‘Future of chess is in India’: At Candidates 2024, India ready to flex muscle on chess board


Candidates Chess 2024: Over the weekend five Indian chess players travelled to Toronto to participate in the prestigious Candidates chess tournament. The record number of participants from India, including two teenage prodigies, is a sign of the progress by the next generation of grandmasters aiming to fill the big shoes of five-time former World Champion Viswanathan Anand.

The winner of the three-week-long Candidates, which former world champions say is as tough as the actual world championship itself, will earn the right to challenge the current World Champions — China’s Ding Liren and Ju Wenjun, also from China.

While 18-year-old Praggnanandhaa, 17-year-old Gukesh D and 29-year-old Vidit Santosh Gujrathi will be flying the Indian flag in the eight-man Open event at the Candidates, 22-year old R Vaishali and 36-year-old Koneru Humpy will be in the fray in the women’s event, which will also feature eight contenders.

The Candidates event is a flexing-of-the-muscle for the country. Between 1988 to 2013, India produced 35 grandmasters in 25 years. In just the last decade, India has managed to produce almost 50 GMs. Now five of them have broken through to what is one of the biggest stages of the sport.

“Our chess players have been doing well for the last few decades. It has been getting better and better with each year with players raising the bar for the subsequent generation. It has all been leading up to this point. Suddenly we have a few youngsters who have been racing upwards at a breakneck speed. Right now India is probably the fastest growing nation in the world in chess. Almost everyone in the sport agrees, the future of chess is with India,” says grandmaster RB Ramesh, who coaches Praggnanandhaa.

Festive offer
D Gukesh during the men's Tata Steel Chess India tournament in Kolkata on Monday, September 05, 2023.Express photo. by Partha Paul. D Gukesh during the men’s Tata Steel Chess India tournament in Kolkata in September 2023. (news photo. by Partha Paul.)

Of the five Indians headed to Toronto for the Candidates, only Humpy has experienced the pressure of playing at the event before. Historically, the Candidates tournament is notoriously tricky to win in the first go. A long line of world champions, from Viswanathan Anand to Magnus Carlsen to Bobby Fischer have had to learn their lessons the hard way in their debut Candidates.

Chasing Candidates, Indian GMs wander outside comfort zone

To prepare for what is the toughest test all five Indians have ever faced in their careers, they have wandered outside their comfort zones. For Praggnanandhaa, this meant playing beach volleyball and other sports to boost his aerobic fitness, as it is known that chess players burn thousands of calories every day even if they’re simply sitting still on the board.

For Gukesh, this has meant hiring a team of four or five trainers and seconds to help him prepare (his father Dr Rajinikanth won’t give an exact number because that’s how closely guarded every detail is when it comes to preparing for such events in chess). For Vidit, wandering outside the comfort zone was meant to be a trip to the Niagara Falls because his advisors wanted him to break the shackles of tournament routine.

Praggnanandhaa defeated reigning World Champion Ding Liren in a fourth round clash at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee India’s Praggnanandhaa defeated reigning World Champion Ding Liren in a fourth round clash at the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee. (PHOTO: © Lennart Ootes – Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2024)

“We’ve been preparing for the last few months for this event now. Since January itself. Pragg played a couple of big tournaments, but whenever he was not playing, he was training for the Candidates almost the whole day. He did plenty of cardio work and played sports like beach volleyball for a few weeks in preparation for the Candidates,” said Ramesh, who is Praggnanandhaa’s coach. Ramesh has also been instrumental in the rise of Pragg’s sister Vaishali, having coached the brother-sister duo from a very young age. But with an eye on the Candidates and at Viswanathan Anand’s suggestion, Vaishali started to train under another Indian grandmaster, Sandipan Chanda.
However, cracking the Candidates will be tough for the talented Indians.

Carlsen, who qualified for the event but has declined to compete, recently said on a Norwegian podcast Sjakksnakk (chess chat) that if any of the three Indians won the open Candidates event, “it would be a shock”.

Carlsen went on to add: “The Candidates is psychologically, for me, almost as tough as the world championship, for sure.”

On paper too the Indians will have their task cut out with World Championship runner up Ian Nepomniachtchi, World no.2 Fabiano Caruana, World no.3 Hikaru Nakamura and the promising Alireza Firouzja, the Iranian 20-year-old who now plays for France in the fray. In the women’s section China’s World Championship runner up Lei Tingjie leads the charge.

The format of the event means that each player takes on the other seven players twice over the course of 20 intensely-grueling days. The Candidates tournament will test players in ways they’re not accustomed to. Since only finishing first matters at the event, every game will count. It has already thrown up challenges in the path of players: a visa delay from the host country Canada meant that players had to alter their plans to travel to the country in advance.

Gukesh’s father Rajinikanth told The Indian news that the visa issue meant that they had to return to India and wait for their passport to get stamped by the embassy.

The players and members of their inner circle, though, are aware that such issues are tiny potholes in the road as they race each other to be anointed as Viswanathan Anand’s successor.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *