All about ChessBase India

by Stefan Liebig
6/27/2024 – In an in-depth interview, the founder and CEO of ChessBase India, Sagar Shah, talks about how chess is developing in India and what projects are keeping him busy. The interview was conducted by Stefan Liebig for the German chess magazine Schach 64 and tells us about Sagar's professional career, and his work with top Indian talents.

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How did you get into chess? And since you were born in India in the 1990s, the second question is obvious: how did Viswanathan Anand act as a role model?

I started playing chess relatively late. Not until I was ten years old. Vishy became a role model for me when I got better and better, at around 13 or 14. I was able to take part in a simultaneous match against him in 2004. He became World Champion in 2007, and I got the chance to play against him again in a simultaneous match in 2010. I was somewhere between 2200 and 2300 Elo at the time. Anand made so much possible and motivated so many talents to emulate him.

You also made two grandmaster norms and everyone was waiting for the third – what happened then?

Of course, the title was my big goal. But then I married my wife Amruta Mokal, who is also a chess player. I had an idea: I sent an article about the chess wedding to ChessBase and hoped it would be published. News page editor Frederic Friedel replied after just a few hours. He thought my idea was great. He gave me a few journalistic tips on how to spice up the article, because my writing was far from perfect. But the article was then published – ten years ago, in two installments (here's the second part). That was great, of course!

What happened next?

Frederic took me under his wing. He coached me with my writing. There must have been hundreds of articles for which he sent me back a Word file with suggestions for improvement marked in yellow.

That's truly extraordinary.

Yes, the writing training was very valuable to me. Frederic did a marvellous job. I learnt so much ...

What happened next?

I came to Germany during this time and won a tournament in Dresden. That was my first grandmaster norm. After the tournament I was able to visit the ChessBase headquarters in Hamburg. It was incredible for me to see 20 people sitting in a large chess office, all making a living from chess. Some were writing, others were programming, others were making videos or packaging chess books and DVDs. That was extremely inspiring for me. It gave me a new perspective on chess.

Sagar Shah won the XXXIII ZMDI Open 2014 ahead of fourteen grandmasters and nine International Masters, with a score of 7.0/9 and a performance of 2657.

I spoke a lot with Frederic, Matthias Wüllenweber and Rainer Woisin. I described my experiences with the ChessBase in India. Of course the software was also very well known and popular there. But the products were simply too expensive, related to Indian incomes. And there were often technical problems with payment processing. As a result, many pirated copies were in circulation. But most of them didn't work properly. 

... and you looked for a way out of the misery?

Exactly. My wife and I got permission to sell the products at more favourable prices and with a reasonable commission, in India and some neighbouring countries. This was the starting signal for ChessBase India in 2016.

What has become of ChessBase India to date?

We now have over 20 employees. And some of them, like me, travel to international tournaments all over the world. 

Could you have imagined this when you sent the first contribution to Hamburg on the off-chance?

No, I still can't believe it. It's so great and so much fun. It's fantastic!

You talked about the simultaneous games with Anand. Back then you sat opposite him in awe. Now you meet him often and have conducted many interviews with him. Is it still something special to meet him?

It's great to get to know someone like Vishy – to get to know the private side of such an impressive personality. He embodies, like no other genius, the balance between intellectual superiority and humanity. He treats everyone with respect and kindness –  a truly exceptional quality!

What has changed in Indian chess as a result of the former world champion's success?

Above all, he has made it possible for young talents to believe that they can become the best. It's not just his world championship title, he has been playing at the highest level for three decades.

So has Anand laid the foundations for India's current successes? After all, five of the 16 participants in the Candidates Tournaments in Toronto were from India.

A lot of positive things are simply coming together at the moment. At the Olympiad in Chennai there were many promising Indian talents with grandmaster playing strength, but it was not foreseeable that with Gukesh, Vidit and Pragg three of them would compete in the Candidates, and with Humpy Koneru and Vaishali two in the women's tournament. This is impressive and inspires many people in India who don't have much to do with chess.

Given Gukesh's incredible success, what were the expectations before the tournament?

We knew that all three of them could compete with the greats like Nepo, Caruana and Nakamura. Vidit had experience in such tournaments, but tt was particularly interesting to see how the two younger players would cope with the great strain of such a long tournament and the public pressure.

And they coped surprisingly well...

The whole tournament was impressive. It became clearer and clearer that all three were capable of something. Vidit beat Nakamura twice, Gukesh got over his dramatic time trouble loss against Firouzja, and Pragg played very combatively. He was extremely well prepared. After the third rest day, everyone still had a chance. But when Pragg and Vidit lost, and everyone looked to Gukesh. He kept his cool and won on demand against Abasov and Firouzja. He then made a completely safe and composed draw against Nakamura and was able to watch as the decisive game ended in a draw. The sensation was perfect: he had won the tournament on his own, even without the experience of such a tournament. Madness!

What happened next?

There were an unexpectedly large number of Indian fans in Toronto. Up to 200 met the players in the park in the days before the tournament. But what happened after it was over exceeded all expectations: I wanted to do an interview with Gukesh – I've known him since he was a kid. But the many Indian media enquiries – far beyond the chess press – were more important at that moment.

