Why don’t Indians follow chess?

For the next few days, newspapers will publish large pictures of Viswanathan Anand and laudatory articles about him. Perhaps they will write about how Anand makes perfect idlis and Aruna dances Bharatanatyam beautifully.? But mostly, they will write about Sicilian Najdorf and Nimzo Indian, and everyone’s eyes will glaze over and they will switch to reading about Deepika Padukone. But everyone will feel inordinately proud, for Anand has just won the World Chess Championship in Bonn and defended his title.? Some people might remember vaguely that they have an old chess board gathering dust somewhere and resolve to locate it and start playing chess again.? They will never do it, of course.

Meanwhile, everyone will ignore the fact that Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli are doing quite well in the European Club Cup championships.? Who cares about European clubs, unless it’s football?

After a few days, the newspapers will turn to Ganguly’s retirement and Gambhir’s elbowing of Watson and everyone will forget about chess and Anand again.? Until the next World Chess Championship, whenever that is.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why isn’t chess more popular in India?? I agree that chess is more popular in India than in many other countries, like say, the US.? But then, chess originated in India. In the US, chess is unpopular because it is considered a nerd’s game. Yet, there are probably more chess clubs in the US than there are in India.

But we Indians revel in being nerds.? We talk in lingos and jargon – techie jargon, stock market jargon, medical jargon, whatever our chosen field, we pick up the jargon first.

If we are not discussing our jobs, we are still finding other ways to show our nerdiness.? If we are discussing immigration, we will know all about arcane immigration rules.? We will have detailed discussions on form I-485 and I-140 and everyone will know what they are talking about.? If we are discussing politics, we will use terms like GOTV, IBD/TIPP and LV, discuss the latest Rasmussen poll result and its methodology, and what it portends for each candidate.

Take our sports.? We don’t love sports which have too much activity. Take Test cricket, for instance.? It is a game that I am certain is supposed to be played by senior citizens.? That is why they have those long lunch breaks where one can comfortably have an afternoon siesta, and those tea breaks when they can catch a short nap, and there are all manner of breaks in between.? Like the drinks break – you would think the players and umpires would be able to swig from a Gatorade bottle when they are standing idly in the sidelines, or waiting for the over change, or a new batsman to come in, or any such occasion.? But no, they have to set aside special drinks breaks when the players can walk around with their drinks and socialize.

Long story short, senior citizens’ game. But we increase the nerd quotient even for such a game by counting each run and catch and making the game a statistician’s delight.? The average nerd on the street can tell you how many runs Tendulkar has scored, who in the world is the next highest run scorer, or how many wickets Kapil Dev has taken.

We created other nerdy games like Scrabulous (or Lexulous), and millions of us play it every day.? Some of us (yes, that’s me) support even more nerdy causes like the Spelling Bee.

Even our grandmothers play quasi-nerdy games like “Antakshari” which involve having a memory bank of songs in the hundreds (thousands?).

We also love any activity that involves sitting motionlessly and staring at something – which is why many of us are software engineers and finance professionals, and we spend our free time surfing on our computers and watching television.

When I think about all this, I am puzzled as to why we don’t like chess more.? Sure, a lot more Indians play chess than other nationals, and perhaps a lot more Indians play chess than before.

Forget playing – a lot of us don’t actively play cricket either.? But we treat it as a spectator sport.? Why don’t we do the same with chess?

During this World Championship, there were many sites that offered free commentary/ analysis of each move by GrandMasters (Chessdom, Susan Polgar’s blog), showed each player’s move on a chessboard, or predicted what the computer “engines” like Rybka or Fritz were predicting for the next move (ChessOK).

Each game day morning, I would obsessively refresh all these sites every few minutes to see what was happening. It was great fun to replay those games move by move and see what the world champions were playing.

I am not much of a chess player.? I have never played chess in any tournament.? The high point of my chess career occurred at age 10 when I successfully drew a game with my cousin (who was several years older than me).? Of course, I lost the next game rather quickly, but we shall pass over that, shall we?

I have also never played cricket, and yet I religiously watch most cricket matches.

I was surprised at how few people were discussing the game online.? I didn’t read any blog posts or get any tweets about the game.? You would think chess is a game we would all gravitate to naturally, and happily discuss chess with all its jargon – about Ruy Lopez and Queen’s Gambit Declined and why Kramnik should never have tried the Nimzo Indian opening given his disastrous results with Kasparov.? Think of all the opportunities we are missing out.

You might say that it’s not the lack of jargon, but rather because chess is too boring.? Unlike cricket, where people elbow each other and leap like frogs and call each other monkeys, chess is just played by two quiet people in suits.

