By Uma Sudhir
Sanjana is not yet eight years old. She is in class three at Siddhartha Public School in Vijayawada. But she does not go to school. Instead, she is in the company of kings, queens, knights, bishops, rooks and pawns, for eight to nine hours, everyday. Sanjana’s sole focus is on excelling in the game of chess. Her parents hope she will be a Grandmaster one day, a la Vishwanathan Anand and Koneru Humpy.
It is a long way to go. Last weekend, she took the first baby-step towards that at the Andhra Pradesh under-7 state chess championship in Vijayawada. (Sanjana qualified as children till the age of 7 years & 10 months are allowed to take part in the under-7 championships). She won all her five games to be crowned the state under-7 champion and mom Radhika was beaming.
“More than anything, I am relieved. If your child does not perform well at any tournament, you start to feel the pressure. The nagging doubts, about whether we have taken the right decision for the child, start upsetting you. When she wins, I start feeling confident once again.”
Each of the winners at the tournament, both boys and girls, was there because they intended to be professional chess players and were working virtually full-time to make that happen. With full support, dedication and commitment from their parents.
Six-year-old Anurag is in class one at Smartkids in Secunderabad. He has not gone to school for the last two months, to prepare for the state championship, and won’t go the next two months either. He finished fourth in Vijayawada and is hoping to do well at the Nationals to be held mid-December in Ahmedabad. I watched with admiration as the cool and composed boy, who had just won a rather long match in the third round at the championship, didn’t even seem to pause to think that a break was necessary. The game over, he immediately sat down to analyse the moves with his coach Avadhaani, and then it was time for a practise match with another player.
It is this interest in chess and the ability to remain focussed that prompted Anurag’s father Murali to choose chess over academics.
“At this early stage, he can afford to miss a year. He has been learning chess for over a year now. Another year of focussed training and he will be among the top Indian players in his age group. When he is showing potential, it is wrong to not give him the right amount of backing,” he says.
It is not an easy call to take. Even if your child is just six years old. And I speak from experience. In March this year, my husband Sudhir asked Chess International Master and coach of the Indian women chess team, Lanka Ravi when would be a good time to initiate our five and a half year old daughter into chess. Ravi’s answer : “You are already one year late.”
Tejaswini, who turned six this August, has been training with Lanka Ravi at his Cyber Chess academy in Hyderabad since April. She goes at the academy for two hours, twice a week. Those who have seen her play and win smaller tournaments or finish runners-up say, she has potential. But to realise that potential, would she need to focus only on chess, like the children in Vijayawada and elsewhere are doing?
Sanjana’s day starts with online coaching at home, at 9 in the morning. By noon, she is off to her chess academy and is there till late in the evening. Over the weekend, a well-known coach from a neighbouring town comes in to train Sanjana. It is obvious the child eats, breathes and thinks chess.
7-year-old Srinath Chowdhary told me his day begins at 7 am when he leaves home for the Chess Academy. He gets back by 5 pm. By six, the tution teacher comes in, so that he can keep up with the academic syllabus at school. After dinner, its time to once again do some puzzles and checkmating on the chessboard, before hitting the bed.
I asked Srinath, don’t you miss school, playing with your friends, watching TV? Srinath was grinning as he answered me: “That’s the best part of my playing chess. I don’t have to go to school.”
Priyanka, another child who is focussing on chess, told me being good at chess wins her admiration and that makes her feel good. “Even at school, they treat me as special, so that helps.” Her mother Durga says it is never easy to take the road less travelled. It needs physical, mental and financial commitment.
The parents point out that this kind of rigour is not for every child. Incidentally, all the four players, Sanjana, Anurag, Srinath and Priyanka, have an elder sibling, who the parents say, did not show the inclination or interest and are going to regular school, like any other student.
To excel, to become better than the best, you often need to do much more than the rest. But do I really want my daughter to try to become a superachiever? By focussing only on chess, won’t her world and worldview get limited to the chessboard and to victory? Afterall, she enjoys learning at school, music and so many more things. Won’t she miss out on those joys, of exploring the world, having fun with friends? Tejaswini is our daughter alright, but can we really take the decision that she can forego the little, big joys that childhood and life offers? Wouldn’t I rather just let her be, let her enjoy the joys of learning many things, including chess, and hope she becomes a happy, well-adjusted, sensitive individual? That’s what I would personally choose. But then may be a Sania Mirza, a Saina Nehwal, a Koneru Humpy and a Vishwanathan Anand are not made that way.
Fortunately for us, Lanka Ravi doesn’t think 24×7 on the 64 squares is what makes a chess champ. “What kind of chess they play is more important than how much chess they play. Also I have seen those players who have grown up skipping a formal education in a proper school, are poor communicators and are not able to have a realistic assessment of where they stand in the world outside the world of chess.”
At Chess Academies, little princes and princesses are preparing to become the kings and queens of tomorrow. Victory and success are commendable ambitions to pursue. But I hope the spirit of sportsmanship teaches the children to appreciate that you can’t win every match, always, and winning is not everything. Life is a beautiful game, a celebration, that you must learn to enjoy, whether it is on the chess board or outside those 64 squares.