Sunday, September 9, 2012

A wake-up call for chess in India

The chess Olympiad has just concluded and if there was a better wake-up call for chess in India, I am not aware of any. Much like Indian tennis, cricket, football and hockey today, we are at a cross-roads in terms of climbing out of the rut established by presumptions imposed by past performances that seemed to suggest a long period of stability and consistently great performances even as the ranks get re-filled with greenhorns.

The Open category of the Olympiad saw a 13th seeded Indian team finish 35th, way way down than what the paper shows about the talent in the team. On the top board, Krishnan Sasikiran seems to have caught an Anand bug and drew many games with an occasional one-off loss to throw away the last two years of ELO rating climb. Notwithstanding the fact that the top board is a misery for many as it pits them against players in the same ball-park or worser with a higher chance of losing points in case of draws (in fact, players tend to lose points even if they win as the ELO system is skewed against the top-rated players), unlike the lower boards, Sasikiran had a tournament to forget. The performance of others except Abhijeet Gupta (Abhijeet gained 13 ELO points) was no different.

It is surprising that Sasikiran was persisted at the top board through his string of draws and losses, when a different strategy of giving him a break and a vertical shift fall-back option that would have brought in G. N. Gopal could have helped. In fact, a simple one game shift might have worked wonders as I now explain. At the beginning of the fourth round, I would have expected a break for Abhijeet following a round-robin break system, instead one saw a break for Gopal; but that is explainable as India played strong teams in the US, England and Israel in rounds 4-6 and putting Gopal in the mix would have been suicidal. But common-sense would have dictated that Gopal would have been in the fourth board against Argentina, Serbia and Georgia, he stood aside in the match against Argentina. Sasi neatly pulled a time-pressure loss against the Serbian top board in the 8th round and while one can post-facto claim "I said so!", it is also common-sense that even a one game break can help in stressful events such as the Olympiads.

On the women's front, while all things look rosy as the 6th seeded Indian team ended up fourth, this clouds the fact that Eesha Karavade and Mary Ann Gomes pulled off massive ELO rating losses while Tania, Harika and Soumya more than compensated for their losses. On more than one occasion, Eesha's failure at the second board was compensated by Tania saving the team with a fine win. The only times when Tania failed, India lost to the strong Chinese and Russian teams (both shared the top spot). While the women need to be appreciated for their strong performance, one would also tend to look at their performance from a global perspective rather than an one-off showing at the Olympiad. In the same vein, the fact that the Indian team finished behind China, Viet Nam, Phillipines and even Bangladesh (in Asia) has not got to be exaggerated. Olympiads are a different kettle of fish than regular Category 18+ events, and essentially who dares wins. There is nothing to be carried away as a universal lesson for everyone and some of the top teams have pulled on through bad Olympiads.

Nevertheless, one has to look at things in perspective before jumping up or down. India claims to be the home to 27 GMs and 76 FIDE Masters, however this fact hides more about Indian chess than it reveals. In the frenzy over Anand's rise as the World Champion, it is remarkable that the carcass left behind in his wake has been unnoticed. While it has always been true that chess is a youngistan sport, dramatic improvement in learning technology (like the rise of the Cray X-MP, Fritz, and their clones) has only shortened the life-span of top-quality chess players and left the oldistan dream about the game at an amateur level than get into the vagaries of time-trouble and opening/end-game preparation. The fact that two of the oldest of the oldies -- Anand and Gelfand -- kicked each other in the teeth repeatedly for the ultimate prize makes it not mere an anachronism, but also tells us tales about what separates Anand and Gelfand from the rest, and how they cannot be held as beacons to understand the performance of mere mortals. Anand and Gelfand along with Ivanchuk and Kramnik would bag the joint prize for the chess equivalent of the marathon, but we only have the Oscar to honor these great men.

In terms of a chess player's "rise", there is often a steady rise in the junior-youngistan period (think Anand pre-87 Junior World Cup win) followed by an even bigger rise as the players get aware of complicated strategies and generally get better at their game (87-90 of Anand). This is often the period where the two GM norms (interspersed with some near-misses) and the magical 2500 ELO rating are achieved. This is followed by a phase where growth is more personal rather than institutionalized. At this stage, how far one can climb is left to how hard a person trains, how much new stuff he/she can digest and imbibe, how one treats setbacks in terms of the inevitable ELO rating downslide (and even a dramatic fall after one disaster of an outing), how one treats health issues and in general, whether one becomes a chess couch potato or a well-groomed individual^1 with a life away from the 64 squares.

