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Stalin, Rahman, Rajinikanth and Thambi the horseman, Chennai is going all out for India’s first Chess Olympiad

 


A WEEK ago, a video anthem was released wherein A R Rahman and Chief Minister M K Stalin are walking along Napier Bridge, which is painted black and white to resemble the squares on a chess board. Both are clad in all-white, flanked by dancers in black, resembling the pieces on a board, humming the anthem and shyly jiving.

The former world champion and one of Chennai’s own, 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 am sure that everyone in the city would know about the Chess Olympiad,” he said.

Into the melee dropped superstar Rajinikanth, when he invited fledgling chess stars R Praggnanandhaa and his sister R Vaishali as well as their parents to his house. If the confluence of the biggest politician in the state, the biggest actor and the biggest music composer does not strike a chord, perhaps nothing would. The ambitious Tamil Nadu government, riding a wave of goodwill since the curbing of the pandemic, has pulled no shutters to celebrate the Olympiad.


World Champion Magnus Carlsen, too, was blown away by the city decked up to celebrate. “Tamil Nadu or say Chennai is the hottest hub of chess in the world now. So just to be there and be a part of the chess celebration is a reason in itself,” said Carlsen, who has abdicated his crown, announcing recently that he would no longer participate in the World Championship.

Indeed, from Napier Bridge to Guindy, from Adyar to Tambaram, the chess buzz has never enveloped Chennai as it has now. The grand old International Master Manuel Aaron, who began the city’s first chess club in 1972 at the Soviet Centre for Culture Studies, where Anand polished his game, feels his life is fulfilled. “I have never seen the city celebrating chess as passionately as they have now. I feel very fortunate that I could in some way contribute to the game’s following and popularity in the city. The popularity of the game will soar even further,” he said.

This is perhaps the impact that the Tamil Nadu government had envisaged when they began an aggressive push for the Olympiad — to stretch the game to the deep reaches of the city, those locales where chess is barely played, leave alone followed. The locality around the Napier Bridge that connects Fort St George and Marina Beach is not where you find children playing chess in every house. It’s not where you want to find your children, either. Not too long ago, driving at night along the bridge was considered dangerous, replete with stories of snatchers, pickpockets and even ghosts of British soldiers.

Painting the bridge like a chess board is a metaphor, too.

It is undisputed that Chennai has been churning out Grandmasters more frequently than any other city in the country — 24 out of 73, apart from seven Women Grandmasters, 34 International Masters, 10,000-odd registered players — with a throbbing chess culture and history. But the game really is not as mainstream as it is hyped up to be. It is this gulf between the mass and the niche that the Chess Olympiad seeks to bridge.

Every pillar and post reminds you of the Olympiad. The faces of DMK luminaries, from the ruling party’s founder C N Anna Durai to former CM M Karunanidhi and now Stalin to the emerging Udhayanidhi Maran have been embossed onto a chess board. In every speech Stalin makes, there is a chess analogy or reference

“Every one in the city is a king or a queen,” he said in a function. He has invited a clutch of ministers from neighbouring states, and the buzz is that there might even be an alliance between him and his Telangana counterpart K Chandrashekar Rao. The only unhappy faces, so far, are in the city’s BJP unit, which has been demanding that photos of Prime Minister Narendra Modi be added to the hoardings. Chess is no stranger to politics, after the numerous proxy wars on the board in the Cold War Era.

Besides there are special buses painted black and white, with a beaming mascot Thambi (younger brother in Tamil), that ply between Mahabalipuram and the Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus. The venue of the Olympiad — Mahabalipuram — is 60 km from the heart of the city, along the sprawling East Coast Road, but it’s a distance, officials hope, the chess fever can reduce.

Thambi peers down from most buses and metro trains, as well as the entrances of important government offices — the horseman clad in a white veshti and sattai, the fold of the veshti embroidered black and white, with folded hands. Thambi memes have already rolled out on the web — there is a section dedicated to him on Chennai Chess 2022 titled “Thambiyin Sodhanaikal” (Thambi’s Tests) with a voiceover from the popular Tamil comedy veteran Vadivelu.

This edition of the Olympiad, from July 28 to August 10, is the first the country will host. India are seeded second in the open segment, fielding six teams, three each in men and women’s sections, with top-seeded USA and third-placed Norway, helmed by Carlsen, expected to put up a stiff challenge. But the gold that India shared with Russia in the last edition has infused a sense of optimism that they will win the Olympiad at home.

So much so that about 300 km from Chennai, in Thirupoovanur, a 14th-Century Shiva temple has gathered sudden attention because it’s called “Sathuranga Vallabhanathar”, literally translated as “King of Chess”. The story goes that the temple was built at the location where Shiva beat the daughter of the local king in a game of chess (“sathurangam” in Tamil) to marry her, an avatar of Parvathi.

Add divinity to the mix, and this Olympiad has the makings of a wholesome blockbuster, a mass entertainer. Or as the Chennaities call it: “Mass-u!”

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