Chennai, India's chess capital, welcomes the world (and Carlsen)

Chennai's iconic Napier Bridge has undergone a makeover ahead of the 44th Chess Olympiad from July 28 to August 10 ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

For a city that's known to fall asleep early, Chennai is wide awake at 11:30 pm on Wednesday. Around 300 people, some with toddlers clinging onto them, gather to celebrate the vibes on the iconic Napier Bridge.

The bridge - more than 150 years old - was recently painted in a black and white chequered pattern and is the city's newest selfie spot. "Those who have taken their selfies, please move along and do not crowd the bridge," says a policeman from his patrol vehicle, but no one's listening. Thursday's been declared a public holiday and the crowds keep flocking.

The buzz is all about the 44th Chess Olympiad, which Chennai - rather, its neighbouring seaside town of Mahabalipuram - is hosting. It's India's first Olympiad - the equivalent of a FIFA World Cup in chess, if you may - and the city has shed its staid, conservative image for festivity.

"It's like Brazil hosting the football World Cup. It just feels right."

Apart from the prestige, the Olympiad is huge in terms of its scale: around 2000 players from 188 countries. The who's who of world chess - Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Mariya Muzychuk - are all gathered in Mahabalipuram.

Chennai is India's undisputed chess capital - Tamil Nadu is home to 26 of the 74 Indian Grandmasters - so the branding for the event is everywhere. Thambi, the mascot, finds himself plastered all across the city and has been the subject of many memes. He does, after all, look like an Indianised version of Netflix's BoJack Horseman in a veshti-sattai (dhoti and shirt).

Almost every bus stand, traffic signal, metro pillar, and even your milk packet is a reminder that an Olympiad is happening here. Buses have been painted black and white and metro coaches have become ad-hoc advertisement hoardings.

As Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay, who has played seven Olympiads between 1982 and 2002, puts it: "It's like Brazil hosting the football World Cup. It just feels right."

The tone was set by the city's biggest names: Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister MK Stalin and local music legend AR Rahman starred in a promo video last week, walking along Napier Bridge. They are dressed in white and surrounded by dancers in black, again mimicking chessboard colours.

"This is what we came to see, kanna (dear)," a mother tells her young daughter. "The bridge looks just like a chessboard, no? You can go tell all your friends tomorrow." She proceeds to explain the chess pieces to her, but her daughter's gaze is fixed on the neon lights that drape the bridge.

The hype (or was it FOMO) brought Taj, a woman in her 40s, back to the spot after 30 years. "I haven't been here since I was 10 years old. I feel like a child today," she says, bubbling with energy. Flanked by her husband and teenage son, the family took out their new car for a spin and Napier Bridge was their first stop.

"I played in a chess tournament in school today that was held to promote the Olympiad. I didn't get past the first round..." says her son Hasim, a grade 12 student, with a sheepish grin.

The last time Chennai hosted a big-ticket chess event was in 2013, when local chess hero Viswanathan Anand took on current world champion Magnus Carlsen in the World Chess Championship. That inspired a whole new generation to take up the sport and the Olympiad aims to build on that.

The 2022 Olympiad was initially to be held in Russia but that changed with the invasion of Ukraine. That led FIDE, which is largely Russia-backed and led by Arkady Dvorkovich - a former deputy Prime Minister of Russia - to look for an alternate host.

This information was not public knowledge when, on February 25, Bharat Singh Chauhan, secretary of the All India Chess Federation, sent out a chance message to Dvorkovich, asking him if India could host a top-level chess event soon. Back came the reply - How about the Olympiad?

The states of Delhi and Tamil Nadu had expressed immediate interest in hosting the event and Chauhan flew down to Chennai the very next day to meet Stalin and obtained an undertaking from the State government that evening. Stalin pledged Rs 92 crores ($11,530,378) for the event; within 24 hours, Chauhan had found a host and India got the official hosting rights ten days later.

Chennai's affair with chess

"When Anand became the first Indian Grandmaster, it inspired a whole generation of Chennai players to come to chess. And with each of his five World Championship triumphs, a new group took to the game each time."

Chennai's love affair with chess dates back several centuries and, while there's no one explanation why, the clearest correlation seems to be the Tamil people's proficiency in math, science and the arts. Though Anand burst on the scene in the late 1980s, the wheels of the chess revolution were set in motion much earlier.

Among the greatest pioneers was Manuel Aaron, who became India's first International Master - the highest achievement for a chess player at that time - in 1961. He was Asia's top-ranked player and won the national title a whopping nine times, which included five back-to-back wins.

Having achieved it all in chess, Aaron began giving back. He formed the Tal Chess club, named after his chess hero the Soviet player Mikail Tal, at the Soviet Cultural Centre in Chennai in 1972.

He ran the chess club on a voluntary basis and was rewarded with donations from Moscow - freshly-minted chess books, chess sets and clocks, invaluable in those days of high import duties and obviously before the advent of the internet.

Aaron, 87, is still active, publishing his own magazine Chess Mate. In fact when this reporter sought time with him to talk about the Olympiad, Aaron's response was: "Call me at 11 pm tonight." Did he mean 11 am? "No, I meant 11 pm. I may be an old man but I sleep at 2-3 am. I'm a journalist, I have to write for my magazine and I coach children, so that takes preparation."

Among the many players Aaron coached at the Tal club was a particularly curious nine-year-old boy who would ask questions well beyond his age. That boy was Viswanathan Anand. "He was a nuisance, but in a good way," says Aaron.

