Grand snub: Arjuna awards leave India's chess kings without a crown

Vidit Gujrathi

The National Sports Awards were handed out today - virtually, due to the pandemic. The awards recognize "outstanding achievements in the field of sports at international level." This year 27 athletes have received the Arjuna award - a remarkably high number in a year without the marquee multinational events like the Olympic Games. But, for the seventh year in a row, there will be no winner from the chess community.

No room for Vidit Gujrathi - world No 24, youngest Indian to cross Elo 2700. Or Adhiban Baskaran - world No 83, individual gold medalist at the 2019 World Team Championship. Or Padmini Rout - 2018 Asian Championship gold and 2018 world chess Olympiad gold medalist. Or SP Sethuraman - gold medalist at 2016 Asian individual championship and 2016 Asian Nations Cup.

Chess has been among the fastest growing sports in the country over the past decade. India currently stands among the top five nations in the world in its count of titled players. India now has 66 GMs, with 4 in the top 100. And 21 of those 66 were titled in just the last three years, 8 of them between the ages of 10 and 19.

"It's a bit embarrassing that as an athlete I have to talk about why I'm not getting the Arjuna," Gujrathi tells ESPN. "To be left out every year is disappointing really. Chess deserves its due." Counting this year, Gujrathi has applied for the award three times in a row and Adhiban on four occasions now without success.

Much of why chess has turned into a castaway in the ecosystem of state awards has to do with the manner in which these honors are decided upon and doled out.

The eligibility criteria says the government "will only consider conferring the Arjuna Award in the disciplines falling under Olympic Games/Commonwealth Games/Asian Games/World Cup/World Championship disciplines and cricket or any equivalent recognized international tournament". In 2014, the Indian men's team, which included Adhiban and Sethuraman, returned with a historic bronze, the first time ever for the country, from the Olympiad in Tromso. It was a competition involving 175 countries and the Indian team was without their strongest player, Viswanathan Anand. Yet, that distinction passed by unrewarded.

It is understood that this time, both Gujrathi and Adhiban's names were discussed for the Arjuna until the third round (of five) of scrutiny by the selection committee, before they fell off the grid.

Chess's exclusion from the annual awards looks even more mystifying this year, when 27 athletes across disciplines have been honoured -- even though the mandate is only for 15 Arjuna awards every year.

There is now a conversation about parity in dealing with Olympic and non-Olympic disciplines. "Chess has a huge number of competing countries at international events and it's a sport we've been growing in and delivering consistent results," a former Committee member told ESPN. "It is unfortunate that it is being left out every year from the awards."

In July this year, senior national coach RB Ramesh had taken to Twitter after resigning as chief selector and called out the indifferent treatment meted out to the sport and its stakeholders in the matter of awards and recognition. Ramesh, who coached the national team to world youth, Asian youth, Commonwealth Championship and the 2014 historic Olympiad medal, applied for the Dronacharya award twice - in 2015 and 2016. He wasn't picked on either occasion for the honor. The Dronacharya award has only been given to two chess coaches - Raghunandan Gokhale (1986) and Ashok Koneru (1996), so far.

Between 2010-2020, Tamil Nadu has produced 16 Grandmasters, roughly half the number coached by Ramesh. Curious after being ignored for the award in 2015, Ramesh filed an RTI to probe the possible reasons. "The reply I received said I had received zero points in the assessment. I was shocked," says Ramesh. "What is my redressal forum? I can crib on social media like a loser. I wanted to take this fight further but I realized I don't want to lose my mental peace. I've taken a decision to not beg for an award anymore. Either I'm recognized for my contribution or I'm not. But I hope at least our players aren't disregarded further. The criteria has to be clear. For non-Olympic sport like ours, a medal at what international event counts as worthy for the honor? Our players have won almost all of them."

Much like Ramesh, Sethuraman too sought a response through RTI after being left out of the awards in 2016. "I didn't even receive a reply," he says, "Including this time, I've been applying for four years now. My parents handle the painstaking paperwork entirely. It was disheartening and affected me for a while. Now I try to just tell myself I'm hoping that chess returning to the Asian Games in 2022 will perhaps change a few things." Chess, which was part of the Asian Games program at the 2006 edition in Doha and 2010 in Guangzhou, has been reinstated for 2022 Hangzhou Games. Chess won India two gold medals in 2006 and two bronze medals in 2010.

Adhiban was part of the men's team that medaled in the latter. "I sometimes think 'Ok maybe I haven't got it because something is missing from my CV' but then I realize I actually have won medals at almost every major event -Commonwealth championship, Asian Games, Asian seniors, world team and Olympiad. I know the award will probably come my way someday but for the current group of really young players it's not very encouraging news. They need to believe that the sport holds value in the way it's looked upon in the country."