How India Made Chess and its Champions

The country that invented the ancient game is now producing some of the world’s biggest chess champions.

Bhavya Dore

April 13, 2021

How India Made Chess and its Champions
Illustration: Aziza Ahmad

Almost a century before The Queen’s Gambit (2020), the Netflix miniseries that took the world by storm — searches of chess tripled and chess sets flew off shelves — Indian writer Munshi Premchand penned  “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (1924), a tale about chess-playing aristocrats that ends with the British annexation of Awadh. Premchand’s short story would inspire Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film of the same name.

But those who love chess already know India’s relationship with it is deeper than literature, entertainment, and pop culture. In 1986, 16-year-old Viswanathan Anand, the youngest player at the national championships in Calcutta, beat 37-year-old Arun Vaidya, the tournament’s oldest player, in the penultimate round. Playing with black and deploying the Grünfeld Defense, Anand racked up 12 points out of a possible 18, putting him at the top of the table. “Anand is a fast player and puts pressure on his opponents,” said Vaidya after the loss. 

Just two years later, Anand would become a grandmaster, the highest possible title in the world of chess, and India’s first. The Madras-born teenager was a natural talent; the “lightning kid” grew up to become one of the best rapid players in the country and would go on to win five World Championships. In the process, he inspired generations of chess players and put India on the chess map.