Stalin, Rahman, Rajinikanth and Thambi the Horseman, Chennai go all out for the first Chess Olympiad in India
A WEEK ago, a video anthem was released in which AR Rahman and Chief Minister MK Stalin walk along the Napier Bridge, which is painted black and white to look like squares on a chessboard. Both are dressed in white, flanked by dancers in black, looking like pieces from a painting, humming the anthem and dancing timidly.
Former world champion and one of Chennai, Viswanathan Anand could not hide his excitement. “I have never seen the city so excited about chess. I was so happy to see the bridge painted black and white, and I’m sure everyone in the city would know about the Chess Olympiad,” said he declared.
Superstar Rajinikanth fell into the fray, when he invited young chess stars R Praggnanandhaa and his sister R Vaishali and their parents to his home. If the confluence of the state’s greatest politician, greatest actor, and music’s greatest composer doesn’t resonate, maybe nothing will. The ambitious government of Tamil Nadu, riding a wave of goodwill since the containment of the pandemic, did not close its eyes to celebrate the Olympiad.
World champion Magnus Carlsen was also blown away by the city decked out in celebration. “Tamil Nadu or let’s say Chennai is the hottest chess hub in the world now. So just being there and being part of the chess celebration is a reason in itself,” said Carlsen, who abdicated his crown, announcing recently that he will no longer be competing in the World Championship.
Indeed, from Napier Bridge to Guindy, from Adyar to Tambaram, the buzz of chess has never enveloped Chennai as it has now. International grand old master Manuel Aaron, who founded the city’s first chess club in 1972 at the Soviet Center for Cultural Studies, where Anand honed his game, feels his life is full. “I have never seen the city celebrate chess with such passion as it does today. I feel very lucky to have been able to contribute in some way to the success and popularity of the game in the city. The popularity of the game will skyrocket even further,” he said.
This is perhaps the impact the government of Tamil Nadu envisioned when it began an aggressive push for the Olympiad – to expand the game to the depths of the city, those places where chess is barely played, without speaking. The locality around the Napier Bridge that connects Fort St George and Marina Beach is not where you will find children playing chess in every house. That’s not where you want to find your kids either. Not so long ago, driving along the bridge at night was considered dangerous, filled with stories of thieves, pickpockets and even the ghosts of British soldiers.
Painting the bridge as a chessboard is also a metaphor.
It is undisputed that Chennai has produced grandmasters more frequently than any other city in the country – 24 out of 73, excluding seven female grandmasters, 34 international masters, some 10,000 registered players – with a culture and history of thrilling failures. But gambling really isn’t as mainstream as it’s supposed to be. It is this chasm between mass and niche that the Chess Olympiad seeks to bridge.
Every pillar and post reminds you of the Olympiad. The faces of DMK luminaries, from CN ruling party founder Anna Durai to former CM M Karunanidhi and now Stalin to emerging Udhayanidhi Maran were carved on a chessboard. In every speech Stalin gave, there is an analogy or reference to chess.
“Everyone in the city is a king or a queen,” he said at a ceremony. He has invited a handful of ministers from neighboring states, and the buzz is that there may even be an alliance between him and his Telangana counterpart K Chandrashekar Rao. The only angry faces, so far, are in the city’s BJP unit, which has demanded photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi be added to billboards. Chess is no stranger to politics, after the many proxy wars on the board during the Cold War era.
Additionally, there are special buses painted in black and white, with a beaming Thambi (younger brother in Tamil) mascot, which shuttle between Mahabalipuram and Chennai’s Mofussil bus terminus. The venue for the Olympiad – Mahabalipuram – is 60km from the heart of the city along the sprawling East Coast Road, but it’s a distance officials hope chess fever can reduce.
Thambi watches from most buses and subways, as well as the entrances to important government offices – the rider dressed in a white veshti and sattai, the fold of the veshti embroidered in black and white, his hands clasped. Thambi memes have already been rolled out across the web – there is a section dedicated to him on Chennai Chess 2022 titled “Thambiyin Sodhanaikal” (Tests of Thambi) with a voice-over by famous Tamil comedy veteran Vadivelu.
This edition of the Olympiad, from July 28 to August 10, is the first that the country will host. India are the second seed in the open segment, with six teams, three in the men’s and women’s sections, with the United States seeded and Norway in third place, helmed by Carlsen, who should be up for a challenge of size. But the gold that India shared with Russia in the last edition instilled a sense of optimism about winning the Olympiad on home soil.
So much so that about 300 km from Chennai, in Thirupoovanur, a 14th century Shiva temple has suddenly caught the eye because it is called “Sathuranga Vallabhanathar”, literally translated as “chess king”. The story goes that the temple was built on the spot where Shiva defeated the local king’s daughter in a game of chess (“sathurangam” in Tamil) to marry him, an avatar of Parvathi.
Add some divinity to the mix, and this Olympiad has the makings of a wholesome blockbuster, mass entertainer. Or as the Chennaities call it: “Mass-u!”