What do you do when you have 50 hours with two of the world's best chess minds? Do you feverishly jot down questions to ask or do you let them draw you in with their discourses? If you are a young player, you are probably not looking for half measures and would want to go the whole hog. It's what the bunch of Indian teens cooped in a sea-facing apartment off East Coast Road in Chennai did over the past ten days.
Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand, former world chess champion and challenger respectively, flew down to the southern Indian city early this month with extensive preparatory notes, images of a newly liberalized 1990s India swimming in their heads, and mild worries over contracting a stomach bug. The last time both travelled to India was, incidentally, to play each other in the 1994 Candidates semi-finals. This time around it was to coach 14 teenaged Indian talents.
From pottering around legends for days together, sharing meals, sputtering forgotten questions between mouthfuls and even coaxing them to join in for a game of football on a lucky day, this bunch of prodigious Indian chess minds have managed to tick off almost every wish on their list. It's not, by any stretch, a garden-variety privilege. Camps of such length involving players of magnitude coaching players of another country are rare, almost unheard in chess, one that got Gelfand to typify the Chennai gathering as the "most unique camp ever".
The kids were broken into two groups with both players taking charge of one group each and swapping roles halfway through. While Kramnik retired early last year, Gelfand, pushing into his 50s, continues to be active player, though he competes in tournaments sparingly. "I like working with these kids because they are extremely talented," Kramnik tells ESPN, "and they are the best in the world right now in their age category. I have a feeling that I can really help them become top players and possibly world champions."
The camp opened with sessions on Reti and Sicilian and soon made room for early-morning yoga breaks, post-breakfast pool time to midnight sessions of Mafia or some more chess to recover from the daylong chess lessons. Beyond intense work on openings, Kramnik, an endgame demi-god, got the players to focus on the rewards of accurate calculation. His repartee of beating higher-rated players had the kids, hunched, hands-on-chins, sit up: "If you can't convert positions against them [stronger players], you have to beat them with better calculation." It's like Federer climbing out of your TV and demonstrating how he brushes the back of the ball with his racket, one of the most devastatingly beautiful sights in sport.
Kramnik held a camp with six young Indian chess minds in Chens-Sur-Leman, France in August last year and the attendees' results in the months that followed (even if they are to be partly ascribed to it) were remarkable. R Praggnanandhaa turned Under-18 world champion in October and weeks later, Raunak Sadhwani gained his third and final norm and became India's 65th Grandmaster at 13 years, 9 months and 28 days. "That camp [in August] was life-changing for me in so many ways," says Raunak. "It helped me turn into a more resourceful and fearless player. Even in inferior positions, I learnt to defend well and hold games. My endgame too suddenly started looking up. I could almost hear his [Kramnik] words ring in my ears during games and my ability to pose opponents practical problems grew."
This time, the target pool, which included kids from the earlier camp, had 14 members with six hours of intense daily sessions and a rest day wedged in between. Both the camps were put together by Microsense, an IT firm run by a former state-level chess player, while the logistics around them were managed by the chess software company and news site ChessBase India.
"These kids hold a certain innocent love and excitement for the game," Kramnik says. "It's the kind of dedication that's difficult to have at an older age. It just fills me with so much energy and positivity to see these kids hammer away at their chess and get better every day." Kramnik too had a recent heartening result. He briefly stepped out of retirement to compete at the World Rapid Championship late last year and finished third behind Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura.
For Gelfand, it's an exercise in giving back to the community. He doesn't shy away from hyperboles in summing up the talent he has been chiselling at. "This," Gelfand tells ESPN, "is such an amazing generation of young Indian players. To watch 13-year-olds possess such enormous reserves of knowledge and use every possibility to learn is quite something. In 10 years, I see at least three among them cracking into the top 10 and possibly also becoming world champions. I'm at an age where I can share my knowledge, so I thought to myself, why not!"
Both Kramnik and Gelfand left with an abiding piece of advice for the group: Cut down on the bottomless hours of blitz. Speed chess -- while revolving around intuitive play -- can, the legends endorse, have a mitigating effect on one's deep thinking and strategising abilities.
The travails and surprises that the chess camp brought ranged from the homesick youngest member of the brood, 12-year-old Leon Mendonca, tearing up on the final day of the camp to a spice-cautious Gelfand tucking into paneer butter masala and naans with abandon towards the latter days, and Kramnik, who lives in Geneva, just delighted to be in Chennai and see the sun out and bright at this time of the year.