Chess returns to India | ChessBase

The origin of chess

When I talk about the origins of chess, I often say something bizarre, such as ‘Chess was invented on the first weekend of September of the year 568, by a counselor in the court of the regional king, in northwestern India. This is, of course, a lighthearted statement – ​​I say it only to provoke historians who have for decades tried to trace the origins of chess to Russia, China, India, Central Asia and even ancient Egypt.

There is an oft-displayed photo that appears to show an Egyptian lady clearly engaged in chess.

It depicts the famous Egyptian Queen Nefertari, the favorite wife of Pharaoh Ramses II, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC.

But does she really play chess? She could rearrange perfume bottles, but more likely she’s playing Senet (or Senat), a board game known at the time. It looked like this. It had 30 squares, arranged in three rows of ten, and two sets of pieces, probably five for each side (the rules of the game are not entirely clear).

I say that the game of chess was invented in a short time by one person (or a small group of people) because I can vividly imagine them thinking about designing it. I can imagine them saying, “We need a king to rule all, and his counselor. And how about elephants and horses and chariots as part of his army? Of course he must have foot soldiers with whom he can fight…’ They came up with the rules and invented a game they called ‘Chaturanga’, which is Sanskrit for ‘four limbs’, the branches of the army.

Chaturanga is very clearly an early version of chess. If you saw that the game was played in the 6e century you would immediately recognize it as chess – even if some of the rules were slightly different. The elephant (bishop) and the counselor (queen) had very limited mobility. The rules evolved over the centuries, during which time Chaturanga, which turned into “Shatranj”, then chess, migrated to the West to become one of the world’s most popular and beloved games.

Today, it is estimated that more than 800 million people around the world, or about 8% of the world’s population, play it regularly. In Western countries such as the US, UK, Europe and Russia, about 70% of the adult population has played chess at some point in their lives. The inventor of the game could not have imagined how popular it would become and how long it would last. It was pure luck.

The names of the pieces changed. The elephant remained elephant (slon) in Russian speaking countries (where you can witness a brilliant sacrifice of elephants take h7!), but became the bishop (Läufer, bishop, liver, etc.) in Central Europe, a bishop in the English-speaking world, a gunner (alfil) in Spain and a fou (fool or jester) in France. Here’s a nice overview of Danial A in Wiki (click to enlarge):

After its invention, chess spread from India to Persia and entered the Muslim world when the Arabs invaded and conquered Persia. Chess then spread to Spain and the rest of southern Europe. The rules were changed and it slowly evolved into its current form, around 1500 AD.

In China, a millinium ago, people started playing a strategy game derived from chaturanga. It became the game xiangqi, being played today. We call it Chinese chess or elephant chess. It borrowed from the game of Go, which has been played in the country since the sixth century BC. The pieces are placed at the intersection of the squares, and not inside them. The object of xiangqi is similar to chess: to trap the opponent’s king.

Chess was brought to ancient Russia in the 9th and 10the century. It enjoyed a very high status and was played in court – Ivan IV the Terrible, who ruled the country from 1530 to 1584, is said to have died while playing the game. in the 20e century chess. became a school subject in all primary schools in Russia, quickly becoming the superpower of the game. Today it has more than 200 grandmasters, followed by Germany and Ukraine with about 70 each. Incidentally, the highest density of GM is found in Iceland, where about 0.000035% – 35 per million – of the population holds the title.

Chess returns to India

While all this was happening, India slept soundly. It was a second-rate chess country. There were a few modest IMs and some strong players, but nothing more. I remember being invited to perform a clock simulation in Bangalore, India in the 1970s. I asked (German) GM Helmut Pfleger if he wanted to do it, and he immediately agreed. “What should be the maximum strength of your opponents?” I asked him. In clock simulations it is normal to limit the level of opposition. “Oh, don’t worry,” Helmut said. “They can select anyone.” He knew that even with the strongest eight Indian chess players, he would have no problems.

That has changed radically in recent decades. “Helmut,” I said in a phone call recently, “I have a 12-year-old here. Would you like to play a game against him?” He knew I had Gukesh in the house and replied, “Oh, that can be very difficult for me.”

The big change for India came when a boy from Tamil Nadu, India, Vishwanathan Anand, showed extraordinary skill in the game. In 1988 he became the first Indian Grandmaster and won five World Championships. Anand encouraged his compatriots to take up the game.

They did this with revenge. All over the country children started playing and studying hard to ‘become like Anand’. And they started to get really strong. Grandmasters kept popping up and today there are about 70 players who have the full GM title. Anand – now in his early fifties, still plays in top tournaments, cheered by over a billion fans.

Training camp with Kramnik and Gelfand in Chennai, 2020. I marked five players (Vaishali, Gukesh, Raunak, Pragg, Arjun) going for gold at the current Olympiad.

I predict that India is on its way to becoming the ultimate chess superpower. I recently attended two training camps where Vladimir Kramnik, then Kramnik and Boris Gelfand, worked with young Indian talents, aged 12 to 16, all with GM titles or at least GM standards. It was breathtaking to watch a dashing 13-year-old run across the playground one moment, chase a soccer ball, and then suddenly engage in conversation with a former world champion, along the lines of: “In yesterday’s analysis what if white play this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and then launch an attack on the kingside?” To which Kramnik replies: “That’s very interesting. We should look into it in tonight’s session.” All without a chessboard in sight.

During my visit to Chennai, I was interviewed by a news portal that wanted to know my opinion about the future of chess in India. I told them I believed that in five to ten years at least 25% of all international tournament players would come from India; that 25% of the top 100 players would be Indian; that there would be three Indian grandmasters in the top ten in the world. “Aren’t you exaggerating?” said the host. “Three in the top ten? How can you predict that?” (“I’m pretty sure I’m right,” I said. “In fact I can give you their names today!”

In January 2019 I visited one of the future top ten players, 12-year-old Gukesh…

…who, along with two other young talents (Savitha and Siddarth), received endgame training in April of that year with Dr. Karsten Mueller at the ChessBase office in Hamburg.

Since that time, January 2020, young Indian super-talents, apparently grown in paddy fields, have done everything they can to bolster my prognosis. As I write these lines, I see that Gukesh has won his sixth match at the Chennai Olympiad, against a 2700 grandmaster, who is a three-time gold medalist at the Olympiad, and has risen to a live rating of 2719. And the Indian women’s team just beat the very strong Georgian team to lead their section with a dry score of 12/12.

Let IM Sagar Shah of ChessBase India know how his country is doing

China is another country that is doing quite well in terms of chess. They have a current World Championship challenger and have had a number of Women’s World Champions in the past. Hou Yifan was the youngest female player in history to earn the title of grandmaster and the youngest to win the Women’s World Championship. So will China, which has an even larger population base than India and is currently doing its best to support chess talent, generate competition for Indian chess?

No, they will never catch up. There are two specific reasons for this. On the one hand, they have no chess god (India has Anand); and they have a rival game. A much larger majority of the population plays elephant chess than the Western game, the game played by all Native Americans who are attracted to strategic games. India has a much larger population base for chess than China.

So what we can do is sit back and watch Indian chess unfold. In some ways it is justified: that the country that invented the game so many centuries ago should take the lead in this wonderful game.

Also read: The series ‘Origins of chess’ by Sergio Ernesto Negri

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