- Mathew J. Varghese
The quiet precinct of Chennai’s Russian Centre for Science and Culture (popularly known as the Russian Cultural Centre) becomes a beehive of activity every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Young kids indulge in a sport that has been synonymous with the centre – Chess. The Russian Cultural Centre's rich legacy of playing host to some of India’s greatest players has been continued at the Emmanuel Chess Centre, founded in 1996.
The Russian Cultural Centre’s association with the game started way back in 1972, when the Mikhail Tal Chess Club – named after the then champion from the former USSR – was set up, with India’s first International Master (IM) Manuel Aaron as secretary. Over the years, the centre had seen many players honing their skills at the Club, including India’s first Grandmaster (GM) and reigning World No. 1 Vishwanathan Anand. Along with Anand, several other stalwarts such as GM K. Sasikaran, IMs Sundararajan Kidambi, Raja Ravisekhar, T.N. Parameshwaran, T.S. Ravi, D.V. Prasad, R.B. Ramesh, G.B. Prakash, and Women Grandmasters (WGMs) Aarthi Ramaswamy, S. Vijaylakshmi and S. Meenakshi frequented the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC).
When the young Anand frequented the Tal Chess Club, the club was so packed that players were asked to limit their games to blitz only so that the maximum number could get time on the board. Also losers had to vacate their seat. With this grounding, it’s hardly surprising that Anand is the strongest blitz player in the world. Incidentally, Anand and Mikhail Tal are the only two players so far to have been both FIDE World Champion and World Blitz Champion.
‘Vishy’ - as Anand is popularly known - was even considered a nuisance by Manuel Aaron, a regular at the club. But this was because he would often interrupt and suggest alternate moves during the lessons Aaron held for members, based on the tactics of the Soviet Grandmasters. Aaron still holds classes at the Emmanuel Chess Centre, with many youngsters caught in raptures over his lecture presentations on various positions and game play. Aaron is an institution in himself and his reading and knowledge of the sport would put any reputed academician in any discipline to shame.
The Emmanuel Chess Centre (ECC) was established at the RCC’s Exhibition Hall in 1996, with the aim of training youngsters interested in the game. “I wanted to start a place that would provide an atmosphere for children to come and play the game,” says chief consultant Ebenezer Joseph, who had the privilege to play during his childhood at the Tal Chess Club. Now a FIDE-recognised trainer, Joseph hopes to continue the tradition and propagate the following in the sport. Joseph is India’s first and only trainer to be accredited by FIDE (World Chess Federation) and has the experience of having trained over 2000 children, including the likes of Jerome (fourth in 2006 National under-7 championship), Ashwini (Girls Under-8 Asia No.3 and World No.7) and Mugil Jayavel (Boys Under-10 World No. 27).
The team of trainers at the ECC is well-equipped to deal with all sorts of youngsters, right from tiny tots who are making their first moves in the sport to kids who have already made a mark. Chess at the ECC is an alter-culture. “e4e6d4d5” is one of the many complex combinations that you would hear while at the Centre, muttered by trainers and students alike. ‘Elephant Gambit’ and a whole host of defences and positions named after European nations and capitals will strike you, apart from those formulated and named after great chess players themselves, who perhaps you may have never heard of.
The Russian centres in Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi have had a major role over the years in promoting chess in the country, with the Botvinik Club in Delhi, the Goodricke Academy in Kolkata and the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai being catalysts in spreading the ‘chess culture.’ Now, the Emmanuel Chess Centre at the RCC in Chennai is carrying forward this culture.
(The writer is a journalism student and a sports lover. You could reach him by mailing to email@example.com)