Chess is more global as Muslim countries make their mark

Islamic nations now have some of the strongest teams in the world


By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 10 Aug 2022, 10:12 PM

Fifty years ago this month, the world's eyes were trained on Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, where the American Bobby Fischer was playing against the Russian (then Soviet) Boris Spassky for the world chess championship title. It was the height of the Cold War, the US and USSR were at loggerheads, and the geopolitical significance of the 24-match clash, spread over nearly eight weeks, was considered so great that then National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had to get on the phone to persuade a cantankerous Fisher to play after he complained about everything from prize money to TV cameras, arriving two days late after threatening to pull out.

Fischer eventually crushed Spassky 12.5-8.5 by the 21st game in what, in hindsight, was the triumph of individual brilliance against institutional strength. If the victory was expected to herald America as a chess power, it did not happen immediately. The USSR continued to dominate world chess, particularly since the eccentric Fischer disappeared into oblivion, eventually regaining the world crown through Karpov and Kasparov (albeit as a dissident).

The break-up of the Soviet Union scattered its many grandmasters across Russia and the breakaway states. The US too was a beneficiary of this, with some GMs eventually making their way to America. Today, Russia still has the highest number of GMs (250+); the USA is a distant second (103), with many of its GMs immigrants or children of immigrants. Ukraine, with 89 GMs is also a powerhouse, as are many European nations such as Germany (94), Spain (57), and France (53).

The real surprise though is India -- considered the birthplace of chess -- which got its first Grandmaster (Vishy Anand) only in 1988, and added two more (Dibyendu Barua and Pravin Thipsay) by the turn of the century. In the two decades since, this elite cohort has grown to 75, its 75th GM coming last week a week shy of the country's 75th Independence Day. China too is a powerhouse, racking up more than 50 GMs.

The politics surrounding chess too has changed. Gone is the superpower clash that pitted the US and USSR. Instead, in keeping with what has become a multipolar world, many nations that are adversarial in the geopolitical field jostled for supremacy at the Chess Olympiad 2022 that concluded in Chennai this past weekend. Although Russia and China did not compete, countries such as the USA, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Azerbaijan, and Armenia battled it out for primacy. While the vastness of the field (187 countries participated) meant many bitter adversaries did not clash directly in the 11-round format, there were notable face-offs such as USA v Iran, Armenia v Azerbaijan, Czech Republic v Slovakia etc, without any overt pathology.

One of the best things to happen to the Olympiad was that almost all Islamic nations participated (only Pakistan pulled out objecting to the Olympiad torch passing through Kashmir), after a brief injunction some years ago in some countries by clerics who regarded chess as "haram." In fact, Muslim nations now have some of the strongest teams in the world, and it came as no surprise that Uzbekistan, with GMs such as the prodigiously talented brothers Absulsattorov and Yakkubboev Nodirbek,

Sindarov Javokhir, Vakhidov Jakhongir, and Vokhidov Shamsiddin, won the open crown ahead of fancied and top seeded USA, which came fifth. The United Arab Emirates, whose top two GMs did not participate, finished 78th in a field of 187 teams, defeating teams such as Japan, Ecuador, and Costa Rica in the competition.

The US itself, top-ranked despite missing some of its best players, is a mostly immigrant-based team, attesting to the mobility of chess players in recent years. At the Olympiad, its top board was led by Fabiano Caruana, Levon Aronian, and Wesley So and Leinier Dominguez Perez. Caruana is an Italian dual citizen, Aronian is Armenian, So is Filipino, and Perez is Cuban. Missing from the line-up were Hikaru Nakamura, a Japanese American, and Jeffrey Xiong, a Chinese-American.

The surprise package at the Olympiad was India’s B team (as hosts, India had the advantage and the bench strength to field three teams), which finished a creditable third for a bronze medal. Comprised of three 16-year old GMs (Dommaraju Gukesh, Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, and Raunak Sadhwani) and an 18-year-old GM (Nihal Sarin), the Indian team brought down a strong US team 3-1 in what was considered the match of the tournament, to finish ahead of fourth-placed India A team. It was a memorable performance that augured well for India’s chess future.

But absent Russia and China, the Olympiad missed some sheen – and needle – although the participation of 187 nations showed how universal the game is; only soccer, whose organization FIFA boasts of 209 members, had greater global spread. Hopefully, Russia and China will return for the next Chess Olympiad in Budapest, Hungary in 2024. Chess, any day, over war. - The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

Blurb: In keeping with what has become a multipolar world, many nations that are adversarial in the geopolitical field jostled for supremacy at the Chess Olympiad 2022

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