Catalytic force behind Chennai's chess revolution

Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa
Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa are products of Velammal school. File photos: IANS

Chennai: Even a stroll around the city will help visitors collect crumbs of Chennai's flourishing romance with chess -- Napier Bridge decked up as a chess board, murals on the walls of many buildings or advertisements of coaching centres.

But Velammal Institutions is the catalytic force behind this chess revolution in the city. It is the nursery where Grandmasters D Gukesh, who on Monday won the Candidates to become the youngest-ever challenger for world title, and R Praggnanandhaa learned the intricacies of the sport.

"Chess has always been a part of the city's culture and the decision to make chess a part of the curriculum has really helped it to boom. Of course, they also have a champion like (Viswanathan) Anand to look up to," S Velavan, the chess co-coordinator at Velammal, said.

"Since most of the children coming here have a genuine interest in chess, we don't have to push them. They combine studies and chess well, and, in fact, the students who play chess have done even better in their studies too," Velavan added.

What he refers to here is the '7 to 17 programme' introduced in schools by former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa in 2013, coinciding with that year's World Chess Championship between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen held in the city.

Representational image
Representational image. IANS

Their dedicated approach has produced matching results too as Velammal Institutions won the World School Chess Championship for five successive years and both Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa too were part of their squad in 2021.

It's not surprising then to see that several Grandmasters have come out of this school since 2005. S P Sethuraman, Leon Mendonca, K Priyadharshan, B Adhiban, Vishnu Prasanna, Visakh N R, Vignesh NR, M Karthikeyan, C Aravindh, Karthik Venkataraman, V Pranav, S Bharath, Arjun Kalyan, P Karthikeyan, N Srinath as well as women GMs ]Varshini S, daughter of Velavan, Vaishali R, sister of Praggnanandhaa, R Rakshitta and B Savitha Shri are products of the institution.

"What we do here is to ensure that the children play regularly in tournaments so that they don't break away from the sport for a longer duration. It will not be good for their growth (as players) and they need to play at all junior levels like Under-11, Under-15 or Under-17," Velavan said.

"It keeps them mentally prepared for tougher competitions in their way and they will not be in awe of their opponents or a competitive atmosphere," he notes.

But the challenge for them is just beginning as more children are trying to enroll into the school to make a career out of chess.

Velavan said the Velammal Institutions are trying to bring in more coaches from outside to cater to the needs of a larger pool of players, and arrange more modern facilities and chess literature available for the aspirants.

Chennai's surge as the chess capital of the country has not one bit amazed the fraternity, and All India Chess Federation vice-president D P Anantha traces the journey back to the 1970s.

"Along with Bengaluru, Chennai (then Madras) had the most privately owned chess institutions in the country. I still remember how the Tal Chess Club in Chennai used to conduct annual events and some big names like Manuel Aaron used to play in them.

"It was prestigious to win the event because even some local players used to upset fancied players. They have kept that tradition very diligently, says Anantha.

The Tal club, which was started with the backing of the erstwhile Soviet Union, now no longer operates but institutions such as Velammal have ensured that the city will not go through a chess degrowth.

Currently, more than 60 recognised chess academies run in Chennai, including the Chess Gurukul by GM R B Ramesh, who mentors Praggnanandhaa.

"It is a big task to keep the strong tradition (in chess) going. But we are excited to see a lot of new players emerging from our ranks as Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa have started a new wave," says Velavan. 

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