Former world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik had a pertinent query when the idea of training six young Indian Grandmasters was first broached to him: "Will I be able to pronounce their names?"
It was just days after he'd announced his retirement from competitive chess following the final round of Wijk Aan Zee in January this year. Close friend and ChessBase co-founder Frederic Friedel proposed Kramnik play against one of the Indian teen GMs on the chess server PlayChess if he wanted to test their strength. In characteristic dead-pan humor, Kramnik, classical world champion between 2000-2006, offered, "I hate losing in blitz." Of course he promptly agreed to the suggestion of training the kids over a 10-day camp.
Starting August 15, six Indian players - R Praggnanandhaa, D Gukesh, P Iniyan, Prithu Gupta, Raunak Sadhwani and Leon Mendonca, accompanied by ChessBase India members IM Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal have been lodged in an apartment in Chens-Sur-Leman in south eastern France, roughly 20kms away from Kramnik's home in Geneva.
In itself, the idea of the camp is interesting.
In July this year, at 15 years, 4 months and 10 days Prithu became India's 64th GM, 32 years after Viswanathan Anand turned its first GM. Of the total number, nine GMs fall between the ages of 10-19, all of them achieving the distinction post 2017. While chess is getting younger in India, five-time world champion Anand, pushing into his 50th year, continues to be the country's most successful player by a distance. This project of offering a small brood of teen Grandmasters the opportunity to spend time with, learn and throw questions at the Russian great is an attempt at bridging that gap and leading them on in their dream of fighting for a world title one day. In this quest, they've found a willing sponsor in Indian IT firm Microsense who're funding all expenses of the team including travel and stay.
"Players of the calibre of Anand are very rare in general," Kramnik, 44, tells ESPN, "Few can manage to be like him in the whole world, let alone in the country. Yes, India has a fairly large number of GMs but it's quite a recent development. They need time to break into the higher reaches. What's exciting about working with these kids is that I see a definite potential in them to become top players...Maybe the next Anand."
With a rest day thrown in between, Kramnik pays the Indian prodigies a visit for six-hour sessions over nine days - getting to know each of them personally, cherrypicking ideas from Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual while the teens pore over queen and rook endgames, looking beyond moves alone and helping them understand the concept behind positions, throwing them mate in two puzzles, and even preparing specific lectures for the camp. In his lessons, the Russian Grandmaster often extrapolates lessons from his past games as reference.
"We learn the most from our aches," says Kramnik, "The 2008 World Championship loss to Vishy was one of my greatest lessons. It is such instances which I've worked through and that have helped me grow as a player. Without my defeat to (Alexei) Shirov in 1998, for example, I may not have won against (Garry) Kasparov two years later. The idea is to pass my learnings on to these players. Of course they have to go through their own experiences, reflect on them and build their personality to become a top player."
A product of the Botvnnik-Kasparov school himself, Kramnik has worked with young talented chess minds in Russia in the past and feels this generation of Indian kids is the strongest in the world right now. "What is both important and inspirational for me is that I can see that these young Indian talents really love chess. It makes you feel you're doing something so meaningful. These kids have a gift for the sport and I'd love to have more sessions with them in the future and see them hit the next rung," he says, "I came through a system myself and it's my moral duty to give back to the community. What better way than working with a bunch of chess-crazy kids."