Chess Olympiad: Pathbreaker Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi recalls Grand moments

Express News Service

CHENNAI: When Viswanathan Anand became the first Indian Grandmaster in 1988, it was a landmark moment. He had achieved something that was never done before in the country. Over the next 12 years, India would have produced four more GMs in Dibyendu Barua, Praveen Thipsay, Abhijit Kunte and Krishnan Sasikiran. But all of them were men. It wasn’t until Subbaraman Vijayalakshmi broke the glass ceiling in 2001, that India had a woman Grandmaster on the world stage.

Vijayalakshmi is a trendsetter in many ways. She was the Commonwealth women’s champion in 1996 and won silver medals in the 2000 and 2002 Olympiads, but more than anything else, she put Indian women’s chess on the map. As her home city, Chennai gets ready to host the 44th Chess Olympiad, the 43-year-old spoke about her journey, how much the game and fraternity have grown and more. Excerpts:

On her early journey…

My father was the person who brought me into chess. Ours is a chess family. All my sisters play. I and my sister Meenakshi both are WGMs. I am the first and she is the fifth in the country. My husband (Sriram Jha) is also a GM. My youngest sister is also an international chess player. My father was my coach. We started chess when I was 3.5 years old, the way things were then to what it is now there is a huge sea of change as far as chess growth is concerned. At that time the Olympiad was just like any other tournament everyone was aware of but now seeing that so much awareness and recognition is there, it’s such a happy place for all players right now.

How many things have changed from the time you became a WGM?

When I used to play, I used to get prize money of Rs 50 or 100. Now the prize money is quite high. When I won the first national championship the prize was Rs 10,000. Now it’s about Rs 3-5 lakhs. Obviously, there’s quite a lot of difference in that, they get more exposure. I have won two Olympiad medals. But basically, it was unknown at that point in time. Now, an Olympiad medal means more monetarily (as well), that’ll be a huge motivation.

Do you think there’s more pressure because of the financial benefits that come with it?

When I played, awareness was not there for my generation. Slowly it picked up and now chess is considered to be a very professionally acclaimed sport as far as India is concerned. Pressure is always there. For the simplest reason because even when I played, I had the pressure of coming first. I don’t think it was any different than what it is now. The big difference is that as of today they have good opportunities. That is one major difference.

Preparation was very high at that point as well. The mode of preparation has changed, yes, as they use a lot of computers now, a high tech system and coaches, but other than that,  the coaching time and all is similar only. I used to put in 10 hours a day. The quantum of the work will be similar. The change is only in the way it has been worked out. It’s a natural evolution.

What was the most memorable moment of your career?

Definitely, when I became the first woman GM of the country. When I first won the chess Olympiad silver medal, the whole fraternity was there I was representing India and our flag was being hoisted. That was a very special moment. Honestly, before I was there on the screen, nobody crossed the 2050 ratings. I was the first person to venture into the international arena, play in the Men’s section and win the men’s title and norms. My rating was quite ahead of other women’s ratings. But now, you see the rating gap is reduced drastically.

The bridge has quite reduced, but at that point, it was high. That way, I am happy that I did something that was not there. It was completely never there in India. For example, what Anand did in men’s chess, I was the first woman to cross 2100, 2200, 2300, and 2400 ratings. I was very close to 2500 but I dropped out. I was the World No 8 at some point. These are things that were not possible there at some point. To break that enigma, not just me but with my sister also, we used to come No 1 & 2 in the nationals at some point, and that was something definitely.

On what it meant to her dad

It was the greatest moment for him because we started with absolutely nothing and even now there is no recognition for him. The whole Indian fraternity knows that I am what I am because of him. I know there are stories about so many other players. He was sort of the first coach and father who brought up women players to an international level which was not even thinkable at that point in time. To be the woman chess player from Chennai to go and reach that was unheard of at that point. That was probably his biggest achievement. I absolutely owe everything to him. He was instrumental in moulding me into a complete chess player. I am 43 and started when I was 3 and a half years old. It’s a huge span of time. That’s where a strong basement he built for me plays a big role.

On India’s chances in the Chennai Chess Olympiad

Today everyone is playing well. There are no easy points to score and I think India has a good chance this time. Because, especially with Russia and China opting out, the chances are getting brighter. But, there are stronger teams and when it comes to the Olympiad it’s a different ball game altogether. It’s not like any other tournament. When you are playing for the country the stakes are quite high.

Who do you think will shine bright for India?

I don’t want to pick one name. As far as men, I think Arjun Erigaisi is doing really well. I have seen that Gukesh D is closing on 2700 ratings, he is creating a lot of spurs. The youngsters are really good. Vaishali (R) is doing well, and so many of them are doing well. There’s going to be a mix of seniors and juniors, and they probably stand a good chance.

How is this Olympiad going to transform the chess scene in Chennai?

Chennai is already considered to be the ‘Mecca of chess’ as far as India is concerned. This will definitely be a bigger boost. I’m sure there are going to be more and more Anands and Vijis coming up, is what I believe.

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