Asian Games: Chess hopes to make some golden moves

Back in 2010 when chess was last part of the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, D Gukesh was four years old. R Praggnanandhaa was five and Arjun Erigaisi was seven, all of them yet to hit adolescence and get acquainted with chess. As the board game returns to the showpiece continental event after a 13-year hiatus, this time in Hangzhou, the timing seems to be apt for this trio of prodigies to underline India’s status as the emerging heartbeat of chess.

Grandmaster D Gukesh (L) and R Praggnanandhaa (R) play chess (Hindustan Times)

They are part of a five-member men’s team, alongside the more experienced P Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi, which will compete in the classical format. The women’s team comprises Koneru Humpy, Harika Dronavalli, R Vaishali, Vantika Agrawal and Savitha Shri. In the men’s individual section, Gujrathi and Erigaisi will compete for medals while the women’s individual section sees Humpy and Harika spearhead the Indian challenge. The individual section will be held in the rapid format.

“It is a very healthy sign that chess is returning to Asian Games. We are one of the top countries in chess. We are likely to get some medals. It will definitely add to our image and the growth of chess in the country,” said All India Chess Federation (AICF) secretary Bharat Singh Chauhan, who is also the technical delegate for chess at the Asian Games.

The chances of a medal are optimal in the men’s team section, where India will be one of the contenders to not just finish at the podium but even gun for gold. “India’s chances are quite promising in the team event. I think we are one of the strongest teams. China and Uzbekistan are our top competitors. We stand pretty good chances in the individual event as well. But the number of strong players is more there,” said Srinath Narayanan, the coach of the men’s team.

Praggnanandhaa, of course, will be front and centre after finishing runner-up in the FIDE World Cup, a result that has secured his spot in the Candidates tournament (the winner of which will challenge China’s Ding Liren for the world title) next year.

Then there’s Gukesh, arguably the strongest in the classical format in India right now. The FIDE rankings certainly suggest so. He zoomed to world No. 8 at the start of this month, also becoming the first player in 37 years to usurp Viswanathan Anand from the mantle of India No. 1.

“It’s a historic moment because Vishy sir has been the God of Indian chess. It is great that I could overtake someone who inspired me to play chess,” Gukesh said in an interview last month.

Being understated and unassuming seems to be second nature to the 17-year-old, but he also doesn’t shy away from making clear he has greater ambitions. “But I don’t feel it’s such a huge step because I have further goals. I haven’t even come close to achieving what he has done and reaching his level. There’s a long way to go but it’s a nice thing to be No. 1 in your country.”

One of those “further goals” will be to excel at the Asian Games. Gukesh, now sporting a stubble suggestive of his approaching adulthood, has already had a feel of managing the country’s expectations in a team event.

At the 44th Chess Olympiad in Mamallapuram last year, he starred in India’s bronze-winning show while also securing an individual gold. With Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin, Raunak Sadhwani and B Adhiban — the only experienced head in the team — for company, the tournament was certainly a moment of recognition for India’s young brigade.

“The Olympiad gave Arjun, Gukesh and Pragg first-hand experience of what it feels like to face that kind of pressure of a big event. Having that experience was a useful step along their journey of chess improvement,” said Srinath.

While Gukesh and Praggnanandhaa have the cameras trained on them at the moment, Erigaisi isn’t far behind. He also has an ELO rating of over 2700, and has been entrusted with the responsibility of playing the individual and team events.

“It is a pretty difficult pick with the kind of talents we have right now. It is impossible to predict who will be the best pick among the top five or six we have at the moment,” said Srinath of the selection that took place in May. “Right now Pragg is the hottest talent, but a few months ago it was Arjun, and Arjun was just one blitz game away from being the first Indian to enter the Candidates after Vishy. Vidit also showed an excellent performance at the World Cup, beating (Ian) Nepomniatchi convincingly, and also had a smooth performance in the Tata Steel event. I am glad that we have a clear selection criterion of choosing according to the rating at the time of submission of the team. Vidit and Arjun in the individual event give us as good a chance as any other two individuals that we could have picked.”

Amid the excitement over the young generation, Harikrishna and Humpy shouldn’t be overlooked. They were there in Doha in 2006, masterminding India’s finish at the top of the medal tally with two gold medals. Humpy won the women’s individual rapid section, besides teaming up with Harikrishna and K Sasikiran to triumph in the mixed team event.

If they can draw on that experience to guide a predominantly young bunch brimming with potential, India should be able to celebrate chess’ return to the continental meet with a rich haul of medals.

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