A month before what was considered the match of the century in chess – the 1972 World Championship title match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Reykjavik – the Assembly of the Soviet Cultural Center in then Madras contacted Manuel Aaron, the only international at the time. was the master. country, to start a chess club. Aaron had no second thoughts. In a short time, and a fortnight earlier when Spassky admitted defeat to Fischer over the phone, changing the dynamics of the world’s chess, Madras had its first formal chess club in the library of the Soviet Center.
If Fischer’s victory sparked a chess boom in America, which had hitherto been in the chess hinterland, it also sowed the seeds of a chess revolution in Madras, setting the stage for the country’s emergence as a chess nursery.
Aaron, now 86, describes how the Soviet-US Cold War spread on a chessboard and reached the then capital of Tamil Nadu. “There were so many layers to the match that even those who did not follow chess started talking about it. The match was followed eagerly despite there being no streaming or television coverage at the time. We used to wait for some information from the cultural center officials,” he says.
The chess club was named after the great Soviet player Mikhail Tal, Aaron’s favorite and who faced him in a Chess Olympiad match. The center provided them with all the infrastructure, says Aaron – chess blocks, boards, books and magazines such as the Schachmatany Bulletin, Chess in the USSR, and 64.
Aaron would translate into English those he had taken centered in Russian so that he could access Soviet magazines and make them available to other chess players as well. “Western publications were expensive while Russian was free. I thought access to chess literature would be useful for the next generation,” he says.
With a lavish fee of Rs 4 a year for maintenance, the club soon had so many in the ranks that a separate small campus had to be built on the premises. Serious, semi-serious and recreational players spend hours here in intense games.
Meanwhile, Aaron seeks out a young player he can groom into the world champion. “I used to tell friends that if given the right opportunity, I can make the country the first world champion in 15 years. In every young player who came to the club, I looked for that spark,” he says.
Three years later, a five-year-old boy with big, round eyes and a comb in his temple came. It was Viswanathan Anand, and Aaron noticed him almost immediately. “There was something about him, you knew he had a special talent,” he says.
After a year or two, Anand moved to the Philippines where his father worked. By the time he returned to the club two years later, he had a fast, developed game for his age. “He had a great blitz game, and I don’t remember him ever losing. The fun rule was that the loser got up from his chair. The joy was never there,” says Aaron.
Occasionally the club sees international grandmasters such as Yuri Averbakh, Vladimir Bagirov and Evgeny Babchuk, and plays a simul. This helped in the development of chess legends like Anand.
Mantle’s real pass came when 14-year-old Anand defeated Aaron in a classical game in 1983. Four years later, he became the country’s first grandmaster. This singular moment changed the history of Indian chess.
A few years later, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Tal Chess Club had to close, as the now-named Russian Culture Center began demanding hefty rents.
But by then, the chess culture was already flourishing in the city, new clubs were being formed, the state association was holding more tournaments, and the city was a major, joyous one. He said, “He inspired a generation of us to play chess. We were all his fans, following each game, analyzing each of his moves,” recalls RB Ramesh, 23 grandmasters from Tamil Nadu. One of them was the one to build after Anand.
Over the next two decades, Anand would be world champion (in 2000), world number 1 (2007), reclaim his lost crown (2007), and fiercely defended three times before being dethroned by Magnus Carlsen. “Everything about him is inspiring, especially the way he guides, grooms and plays with the youth,” says Ramesh.
Among the players set to carry forward the legacy of Chennai Chess are D Gukesh and R Pragyananand, both just 16, both grandmasters, the fastest and second fastest Indian to meet the GM criteria.
You can almost trace the family tree – Aaron at the top, Anand in the next rung, both alone, before the branches spread, accompanied by K Sashikaran and RB Ramesh, followed by B Adhiban and SP Sethuraman, and then Gukesh and Pragyanand.
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And the roots are here, born at the height of the Cold War, in a former library of the Soviet Culture Center, played in Reykjavik, Iceland, over nearly two months, against the backdrop of a proxy war on a chess board.