when it comes to development of Indian chess, because it is saturated at one place. Potential is there all around the country; but Chennai has the atmosphere."

Of the five Indians who competed at the Candidates this year, three (Vaishali, Pragg, Gukesh) are from Chennai. While Gujrathi hails from Nashik, Maharashtra, a chess outpost, Humpy is from Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. Tamil Nadu also accounts for 30 out of a total 84 GMs in India.

“Chess is also a game where it’s a level playing field for everyone," adds Narayanan. “You have one computer, internet. You don’t need access to a big ground. You don’t need a lot of space. In such situations, I feel that having a larger participation pool just guarantees an advantage in numbers." Chennai, and Tamil Nadu, has a much bigger chess pool, leading to a more competitive breeding ground.

Of the five Indians who competed at the Candidates this year, three (Vaishali, Pragg, Gukesh) are from Chennai. Tamil Nadu also accounts for 30 out of a total 84 GMs in India.

While the game is popular all around the country, with states like Maharashtra and West Bengal also producing a number of GMs, the growth outside of Tamil Nadu, and to an extent the neighbouring states of Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, has been sporadic. In 2021, when Mendonca became a GM, he was only the second one from Goa to do so. He had to relocate to Chennai and enrol in Ramesh’s Chess Gurukul to make sure he didn’t stagnate.

“I feel the coaching part can still be managed online," says Gujrathi, who never went to India’s chess capital for coaching. “Playing tournaments or getting exposure is a challenge. Even if a kid is enthusiastic about playing, how can he get the rating points and advance if he can’t play as many tournaments?"

R. Vaishali at the Candidates Women's Tournament.
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R. Vaishali at the Candidates Women's Tournament. (PTI)

Another chasm in India’s big success story is the participation of women. Chess in general has not historically encouraged women’s players—it is estimated that only 8% of chess players worldwide are women. It’s almost the same in India as well. Only three Indian women—Humpy, Vaishali, Harika Dronavalli—have earned the GM title. For many, the prime reason for that is that chess is still a male-dominated, male-friendly domain. Apart from the funding issues, the tournament structure, which requires a lot of travel, is less conducive for women.

“It was a different atmosphere," says Sachdev, 37, who became a WGM in 2005. “It was extremely challenging, which is why we had very few girls playing. Even if they would get into chess, they would perform at a level but at some point, it would become very difficult to continue. All of that has shifted in a big way now. This is the best time to be a chess player in India for a girl or a boy."

The quality and depth of India’s chess talent first came to the fore during the Chess Olympiad, which was held in Chennai in July-August 2022. The biennial chess event, called the “Olympics of chess" had over 1,700 participants. With China and Russia pulling out of the event, hosts India were allowed to field two teams in the men’s competition and had one in the women’s event.

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Gukesh, who was part of India’s second team, stunned everyone by finishing first on Board No.1—it featured the top players from all the competing nations, including the likes of Carlsen and Caruana. Sarin won Board 2, while Erigaisi and Praggnanandhaa won silver and bronze respectively on Board 3.

“Carlsen got an individual bronze on the top board, he didn’t even come to receive that, because he felt insulted that a boy of 15 years had won it," says Thipsay, who was part of the Indian team management. “That’s the time these children realised that they were, for no reason, trying to improve their rating and competing in India, when they could do better than the top players in the world. They realised that the sky is the limit."

The strong show from the Olympiad had a snowball effect, as the Indian teenagers started stacking one great result after the other. At the 2023 FIDE World Cup, four Indians—Gujrathi, Pragg, Gukesh and Erigaisi, made the quarter-finals. Praggnanandhaa defeated then World No.2 Caruana and World No.3 Nakamura during the course of the tournament to reach the final. Though the teenager lost to Carlsen, it helped him seal the Candidates berth and become the first Indian since Anand in 2002 to reach the summit clash. While Gujrathi won the Grand Swiss to qualify for the Candidates, Gukesh was the last of the Indians to do so by winning the Chennai Grand Masters. Ergaisi narrowly missed qualifying for the elite event.

“That’s been special about this generation that there’s been rivalry, but due to that rivalry, we see a big number of them aiming for the top and getting there," says Sachdev. “It’s very clear that the biggest names are now coming from India, when it comes to this young generation, the new wave of chess players. And a few years on, when we look back, I think this Candidates will be remembered as a huge milestone."

Neither of the Indians were the favourite to win the Candidates. Gukesh started out as only the second youngest, after Fischer, to make the Candidates cut and wasn’t given much of a chance by pundits. “It’s usually a staple of some of the greatest players ever... they obviously show promise at an early age, but then they succeed at the highest level a little bit before people generally expect that," Carlsen said of Gukesh on podcast Chess Chat.

In Toronto, the debutants turned daredevils. Be it Gujrathi’s more aggressive approach, Praggnanandhaa’s time blitz or Gukesh’s creativity. In the women’s section, Vaishali recovered from four straight defeats and stormed to fourth position by winning the last five rounds. Gukesh was the only one who was crowned the winner, but Candidates 2024 was India’s breakout event.

Kasparov observed after the tournament, “The Indian earthquake in Toronto is the culmination of the shifting tectonic plates in the chess world...The ‘children’ of Vishy Anand are on the loose!"

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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