For such a highly literate state, Kerala has a checkered history in chess
Some called it the Cold War of Chess. Others hailed it as the match of the 20th century. The 1972 World Chess Championship match between challenger Bobby Fischer and defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in Reykjavik, Iceland transcended the game of chess in a way that reverberated thousands of miles from the Nordic capital city. Kerala.
In India, the game was brought under the All India Chess Federation (AICF) in 1951 and less than six years later, the State Chess Championship was being held in Kottayam, Kerala where Thomas Mathew became the champion for the first time. Six-time champion KC Sebastian and four-time champion SH Thangal dominated state chess in the 1960s, but interest did not take off until the Fischer-Spassky battle in 1972.
What that World Championship did for chess in Kerala, the 1983 World Cup victory did for Indian cricket a decade later. People began to adopt a faster and more engaging version of the game played by Fischer, Spassky and Karpov. Chess came home in a new shape and many clubs started forming across the state,” said P Venugopal, former secretary of Chess Association Kerala.
Two months before that epic battle, a young NR Anilkumar was introduced to the game and became the first national star to emerge from Kerala. He was the first player from the state to qualify for the National A Chess Championship in 1981 and the first player to qualify for the Indian team representing India at the 25th Chess Olympiad in Switzerland in 1982.
“Today’s chess is getting faster. When I started, a game would last eight hours. Now it is normally a four-hour affair and the plan is to make it an hour to attract more viewers,” said MB Muralidharan, former state champion, who runs the MBM Chess Academy in Kochi.
Chess has not only grown fast but has become young all over the world and in Kerala as well. “Most of the players I faced in my early days were in their 40s or 50s. But these days, they are world champions before they turn 14 or 15,” Muralidharan said.
Umar Koya, the chess administrator of Kozhikode, also contributed to the growth of the game here. Koya headed the state chess association and became vice-president of FIDE, the World Chess Federation, between 1996 and 2006. During his tenure, Kerala hosted three World Junior Championships in Kozhikode in 1993 and 1998 and Kochi in 2004. Kerala now has three Grandmasters – Muvattupuzha-born GN Gopal became Kerala’s first and India’s 16th GM in 2007, followed by Thiruvananthapuram native SL Narayanan who won the title in 2015 at the age of 17 and Nihal Sarin, who joined the elite club at the age of 17. 14 in 2018 – 12th youngest GM in the world at the time. K Ratnakaran, meanwhile, is the only international master from Kerala.
The rise of Viswanathan Anand did not dent the popularity of the game in Kerala either. Today the game has moved from neighborhood chess clubs to private schools and the Internet. Muralidharan said, “It improves concentration, thinking and problem-solving skills and in turn helps academics.
“Chess was the only game that evolved during the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Anil Kumar, who now teaches players online. Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur and Kozhikode remain chess hotspots. But many expect those geo-restrictions to lift in the near future now that the game has gone online and most academies are offering training over the internet. There is also a campaign by ex-players to make the sport a part of the curriculum in government schools which will help further enrollment.
However, the heights of chess are still beyond the reach of the common man – a young Yuzvendra Chahal, who represented India in the World Youth Championship, had to quit the game due to financial struggles, only to become the best leg-spinner. in cricket. “Playing the game casually or even at the state level is manageable. But going to the national and international circuit requires coaching and investment which many parents in the state choose not to do,” said Anilkumar.
“We are seeing players leaving the game after a certain age,” said Sunilduth, father of GM Narayanan, who quit his job as a government contractor to pursue his son’s career. “Lack of GMs and IMs to train young players, I think, is a big hurdle, along with finances,” he said.
With youngsters like Jubin Jimmy (Kollam), Gautham Krishna (Thiruvananthapuram) and John Veni (Kozhikode) following in the footsteps of Narayanan and Nihal, the future of chess in Kerala looks bright. But more initiatives are needed from state governments and private players to support them and produce more international stars consistently.
Rising stars of Kerala chess
24-year-old SL Narayanan and 18-year-old Nihal Sarin – two Malayalis – will represent the country together for the first time in the Chess Olympiad to be held in Mahabalipuram from July 28 to August 10. While Narayanan, is at number six. The country will form the first team with Harikrishna, Arjun Erigaisi and K Sasikiran, with seventh-ranked Nihal D Gukesh, B Adhiban and R Pragyananda in the second team. “The US is the favorite with all four of their players in the world’s top 20. But we will also look for our opportunities,” said Narayanan, who played for the Portuguese club to prepare for the tournament. “Anand taught us about psychological factors in the Olympiad camp,” said Portugal’s Narayanan.
Marotichal, the chess village
Chess may gain popularity in Kerala, but nowhere is it as popular as it is in Marotichal, a small village 20 km from Thrissur. It is called the chess village of India and for a reason – almost 90% of the population here knows chess and plays it every day. It was restaurant owner C Unnikrishnan, who introduced the sport to a village plagued by prohibition and gambling about 20 years ago. “Most of the 6,000-plus population here have migrated from other places due to economic conflict. So, it was only natural that they soon turned to alcoholism and gambling. That’s when we decided to turn to chess to engage people and bring them together as a community,” said Unnikrishnan.
The views expressed above are the author’s own.
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