Super-talents and the secret of success

by Frederic Friedel
10/25/2023 – India is beginning to seriously dominate the chess world, the country is on a path to becoming the super-power in the game. This is deeply gratifying – especially for the people involved in the training and advancement of the young stars. Frederic Friedel describes how the new group of super-talents is making its way to the very top. Other countries should take this as an example!

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Let us go back a few years. On January 29th 2019 the 14th World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik decided to retire from competitive chess. It was the end of an era. Vlady is a close friend, and I convinced him that he should consider training super-talents. Sagar Shah described what transpired.

For our enterprise we needed a sponsor. After a few months of searching, Sagar, founder and CEO of ChessBase India, found Microsense Networks Private Limited. Mr. Kailasanathan, the Managing Director of the company (middle in the picture above), and a former Tamil Nadu Chess State Champion (in 1972), agreed to fund the project to create world-class chess players in the years to come.

In August 2019 we arranged a training camp with Vladimir Kramnik and six talents of Indian chess in Chens Sur Leman near Geneva. It was a great success, the kids all enjoyed it tremendously. Vladimir stayed in touch with the students, commenting on their games and giving them further advice. It was his level of involvement in the project and subsequent results of the students that convinced Kailasanathan and Microsense of the need to continue these camps.

In January 2020 a second camp was organized, this time in Chennai, India. This time there were twelve trainees, and two illustrious teachers: Vladimir and former World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand, who, like Vladimir, is one of my oldest and best friends in chess.

I attended both Microsense training camps and was able to see first-hand how things developed. I described it in two reports at the time, one from Chens Sur Leman, and one from the Chennai training camp, where the following photos were taken:

The beautiful training venue in Chennai [click or tap images to enlarge]

During the second session I was asked by an Indian TV journalist what I expected from these training camps. I said I predicted that in five years at least two of the top ten players in the world would be Indians, and in ten years at least three or four. "Isn't that a bit unrealistic?" the journalist asked. "No," I replied, "do you want me to tell you their names right now?"

In this photo I have marked the players I named: Gukesh, Raunak, Pragg, Arjun and Leon. On the far left is Vaishali (sister of Pragg) who made her final GM norm in Qatar, with a 2609 performance. In the back row you see Kailasanathan, Frederic, Vlady and Boris.

Last week the Qatar Masters ended. Of the 158 participants, there were 59 GMs and 52 IMs. Here is a partial breakdown of the 31 different countries from which they came:

UAE - 1 ARM - 1 NOR - 2
AUS - 2 POL - 2 FID - 3
GER - 3 TUR - 3 NED - 3
IRI - 3 KAZ - 5 AZE - 5
CHN - 7 USA - 9 UZB - 14
IND - 75

And what did the final standings look like?

Rk. Name Pts.
1 Yakubboev, Nodirbek 7
2 Abdusattorov, Nodirbek 7
3 Narayanan.S.L, 6,5
4 Sindarov, Javokhir 6,5
5 Nakamura, Hikaru 6,5
6 Erigaisi, Arjun 6,5
7 Maghsoodloo, Parham 6,5
8 Gukesh, D 6,5
9 Paravyan, David 6
10 Karthikeyan, Murali 6
11 Giri, Anish 6
12 Shimanov, Aleksandr 6
13 Salem, A.R. Saleh 6
Jumabayev, Rinat 6
15 Puranik, Abhimanyu 6
16 Carlsen, Magnus 6
17 Sethuraman, S.P. 6
Kaidanov, Gregory 6
19 Van Foreest, Jorden 6
20 Oparin, Grigoriy 6

...158 players

As you can see, six of the top twenty are from India. Their average age: 23 years. I was in constant (Skype) contact with the youngest, Gukesh, 17, Elo 2758, who was having a bad tournament: he drew his first game against a 2432 player, and lost two, one to compatriot Narayanan. "This is quite bad," he messaged me, "but I'm focusing on finding my form!" Bad? He won all the rest of his games and ended just half a point behind the winner – tied with Nakamura and ahead of Giri and World Champion Carlsen. 

How can we explain the remarkable success of the Indian players? Talent, of course. But why are there so many super-talents in one country? Why are so many moving to the very top? One part of an answer, as described above, is Sagar and Kailash, Vlady and Boris – they did it! And of course Viswanathan Anand, who in 1988 became India's first grandmaster, and then went on to become a five-time World Champion (2000, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2014). Hinduism suddenly had 34 instead of 33 main gods – Vishy was added as the God of Chess. Every child in India wanted to grow up to be like him, become a world-class chess grandmaster.

