Sunday, 20 November 2016

Indian Chess - The change starts with...

India's 54th National Premier Championship (formerly National 'A') is in shambles. It started with a delay in start of the 1st round due to unavailability of a venue!

The championship did indeed start the next day and we thought the worst was behind us. But yesterday (Nov 19) another bomb fell when the organizer called the players and mentioned that they no longer have the venue for round 4!

Consequentially, 5 players (Abhishek Kelkar, Vidit Gujrathi, Abhijit Kunte, Tejas Bakre, Neeraj Mishra) withdrew from the tournament citing lack of a definite venue and hence the "intolerable playing conditions".

Don't shoot the messenger!

It was mentioned that it was the 1st time for the organizers and this chaos can be attributed to their lack of experience. But is it really that simple?

When the App developer working on my team makes a serious mistake and pushes an App update which breaks an important functionality, should I just fire him? Shouldn't I own it up and put processes in place to make sure such errors don't happen again? (In fact we have done such mistakes in the past, and now before every release we go through Test cases and a Checklist to make sure important things are in place)

If a kid is given a weapon which he does not quite understand how to use, and injures others, should we blame the kids or the parents?

I believe, a crisis like this could be averted with proper processes in place and inspections ahead of time to ensure things are as expected and meet a minimum quality criteria. Just like the FIDE members who visit the proposed World Championship venues in advance and check out the preparation and carry out other checks (along with members representing each players), a pre-event checklist and inspection for top Indian events would be helpful. 

But then, this is not just about one event or events which would be held in the future.

A bigger malaise

On numerous occasions, we hear and read on how our sports personalities are some times ill-treated or don't get the respect they deserve. As recent as Sep 2016, we read about the ordeal faced by our Olympic chess team: (in words of the Team Captain GM Ramesh on Facebook)

"Should really appreciate the gentleman/woman who made the booking for Indian chess team to Chess Olympiad at Baku. Chennai to Delhi three hour flight. Eight hour halt in Delhi. Delhi to Dubai by Fly Dubai airlines, food, water not included in fare. Flight delayed by two hours after boarding. Three and a half hours halt at Dubai airport. Three hour flight to Baku. Almost 24 hours for travel time with no provision for food or water."

Ofcourse, AICF distanced itself from the matter, saying it was an agency which booked on instructions of the government. 

The following month (Oct), the Indian team for the World Youth also had a not-so-pleasant experience, as narrated by the Coach Mrunalini Kunte on her facebook page (later deleted).

Shouldn't the people in-charge of the game be accountable, even if things that happen may not be directly under their influence? I am given to understand that they are, and I know of atleast one person in the Indian Chess federation who goes out of his ways to ensure things go smoothly for the players. But clearly, this is not enough.

Something fundamental has to change.  Government/officials tend to take the easy way out. Banning tinted glasses on vehicles and stuff like that are the "easy" things to do, but that may not be attacking the root cause of the problem. You cannot wash your hands off like that and say I am done. Sometimes, its the fundamental things that need to be done right; like proper street lighting to make people safe, proper footpaths so people can walk, stricter laws etc and then everything else pretty much should fall in place.

Somewhere we take things for granted... In the things that we do for us, and for others. Since the past 2+ years that I have been broadcasting live events in Follow Chess, I have come across numerous organizers, federations and websites. Some go really out of their way to ensure their event is broadcast live and have dedicated websites and commentary etc.

In India, I don't remember the last time we even had a Round robin event with top players (barring the National championships). How many of our events even get their own dedicated web page (one page), let alone a complete website!?
Somewhere we lack, when its time to show case to the world, what we are doing and what we are capable of doing. The jugaad mentality needs to give way for more professionalism.

Quality cannot be compromised. Unfortunately, looking at the type of tournaments that get organized and lack of chances for 2400+ players, it looks like our focus is quantity than quality.

We say chess is getting younger (with the World Champ near 26 and many others at that age point), but why does India not have any 26 year old in the world top 10 (or 25, or 50)? (Harikrishna is 30 and ranked #11. The youngest top player is 22 year old Vidit, ranked #53)
But we are indeed breaking records for the highest number of FIDE rated players (India is currently the 2nd highest nation in terms of FIDE rated players)!

The below table shows the number of FIDE rated players (as of Nov 2016) vs Titled players (GM/IM/FM/WGM...)

RankFedTitledRatedTitled/Rated (TPR) %
Table1 : Top 10 nations with total Titled + Rated players and their ratio
India has the lowest of all the Top 10 nations! (mere 0.51 Titled players for every 100 rated). It could be said that this could be expected for such a huge nation with large number of rated players. Maybe Russia is an anomaly with 4 titled for every 100 rated, inspite of having the highest number of FIDE rated players. But even France with equally high rated players has double TPR (Titled per Rated) ratio.
This should be a red flag!

But things start to look promising if you look at the below table:

RankFedGMsTitledGMs/Titled (GPT) %
Table1 : Top 10 nations with total GMs + Titled players and their ratio

The GPT ratio (GMs per Titled players) is quite good and better than many other federations. What does this mean? Doesn't it look like our Titled players really beat the odds and do better inspite of what the system throws in their way and go on to becomes Grandmasters!?
So if we develop a system, a framework to generate more Titled players, they would probably rise up in the world rankings by their own merit (and ofcourse with help and sponsors) and really dense up the Top 100 rating list for India.

Some things that can be done...

Coach Ramesh had mentioned some amazing points on his Facebook page after the near successful Olympic triumph. He has re-iterated those points in our interview with him (especially the Q: 'How do you look at the current Indian and Global Chess scenario').
However, some things that I would like to add:
  • Put promising young players on a fast track to growth and provide more opportunities even if it means NOT having to play in their under-age category events
  • Focus on getting more titled players
  • Have a professional chess body to represent the Indian player's interest (akin to the ACP, although frankly I am not sure what exact role ACP plays apart from some FB posts from the president condemning an bad occurrence or stuff like that. Or maybe they aren't doing sufficient enough to promote/advertise what they are doing to help players and how it has been effective. Either way its atleast assuring that players have support when they need it the most)
  • Form a body of passionate like-minded volunteers/coaches/organizers/players & officials and work towards the important priorities
  • Focus on implicit branding by having proper pages for state/national events etc. No more jugaad. Sponsors need to be able to see the things that they are buying into. Else it becomes a vicious cycle of 'no good branding = no sponsors = no money to focus on branding'. A complete re-brand/overhaul will do amazing things!
  • Focus on quality, in everything we do. From organizing tourneys, communication, web sites, player interests, things need to be uplifted
  • Put players interest before everything else, as long as it does not compromise the integrity of the sport or the country
  • A team league system. (France for example has a league system even for kids and youth!)

The change starts with ... myself!

In the aforementioned interview with GM Ramesh, he gave a startling answer when we asked him about that one thing that he would like to change in this world. His answer was "Myself"!!

We cannot expect others to change, if we ourselves dont. Some say the venue crisis was a political conspiracy and sabotage. Maybe it is, maybe it is not. But who are all these people. Aren't they one of us? Our future self!?

Its very easy for us, arm-chair generals, to get on Twitter/FB and preach/criticize/suggest, but very difficult to actually go out and make the change or help the game. (Didn't the 'mahan atma' who said 'be the change you want to see' come from India!?)

So I should focus on improving the quality of what I put out there for chess players to use (Apps & Web)... No jugaad.. Focus on doing more for Chess (tournaments & administrative)!

What change are YOU going to make?

- Asim Pereira