And Gukesh was incredibly professional...? 

Yes. In India, the morning had just dawned, and the reporters pounced on him. He answered question after question, one interview after another. When it was already deep into the night in Toronto, he eventually called it a day. That shows what's happening in India right now: chess has always enjoyed a lot of respect, but that has risen sharply with Anand. This development is now continuing. Chess is becoming mainstream!

How does Gukesh do it?

He has good support from his father, who manages him, and his coach Vishnu Prasanna. They look after him well and teach him a lot – on the chessboard and around it.

You have done a a joint project with Gukesh?

Yes, I asked him last year if he would like to be the first to come to our new video studio in Mumbai to record a video course. I thought he would think about it for a while, but he agreed immediately. We then did a tactics course

Some of the sessions lasted twelve hours. Once I fell asleep, but he kept working. He is constantly absorbing new ideas!

There are now a whole series of courses like this. What is so special about them?

They are dialogue between the two protagonists. And I really enjoy working with players and coaches, like Vidit, Ganguly and Ramesh. I'm also looking forward to releasing a project with Gukesh's coach Vishnu soon called ‘Nature of Mistakes’.

What is it like to be so close to these stars and to immerse yourself in their world of thought? What does that mean for your own playing strength? Could the GM title perhaps still follow at some point?

Working with them is a gift that opens up many new horizons for me. There were indeed phases when I regretted not pursuing my GM goal further. But I get to experience so much else in this job. And I often wake up in the morning and am simply delighted to have a job like this. Maybe I'll be able to use the new knowledge at some point. But one thing is clear: I can't do both. I would have to play regularly again and work hard on my chess. The many new ideas would certainly help me, but that's not an issue for me at the moment.

One question that keeps coming up: How realistic is it that we will see Anand as FIDE President?

His involvement in FIDE during his active time was a surprise for me. But it shows that Vishy has so much power and a vision of how chess should develop. The proof is the Chess Academy in India. That is so good for our sport. But I don't know where it will lead. Everything depends on world events – including Vishy's plans.

When it comes to the Olympiad, the other nations can be scared of the Indians!

In terms of strength, India is probably one of the favourites. But we have often seen the role that team spirit plays. But I'm optimistic about that too. Pragg and Arjun, for example, fought for the title at the World Cup, and went for a walk together in the evening. If the players manage to fight hard at the board and still get on well with each other, then they'll be a really strong team.

... and then there's the final of the World Championship: challenger Gukesh against World Champion Ding!

I got to know and appreciate Ding in 2017. It hurts to see him in his current form. For the sake of our sport, I hope that he finds his way back to his old form. If he manages to do that, we're in for an exciting match.

The in-depth interview was conducted during the World Cup 2017

Back to you. You write, blog, do interviews and videos, you also run the website, how important is entertainment for chess?

I'm developing and I think of the ‘chess ecosystem’ – I think it's good if we reach a lot of people. You have to remain interesting for both newcomers and experienced chess players. For example, in addition to a basic video, you can also offer a more advanced one. Of course, it all has to be presented in an entertaining way. there is enough competition.

Do you have goals?

Oh yes! I want to make chess more accessible all over the world with ChessRanga. I want to reach more people and especially help young children from the age of three to learn chess. Also, India is a big country with many languages and dialects – I want to provide chess material in different languages and give more opportunities to talents.

Thank you very much for the interview, Sagar.

The above interview appeared in the German chess magazine Schach 64, June 2024. It is published by Carl Ed. Schünemann KG, Bremen, and has been produced by Otto and Annette Borik since 1979.

On a personal note

In the early 1980s I (Frederic Friedel), a TV science journalist, got to know Otto, who invited me to his home and taught me how a magazine was produced. Together we worked on two issues of Schach 64, and I learned all about editing and typesetting.

After learning the tricks of the trade from Otto and Annette I started my own bi-monthly magazine, which I produced for 21 years. During this time I got to know Garry Kasparov and many chess giants, and together with Matthias Wüllenweber founded ChessBase. For 25 years I ran the news page for our company.

I am eternally grateful to Otto for setting me on the course of chess and publication.

Stefan Liebig, born in 1974, is a journalist and co-owner of a marketing agency. He now lives in Barterode near Göttingen. At the age of five, strange pieces on his neighbour’s shelf aroused his curiosity. Since then, the game of chess has cast a spell over him. Flying high in the NRW youth league with his home club SV Bad Laasphe and several appearances in the second division team of Tempo Göttingen were highlights for the former youth South Westphalia champion.
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psamant psamant 6/28/2024 08:17
Sagar has done fantastic work for chess in India. I am a hobby player residing in Mumbai and have been to the chess events Sagar organised at a mall in Ghatkopar. The sheer energy in that place was unbelievable. Chess has got a big boost in India because of Sagar and Chessbase. Their commentary of live events on YouTube is also very different. They are openly partisan and so called amateurish, even eating, taking breaks and wandering off into some unrelated stories while commenting live... yet it is so good natured and feels refreshingly - as if all of us are friends at home watching the event together
Leavenfish Leavenfish 6/28/2024 06:38
Sagar is the one personality I can anything, talk to anyone. He is just awesome!