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Madras and Chess

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Madras is a city which has its own personal history with the game of chess; one that is rather peculiar, if I may say so. Why is it that the state of Tamil Nadu takes the game of chess a little more seriously than other states? How come the highest number of Grandmasters are from Chennai? What is so special about this city and chess?

It all started off with the settlement of a small Russian population in Tamil Nadu, a man called Bobby Fischer and the entire Soviet Union setting up clubs of sorts, that went on to play a significant role in the story of Indian chess. Preceding the establishment of this club, there really was no chess culture within the city; like many other states in India, most young Indians were gripped and hooked on to a fancier, more crowd-friendly sport, cricket. But Madras persevered. Individuals who enjoyed games of chess would gather in people’s houses, and just sit on balconies and verandahs and play. In today’s day and age, young people meet around to play video games; back then, it was chess which kept them occupied. It wasn’t a formal setting at all, with no chairs, and no membership required. A Solar Chess Club was set up in Mylapore for chess enthusiasts in the city. (Magotra, 2022)

This tradition of meeting up often to play chess caught on in Madras, and soon, all those who played and practised often were easily some of the best chess players in the country. Especially because the USSR went above and beyond to support the passion of these students, by sending over tool kits, chess boards and more teachers to learn from. Since it was an era before the internet, any and all information that was spread was done through word-of-mouth, which translated into a transmission of knowledge among various generations and individuals. Madras almost mirrored a mini-Soviet Union in India, in terms of chess. Participating in weekly club tournaments in Madras was Vishwanathan Anand, who went on to completely revolutionize Indian chess and still, continues to be an inspiration for many. (Murali, 2022)

The organization of the 44th Chess Olympiad in Mahabalipuram has been publicised through and through, using every tool possible, all across the country. You’ll see sign boards advertising the matches on your way to work in the metro, on milk packets as you make yourself a cup of coffee in the morning, and all across social media. The government has cleverly used this chess tournament to celebrate Tamil Nadu’s unique history with chess, its importance in contributing to Indian sports and even bringing international attention to the city of Chennai.

Not to change the course of this essay, but bear with me for a second: if you belong to Gen-Z, and have access to a Netflix subscription, chances are, you’ve heard of Bojack Horseman. Bojack is a brown horse and the lead of a dark TV show that deals with deep societal, mental and social issues. Now, given that context, I’m sure you figured how confused I was when my friends kept telling me there were statues of this horse around the city. In utter disbelief, after finally getting the chance to pass through one of these horses on a drive to the beach, I Googled ‘brown horse Chennai.’ and the results made a lot of sense.

Turns out, this brown horse isn’t Bojack, it’s Thambi! A veshti-wearing horse-faced mascot that has taken over the city, whether it’s the airport, the Marina beach, or even the sides of government buildings. News reports describe him as both friendly and tough. And in a world of black-and-white chess pieces, Thambi is brown. While inaugurating the Chess Olympiad Thursday, Stalin said they had chosen to name the mascot ‘Thambi’ to honour C.N. Annadurai, a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and founder of the DMK “We designed the mascot in traditional Tamil attire saying vanakkam. We named him ‘Thambi’. The name is a symbol of brotherhood, and it indicates we all belong to one fraternity,” Stalin had said. “C.N. Annadurai used to fondly call everyone ‘Thambi’. The mascot’s name is in honour of that endearing gesture,” he said. (Ashok, 2022)

While reading about the history of chess in Madras, I couldn’t help but notice that while the sport itself is extremely passionate and intense, most players themselves tend to radiate a friendly, warm essence. And since, like any other tradition, chess is generational, one can’t help but notice just how much each generation has to learn from the other. In an interview, Viswanathan Anand said, “So you know, if you interact with someone, they tell a story, you share experiences, these things are valuable. It isn’t entirely altruistic either. I think a lot of the older players would benefit from interacting with new ways of thinking, what the younger players are doing today, but every generation brings a fresh perspective. And I must say, most of these players do that. So you know, each generation interacts with the generation before them. Lessons to be shared, stories to be told... these things are valuable.” (Magotra, 2019)

It most certainly is a comforting thought that older generations of chess players are willing to listen to, learn from and grow using the insights of newer players in the field. This philosophy says a lot about the culture of chess in Chennai because although competitive, its roots lie in genuine love for the sport and community and that is what makes Madras and chess such a fitting combination.

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