That is of course, completely ridiculous, as anyone who followed the Kramnik-Topalov bathroom saga a.k.a. World Championship will tell you.? Cricket can never reach the lofty levels that chess has already attained.? What this post really needs is a picture of Kramnik sitting in protest outside his bathroom during the World Championship with Topalov, and forfeiting the game because the bathroom was not unlocked.? I am relieved Russia and Bulgaria did not go to war over Kramnik’s bathroom, but I suspect they considered the idea.

So entertainment value is surely not the issue. Why then, do so few Indians follow chess?? Why is chess not even half as much a nerd-religion as cricket is?

Is it that somehow, chess does not have enough aggregates and percentages and “expert” commentators? Could it be that somehow, we think chess Is not nerdy enough for us?? 😉

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18 thoughts on “Why don’t Indians follow chess?

  1. To put it plainly and simply, “It’s the money, honey !” 🙂
    Till some Godfather with deep pockets and a long term vision comes along to revolutionise the game’s visibilty and perception, chess, and even other sports like badminton and tennis will remain poor country cousins of cricket. People will pay good money to watch twenty two “flannelled fools” rather than two dark suits ! 🙂 In fact, even the endorsement deals that come with being a top cricketer are enough to surpass ALL earnings from the other sports.

    An Indian playing chess (Anand), tennis (Paes, Bhupathi, Sania) or badminton (Prakash Padukone, Gopichand, Saina) will find it a pretty lonely affair and has long been the preserve of those who had a single minded passion for the game. They also had parents and well wishers that went all out to support and encourage them, especially with the financing bit. (like Abhinav Bindra’s father for eg).

    Practically none of our superstars in these other sports owe ANYTHING to the Indian system, and this is what needs to change if we are to regularly churn out champions in multiple sports.

    I agree that the money in cricket goes a long way towards making cricket into a career choice. Your points on parents and well-wishers funding athletes and no support from the system are all good and well-taken.

    But most of us follow cricket even though we have never consider playing at any level. It’s the same with Scrabble or carrom or any of the board games we play. My question is not what prevents us from playing championships in chess, but what prevents us from even following it?

  2. happy diwali
    it is not that chess isn’t popular. it is played quite a bit. but, it is not mass entertainment. And India, unfortunately, has become a place where numbers and only numbers rule 😦

    I was talking to a sports marketeer and he told me that it is not that Indians like or understand cricket. we don’t. we like to see India play and win. the moment India goes out of the game, viewership wanes.

    Lekhni: That’s true. I cannot imagine that most of those people who show their raucous support in 20-20 games know much of the intricacies of cricket (which is perhaps why 20-20 is ideal for them).
    It’s sad to see watching cricket becoming one more way to express jingoism 😦

  3. Its also because most of us dont understand it 😦 people dont like to invest their brains when watching sports..may be because of that.

    That’s what I don’t understand. We do memorize detailed statistics on cricket, and arcane rules of “new” games like NFL football. Even cricket is a “thinking game” if you start thinking about what kind of ball the bowler will now bowl, given the particular situation/batsman – will he bowl a yorker, will he come round the wicket, what does the field setting indicate? We do think in sports all the time, we just don’t realize it.

  4. chess requires mental effort perhaps – cricket, other physical sports dont.

    I agree that’s the general perception. But see my comment to Thejesh – we do think a lot even when watching cricket. Or let’s put it this way – there are enough mindless watchers, but there are also a lot of people who do think a lot when they watch cricket. Why doesn’t this segment gravitate towards chess?

  5. It’s not just a question of chess. Indian don’t follow any game outside cricket (and may be to an extend EPL and F1). Indians watch cricket because it is the only game India has been consistently good at (It’s easy when there is hardly anyone playing the game). It can be exciting in parts as well. I don’t know if anybody watches test cricket religiously. I always switch channels and watch only when there is something exciting to watch.
    Watching chess tends to be dull. We may use jargons in most walks of life, but we prefer sports to be easily understandable. I mean how long will it take me to understand what a hook or a pull is from context, when compared to the Sicilian Najdorf or the Nimzo Indian (which I’ll need to wiki).
    When it comes to playing, the major fault lies in infrastructure. In US, everybody is tuned to compete in school. Sports play a minor part in the curriculum here. U need to catch the game when u r young, which chess, or for that matter any sport in the country, fails to do. Then everyone just gravitate towards what they find interesting – cricket, Counter Strike and beyond.

    There are definitely people who follow test cricket religiously 🙂 I also don’t agree that Indians are “consistently good” at cricket – if anything, they are consistently inconsistent 😉

    You may understand a hook or a pull, but think about it, unless you know the jargon, can you understand “third man” and “yorker” and “chinaman”? 🙂

  6. Hi,
    As Atul mentioned above, it is all about the money. We are not talking about the money the sportperson earns but the advertising money the sport can generate, which in turn is dependant on viewership interest.
    And that is where Chess has a problem – it is not viewer friendly. I can’t imagine a Chess game which can be watched by thousands of people, like a game of Cricket, Tennis, Football, F1 or Golf can be.
    Cheers,

    I completely agree that it’s not viewer friendly like twenty-20 cricket is. But I’d argue that neither is a Test match. I am not talking about chess matches being watched by thousands of people. I am talking of following chess matches from your computer, like you’d follow a cricket match if it is not telecast.

