Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand on Tuesday said he could not have asked for a stronger Indian chess lineup in the upcoming Asian Games.
Indian chess has been on a stunning upswing, and in the recently concluded Baku World Cup, an unprecedented four Indian players advanced to the quarter-finals, with R. Praggnanandhaa making history by becoming the youngest to win a silver medal.
Adding to this wave of success, last week saw Anand's 17-year-old protege, D. Gukesh, ending his mentor's 37-year-long reign as India's No 1 player. Gukesh achieved an impressive Elo rating of 2,758, surpassing the Indian legend by four points and marking a significant milestone in the country's chess history.
"I'm always nervous to just look at the rankings and think, oh, we're going to win this, we're going to win that," Anand said during a media interaction on the sidelines of Tata Steel Chess India here.
"There are other very good teams. Uzbekistan is good. Vietnam is good. China will field a great contingent. So we will have rivals, but you can't ask for a better team than what we have," he said about India's Asian Games prospects.
"Standards in India have caught up with everywhere else. And still, I don't want to explain this only in general terms. We must give credit to the individuals. This is a very talented group of individuals. Whether they outperform the previous generation is up to them and we will see. But we have a talented generation of individuals,” he said.
China will be spearheaded by the reigning world champion Ling Diren. India have named a 10-member squad in men's and women's section with the likes of Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa, Vidit Gujrathi, Pentala Harikrishna and Arjun Erigaisi leading the men's challenge.
G.M. Koneru Humpy, a two-time Asian Games gold medallist, and Harika Dronavalli will lead the women's challenge. Speaking about India's rise in chess, Anand said he never anticipated something like this would happen when he started his academy (WACA) three years ago.
"I have two colleagues in the top-20. First time, Gukesh is not only in the top-10 with me, he's even ahead of me. Pragg is in Candidates, Gukesh can still make it into the Candidates. On top of that Arjun, Vidit, Hari a little bit behind, then Nihal. The reason I said this is a golden generation is because, with the exception of Arjun, who turned 20 maybe two days ago, they're all teenagers which means, very conservatively, for the next 10 years, every top tournament, we, as Indians, can hope for one of our players there to watch and root for,” Anand said. "So it's a great time to be an Indian chess fan also, and just very, very exciting," he added.
Anand further said the upswing is similar to what Russia had 50 years back, and the challenge is to improve the women's lineup. "The Indian junior circuit, starting from under 12 all the way, is one of the best in the world. You're never sure of your place. They motivate each other nicely, they exchange ideas. I'm almost tempted to say what it used to be in Russia or the Soviet Union 50 years back.”
"In India, we have one of the best ecosystems. If you want to play, there are lots and lots of people who will teach you. Then, for almost every stage, there are highly specialised people, coaches, having academies. What's even more important is they get to interact with each other," Anand said.
"We have a dream setup for youngsters. There's still a challenge, how to get more girls in. It's still slightly southern-focused, maybe Bengal and Maharashtra, but we need to spread it out elsewhere. But essentially, the ingredients are there."
"I'm very happy to have stepped aside and India is still being well represented in these tournaments. It's exciting to watch and the game is growing, this is all I can hope for really."
Carlsen always hungry for success
Asked what makes Magnus Carlsen so tough to beat, Anand said: "He always had a natural ability to make fewer mistakes. I think someone said that he doesn't often find the best move, but he will almost never make the worst move. He might make the third best move and it's good enough, but he'll almost never blunder. And it's true that it's hard to remember games which he has lost easily,” Anand said.
"The other thing for me which is impressive is that he keeps his motivation so high. Not only for big events, he plays also minor events. He seems to have a hunger for chess that is special. He's not unique in the second regard, but he'll just sit and play bullets for hours. And he'll play some casual tournament and he'll do this. He'll play tournaments he's already qualified for and things like that. He just keeps a very high motivation," Anand signed off.