Anand remained India's top player until the ripe age of 53. In August 2023 Gukesh overtook him in the rating list, advancing to number eight in the world. And there are a couple more from our training camp above who are poised to join him at the top. Here's a meme that nicely visualizes what is in store:

Another contributing factor is ChessBase. All of the rising stars of chess have used this database from early childhood to study the game. They had access to a learning tool that no generation before them had. They had to procure books and try to study from them. Possible, but much, much slower. I have watched today's talents mining knowledge from over ten million high quality games, scanning through them at a rate of fifty per hour.

One other factor, in my view, is the Indian mentality of unconditionally fostering a talent you spot in a child – if you can afford it. I have seen a dozen Indian fathers give up their professions to accompany their sons to chess events all over the world, and a dozen families spend most of their income on travel, trainers and seconds.

In the next few years we will see what all this will all lead to. Keep your seat belts fastened!

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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Frederic Frederic 10/29/2023 09:10
Guys, there is a very simple reason why China will never catch up with India in the sheer number of chess enthusiasts and super-talents. Nobody found it? I will post the solution here tomorrow.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/28/2023 02:51
Assuming that the reason I have given was wrong, Vishy Anand seems like a good candidate as well as the Kramnik & Gelfand combo. And Indians are watching Sagar's videos and chessbase India in general, while the Chinese are busy with Chinese chess (further guesses).
sivakumar R sivakumar R 10/28/2023 08:50
India and China have the same population - however, China is a sports superpower while India is abysmally poor at it (as is evident from Olympics).
(In a lighter vein), it is said that climate in India is too hot/ harsh and people prefer indoor sports to outdoor!
brabo_hf brabo_hf 10/28/2023 08:33
India was till 1949 a colony of England. English is still an official language in India. The widespread knowledge of English (30% of the population speaks English especially the upperclasses most likely to play chess). This is a very big advantage compared to China especially for chess.
BKnight2003 BKnight2003 10/28/2023 12:24
Vishy Anand is the reason. A world champion with proper visibility, in any discipline, makes waves in his/her home country, inspiring the younsgters.
Frederic Frederic 10/27/2023 10:37
That is not the reason, lajosarpad. Think about it: same population size, about the same motivation for young people to be successful. So why is India poised to produce ten time more super-taltents than China?
lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/27/2023 01:36
@Frederic I think the reason may be that in China as a player gets older, he will lose state support. So, when parents think about the future of their children and realize that a chess career even if successful, means a retire at ~ 30, then they will have their child pursue another career. This is just a guess, I might be wrong.
Frederic Frederic 10/27/2023 10:46
A little puzzle for our readers: why will China, with a similar population, never achieve the broad base of very talented chess player that India has done? There is a simple reason.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/26/2023 09:48
Arzi is right of course, 1.4 billion people has more potential talents than scarcerly populated countries. Nevertheless, those Indians (and non-Indians) who actually make their way to the top are exceptionally talented and fully deserve it. Hence, Friedel is also correct.
brabo_hf brabo_hf 10/25/2023 07:33
I think few people know what it takes to reach 2600 and that is not enough anymore. The efforts needed don't make sense to Western standards. Any regular job is a better choice. It is different for Indians now but this could also change in a decade.
Mamack1 Mamack1 10/25/2023 06:26
Of course one possible answer is for those "local heros" <sic> to themselves improve?

Similar complaints were made after the collapse of the Eastern bloc/USSR btw, that sometimes little known players from those parts carried off too many prizes in Western tournaments and this was detrimental to the natives.

In the longer run, it may actually have heightened the standard of play overall.
brabo_hf brabo_hf 10/25/2023 05:15
A side-effect of the Indian success is the implosion of professional chess in the West. I see many + 2600 players giving up their professional careers as the Indian players are causing a deflation of their income.
As a further consequence local organizers are decreasing the prizes as not enough local heros are willing to participate (and to not attract Indian players).
It is hard to forecast the future but an Indian monopoly of chess could lead to a spiral of diminishing money in the chessworld. I hope that I am wrong but I don't have a good feeling now about it.
arzi arzi 10/25/2023 01:48
Frederic Friedel:"How can we explain the remarkable success of the Indian players? Talent, of course. But why are there so many super-talents in one country?"

Some dull people would say that 1408,000,000 people makes it possible easily?