Who will succeed Viswanathan Anand?
Earlier child prodigies haven’t made a dent—the new titan may come from GenNext
The King is dead, long live the King. Viswanathan Anand may have tamely surrendered his crown in the November World Championship clash against Magnus Carlsen, but his phenomenal legacy will endure forever. How long will the one-time “lightning kid”, now the elder statesman of the brain game, continue playing? And is his era over? All good questions, but none as important as—who’s next?
Ever since he won the junior world title at Baguio in the Philippines in 1987 and followed that up with his first World Championship title in 2000, the 44-year-old has single-handedly ignited and sustained the Indian chess revolution. India has since produced numerous Continental, Commonwealth and world champions in different age groups and today has 35 Grandmasters (both men and women), eight Women Grandmasters, a different category, and around 70-80 International Masters.
Some of these players have even become Grandmasters at a younger age than Anand did—he achieved the distinction at age 18 in 1988. Those who achieved this earlier include S.P. Sethuraman (17), Sahaj Grover (16), Koneru Humpy, P. Harikrishna and Vaibhav Suri (all at 15) and Parimarjan Negi, the second youngest Grandmaster in the world at 13 years, three months and 22 days. They, and several others, have gone on to script some memorable successes in the international arena. But none has come close to Anand’s domination, or his world title, except Humpy.
“Players like Anand come once in a blue moon. He is in a league of his own. No one can reach that level,” Kolkata-based Dibyendu Barua, India’s second Grandmaster and currently a vice-president of the All India Chess Federation, told this writer before the Anand-Carlsen duel in November.
India currently has three players in the top 100 overall of the World Chess Federation (Fide) rankings—Anand (No.8; 2,770 points), P. Harikrishna(33; 2,714), and Krishnan Sasikiran (74; 2,676)—and six among the top 100 women: Humpy (3; 2,613), Dronavalli Harika (24; 2,487), Tania Sachdev (53; 2,423), Eesha Karavade (61; 2,408), Mary Ann Gomes (66; 2,402) and Vijayalakshmi Subbaraman (93; 2,365).
Russia is the top-ranked chess nation overall and China leads the women’s division. India is ranked eighth overall and fifth among women.
Among the senior players, the pundits believe that just a few have the wherewithal to scale the summit. Humpy, 26, coached by her father, Dronacharya awardee Koneru Ashok, stands the best chance. The former women’s No.2, behind Hungary’s Judit Polgár (who plays in the general category, not in the women’s division), has unfortunately run into the “Great Wall of China”—Hou Yifan—who has pipped her to the World Championship twice. “She’s always been a world-beater and has always been in the top ranks but somehow she chokes at the last moment,” says Dronacharya awardee Raghunandan Gokhale. He believes she can prosper if she hires reputed international coaches, an idea that has takers among other experts.
Another potential champion who is “quite capable” of ascending the ladder is Grandmaster Harika, winner of three junior world titles and a 2012 World Championship semi-finalist. “She is highly talented, disciplined as a person, and over the board she is not prone to erratic play,” says Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay.
Among the men, Harikrishna, a former junior World Champion, could still make the cut. He has shown that he can hold his own in top company going by his performance in the Tata Steel Chess tournament (formerly called Corus chess tournament), held in January, in the Netherlands, where some leading Grandmasters took part—Carlsen did not. The Telugu player finished seventh in the 12-man field, recorded a win over world No.3 Hikaru Nakamura and earned draws against Levon Aronian (world No.2), Fabiano Caruana (now No.5), Sergey Karjakin (now No.9) and Wesley So (now No.20).
Thipsay says our leading men will not be able to rule the world unless they move into the high 2,700s bracket. “We are the best country in the world when it comes to the youth level, producing junior champs by the dozen. But the main problem is that our child prodigies (barring Anand and Humpy) don’t make the transition to the top of the senior ranks like players from other countries do,” he emphasizes. He has a point—youngsters like Nakamura, Caruana and Karjakin are already in the top 10, while Carlsen is both World Champion and world No.1.
One reason for this is complacency, explains Thipsay. “Many of our players set the Grandmaster tag as their target while this should merely be a stepping stone to greater success.”
“There is no reason why our top players cannot do better,” says Manuel Aaron, nine-time national champion, India’s first International Master and also chess’ first Arjuna award winner in 1961. “They have the talent and they also have sponsorships. Perhaps that is the problem.”
The pundits say it would be more realistic to look at GenNext for our next titan, players in the 10- to 15-year-old bracket or below. Among the “child prodigies” whose names are being touted as potential champs are Murali Karthikeyan (under-12 World Champion in 2011), Aravindh Chithambaram (under-19 national championship winner at the age of 12, and a runner-up in the under-14 World Championship), Sayantan Das (winner of the 2008 under-12 World Youth Championship), Diptayan Ghosh (under-10 Asian champion at the Youth Chess Championship 2008), Woman Grandmaster Padmini Rout (20, a former world under-14 girls’ champion), and Grandmaster Vidit Santosh Gujrathi (19).
Fourteen-year-old Chithambaram created a sensation by winning the Chennai Open in November against a field featuring 21 Grandmasters and 30 International Masters. “I think this boy is a serious talent,” Jacek Stopa, the Polish International Master who played in the tournament, told The Hindu. “I was impressed by some of his games.” Coached by R.B. Ramesh, Chithambaram hails from a poor family and needs sponsorship to enable him to compete abroad, where the fields are stronger and he can become a Grandmaster at the earliest if he fares well.
“It’s not only these players, there are several more talented kids around all over the country,” says 78-year-old Aaron. What they need is sponsorship—this, he adds, is not forthcoming, even in Chennai, the undisputed citadel of Indian chess.
HOW THEY STACK UP
Top Indians in the Fide rankings
1. Viswanathan Anand—2,770 points
2. P. Harikrishna—2,714
3. Krishnan Sasikiran—2,676
4. Parimarjan Negi—2,638
5. Abhijeet Gupta—2,630
6. Surya Shekhar Ganguly—2,623
7. Koneru Humpy—2,613
8. B. Adhiban—2,608
9. Vidit Santosh Gujrathi—2,602
10. Chanda Sandipan—2,594
Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.