As a not-so-typical example, Anand climbed in terms of ELO ratings from 1991-97, won two Chess Oscars and then went downhill following the match-up against Karpov, stayed put in the lower rungs till 2002-03, and then climbed again from 2003-08 winning four more Oscars, remained flat till 2010 and started going down after that. This is the period that saw the clamor for the coronation of Magnus Carlsen, even though much of Carlsen's climb had been exaggerated by the ELO rating inflation of the new era. More typically, a significant majority of the GMs grow, plateau, taper out and some even fall down dramatically. While it is inevitable that everyone plateaus and falls fown, the only thing to note is how quickly this eventuality happens.

What is the state of India's 27 GMs today? One can neatly partition these 27 people into three categories. The first club consists of the pre-2000 club: Anand, Barua, Thipsay and Kunte. Of these, of course Anand is the only one^2 left standing tall. The next phase is the 2000-2005 club which consists of Sasikiran, Harikrishna, Koneru Humpy, Surya Sekhar Ganguly, Tejas Bakre and Sandipan Chanda. While the first three are top contenders in the men's and women's section today, the other three have fallen out of growth. In fact, S. S. Ganguly is more famous for being one of Anand's seconds than for his own game. The post-2005 period (and continuing) has seen 17 GMs with four crowned in 2006, one in 2007, two in 2008, two more in 2009, three in 2010, and two each in 2011 and 2012. While this seems to suggest that growth has been steady, a closer look suggests that that is not the case.

Only Abhijeet Gupta and Magesh Chandran's ELO ratings are still climbing substantially, whereas Parimarjan Negi, B. Adhiban, S. P. Sethuraman, Lalith Babu and Deepan Chakravarthy can be claimed to be in the ball-park of growing give and take the various heartbreaks, near-misses and also-rans. For many such as G. N. Gopal and Dronavilli Harika, the trajectory resembles more of plateau-ing than growing and for the rest, it has come down substantially off the top of their charts to claim any sort of growth. That shows that only half of the 2000-2005 era and 1/3rd of the 17 new GMs are in the process of "growing" even within six to ten years of their arrival on the big stage. The pipeline seems to be leaky with not many new big prospects (except for Vaibhav Suri, Bhakti Kulkarni, Ivana Maria Furtado, etc.) in the lurch.

For a long time, the post-Anand rise phase led to a massive advertisement campaign by the AICF that India is the new powerhouse of chess. The massive rise in the Grandmaster ranks and the geographical spread of the new Grandmasters away from traditional bastions such as TN and WB to new centers such as Pune, Bangalore, Kochi, Baroda, Goa, Delhi, etc., also ensured that this advertisement seemed credible and the rise seemed plausible. But then every effort at advertising has to be matched by a grassroots-based reachout program that is commensurate with the claims made. Further, one has to realize that even as we stand, others (including other Asian teams such as Phillipines, Viet Nam, China as well as Eastern European teams and the US) move on and it is not India's growing middle-class population alone that will sustain a growing chess base. What will sustain it are: general chess education efforts and outreach that chess is indeed a game i) worthy of professional pursuit and ii) worthy of state support (hint hint at TN and Gujarat), iii) a proportionate increase in industry-sponsored chess events at the Category 15-21+ levels, iv) sponsorship money that will allow players to fly around to chess centers to gain ELO points and thus close a circle and productive pipeline of Grassroots --> FIDE Master --> (WIM) --> IM --> (WGM) --> GM --> Super GM --> World Championship contender potential --> World Champion --> Give back to the game at the grassroots level in India and the world.

Much of the onus for this lies with the AICF as Anand has done his fair bit for the prosperity of the game in India. It is time that D. V. Sundar & co. put behind the mess caused by the fractious l'affaire-Koneru Ashok and bring in various age-group events on an aggressive scale. Apart from the age-group events, we need a system that will allow people to fight past their potential and look at a peer club that is competitive and helpful. At the end of the day, we all have have to have paychecks to sustain life and this is not going to change if one is a chess player. Of course, a very few like Anand can live their Aloha-dreams, but for the rest of us, it is regular programming. It is also time that Tata Steel look at India for a Category 19+ tournament than blowing their zero-sum moneys at Wijk Aan Zee. Finally, it would also be fruitful if Indians look at fellow Indians such as Ivana Furtado as their own, instead of batting for Anish Giri -- a Hindu in just name and a Dutch citizen to boot -- who knows little about India than Anand.

Footnotes:
1) Since not much is institutionalized, a peer group with which one can bounce off ideas and sharpen skill-sets helps. However, it should also be noted that many superstars such as Anand, Ivanchuk, Kramnik and even Carlsen had/have not many around them in terms of support-cast (apart from close family members) and were/are in a planet of their own.
2) Since a 2500 ELO rating need not be maintained to hold on to a GM norm, what one encounters is a pale shadow of a former GM when one sees a Dibyendu Barua or a Praveen Thipsay or an Abijit Kunte today.

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