  7. I think Salil already made this point, but does a sport like chess lend itself to mass consumption?

    No, I agree it doesn’t. But what about just the sub-segment of nerds? 😉

  8. It’s all about the marketability! You need raw power, brute force and interval breaks!

    You need the sixes and fours in a batsmen dominated game, or tantalising turn, steep bounce or mind boggling swing in a bowler dominated game. That is the stuff that brings spectators and pumps the adrenalin levels. How many ppl would watch NFL or NHL if players weren’t allowed to collide? Heck they give them gear so that they can hit each other!

    Imagine basketball without the dunks or air hoops! We as spectators need raw agression in our sports, we are no less than the ppl who thronged to watch gladiator fights in rome!

    Does chess or any game you mentioned have that?

    PS: FOr this very same reason, hockey and soccer have a future in India if we pump some money into it…

    sorry for the long comment

    What about the people who play Scrabulous? Wikipedia tells me Scrabulous/ Lexulous has 850,000 users and is played by 500,000 people daily. I don’t know how many of them are Indians. I am not even talking about playing chess, but following chess – and unlike Scrabulous, chess doesn’t need language skills, and you can understand the game perfectly even if you don’t know that the players are using Nimzo Indian or whatever.

  9. Am so with you on this one. Used to play chess when I was a kid. Now I see my son’s love for this game & I must admit it is infectious:) He patiently sits through 2 hours of training over the weekend (his choice BTW) and dreams of meeting Vishwanathan Anand when we are in India end of this year 🙂 Such lofty goals at the age of 8 😉

    It’s nice to see at least one person understands what I mean 😛

  10. Ah! Lovely post! I think the reason chess isn’t hugely popular is because it’s a cerebral game that requires a lot of time, patience, and some degree of intelligence. Whereas, in cricket, most vocal supporters often don’t know the intricacies of the game, but can nevertheless enjoy it because all one needs to do is cheer when your players do well. Hardly requires any effort!

    Lekhni: But don’t you think there are large numbers of nerds (all the engineers, for a start) whom you’d expect to love chess, precisely because it requires some degree of intelligence and patience and whatnot? At least, it should be fashionable to follow it, no?

  11. I agree with max. There is an adrenaline factor that is not associated with Chess.
    And it is simply not popular in India, just like why hockey is not, because of the lack of inspiration. For Sachin, Dravid, Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Ganguly, Laxman, and I can go on, you have one Anand, one Dhanraj Pillai. It is a vicious circle now, that you need to develop sports, and to develop sports, you need ppl to show some interest.

    And I don’t think those are statement of facts. You have a lunch break, a tea break, a drinks break because the game is played for about 8 hrs. Not 1.5 hrs like soccer, not 48 minutes or 60 minutes like the American sports, which is at most stretched to 2.5-3hrs with all the half time break, time outs in between. You have the players having gatorade, water all the time in between. Surely the batsman or bowler doesn’t call for drinks/water every 2 overs! 🙂

  12. Ahh me and my sister used to spend summer afternoons playing chess while eating sonpapdi. It was fun. Ever since we separated for higher studies we lost touch with chess but I have always liked playing chess. But I dont follow any game for that matter except when its Football World Cup.

  13. 1. I dont do chess because I’m too stupid and have too little patience and a total inability to visualise future moves and base my strategy on what might be. 🙂

    2. Perhaps if, like one-day internationals in cricket, chess had a shorter quicker version of tournaments where the players get a maximum of 30 seconds to play each move? 🙂 That might raise some interest and up the ante a bit. Ey, kya bolti tu? 😀

  14. Here are few ways to make people watch chess.
    1. Players work out and wear a hot bathing suit and play in the beach.
    2. Enclose chess pieces in sponsors ads.
    3. Have cheer leaders jumping whenever there is a great move.
    Basically make it lively for the layman. I am sure there are people who watch chess. The % is less, it is niche. It is like Mac market share, BMW market share. There is nothing wrong in being that way.
    About Test cricket, you’ve got it all wrong. It is hardly a senior citizen’s game. In a one day cricket you stop at bowling 10 overs in 2 or 3 spells for just an innings. But in Test cricket you need extreme concentration and stamina. Ask any fast bowler or ask Kumble. It is more tiring than a one day game if you are playing a prolonged innings, believe me. I am not a cricketer, but I have played 25 overs a side game in school and college and it is exhaustive to bat, field and bowl.

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