Anand picked up the baton from Aaron and ran with it; his career took off at a furious pace and he would become India's first Grandmaster in 1988. One of Aaron's ambitions, when he set up the Tal chess club, was to produce a World Champion in 15 years. In hindsight, he admits it was a "bit too far-fetched" but as fate would have it, Anand became the World Junior champion in 1987.

RB Ramesh, one of Tamil Nadu's 26 Grandmasters, largely attributes Chennai's love affair with chess to Anand's success. "When Anand became the first Indian Grandmaster, it inspired a whole generation of Chennai players to come to chess," Ramesh told ESPN. "And with each of his five World Championship triumphs, a new group took to the game each time."

The numbers seem to support his theory: Since Anand's arrival, the state has produced 26 more men's Grandmasters and seven Women's Grandmasters, along with 10,000+ registered players.

There's no sign of it waning. Last month, there were more participants and parents [who doubled up as attendees] at an intra-district age-group chess tournament in Chennai than there were at the Inter-State Senior Athletics Championships, happening simultaneously a few yards away at the Nehru Stadium. The winners of the chess event would get free tickets to watch the Olympiad, while the athletes running on the track were fighting for their spot in India's Commonwealth Games roster (coincidentally starting on the same day as the Olympiad).

In fact the 150 winners of the chess tournament were flown on a "joyride" from Chennai to Bangalore and back on Wednesday as a special gift from chief minister Stalin.

What the Olympiad could do for Indian chess

It's fair to say Indian chess has been on an upswing since Anand's arrival; there have been 73 Grandmasters and 21 Women's Grandmasters since Anand achieved the title in 1988.

"How the world sees China in manufacturing, they're seeing India in a similar light with respect to chess because we're producing so many talents. Others are at a loss as to how we're doing it," says Ramesh, who is now the head coach for the India A team at the Olympiad.

India has the liberty of fielding, not one, not two [as host nation], but three teams in both the men's and women's fields owing to an odd number of entries. In action will be India's top-ranked men's player P. Harikrishna, occasional Carlsen-beater R. Praggnanandhaa and India's most accomplished women's chess star and top-seed Koneru Humpy. The women's A team also features Harika Dronavalli, who is eight months pregnant.

Thipsay, head of the Indian delegation, feels the timing of the Olympiad's arrival in India is ideal. "I've played seven Olympiads and Bhagyashree [Thipsay, his wife] has played nine; we've seen that most Olympiads have been mainly European-dominated and it was very difficult to motivate Indians. But this time around we're the top seeds in the women's section and the second seeds in the men's section. I think the timing is very important because we're conducting it when we're most likely to win. I believe that one gold and one silver is the minimum expectation we should have."

What this event could also do is thrust Indian chess players further into the limelight. As Ramesh notes, Praggnanandhaa - who in 2016 became the youngest ever Grandmaster at 10 years, 10 months, and 19 days - has become a household name now. "He's extremely well-known, even among the common public. They recognise him when he's on the street, at the airport or even in the neighbourhood shop and ask for pictures. He has become popular, which is not a very likely event in a sport like chess. A chess player becoming a public figure is a good thing. It's also good for the game because it means more people are noticing chess, earlier it was just cricket. We're already seeing many youngsters taking to chess with Praggnanandhaa as a role model."

"Chennai is the hottest hub of Chess in the world now. So just to be there and be a part of the chess celebration is a reason in itself."

Thipsay makes a similar point, hoping that the Olympiad could open the doors for a broader chess base in the country. "I saw Garry Kasparov beat Anatoly Karpov in the World Championship final in 1985. Afterwards, Kasparov was asked how he was so good at the age of 22 and he said. 'In a country where 4.5 million play chess tournaments, it is natural that one of them will emerge champion and I just happen to be one.' That growth took place because of a broadened base. As of today, the base is not very big in India. Whoever has made it here is because of the individual efforts of their parents, trainers, sponsors, etc."

The Olympiad is here, but will people go?

The scene is well-set for India to win its first over-the-board Olympiad title [the team won gold in 2020 but it was an online tournament], but will people actually turn up at the venue? The Four Points by Sheraton in Mahabalipuram, which will host the tournament, is a good 60kms from downtown Chennai.

Public transportation along the East Coast Road connecting the two is easily available, but that's perhaps only for the onward journey. The day's events begin at 3 pm and are scheduled to end around 10 pm, at which point the travel back to the city could be a real hassle. You have to wonder how feasible it is to travel 100+kms every day, especially considering the ever-increasing cost of fuel.

The ticket prices aren't too friendly either. There is a price bracket of Rs 300 for students below the age of 19, women and Tamil Nadu government staff. However, the same tickets cost Rs. 2000 for Indian males and Rs. 6000 for foreigners. These are daily tickets.

As Aaron notes, "The pricing point seems to be a bit of an issue. While tickets are cheap for women and children, they would not prefer to go all the way to Mahabalipuram without a male companion. Which, in turn, would make it a costly affair for the common person."

The Olympiad will be streamed live online and it would be of little surprise if most folks stick to watching the games on their phones. Or will they make the scenic trip to Mahabalipuram to witness history?

Maybe they'll follow Magnus Carlsen's lead. "Apart from revisiting Chennai, my other interest to visit Tamil Nadu is in terms of visiting a place from where the best chess players in the world come from", he told the Chess Olympiad's website. "Tamil Nadu or say Chennai is the hottest hub of Chess in the world now. So just to be there and be a part of the chess celebration is a reason in itself."