Roundabout mid-June, the news of a super-strong, cash-rich rapid and blitz event flooded the Indian chess circles. A group of young, first-time organizers had come together to organize the ‘ChessMine open’ in Bangalore, India. This unique event, which eventually turned out to be the strongest open ever held on Indian soil, was well-received by players, parents and spectators alike. However, was the young team going to stop at this one-off success? Most certainly not. With a little step that was the ChessMine Open, they have embarked on an ambitious journey of changing the landscape of chess in India.
Post the event, we caught up with two of the five co-founders of ChessMine – Priyadarshan Banjan and GM Narayanan Srinath. Here’s our interview with the two young visionaries, who trace the foundation of ChessMine, its debut event and its remarkable, long-term objectives.
Shubham Kumthekar: How did the concept come into being?
Banjan: Likhit and I were eating Death by Chocolate in Corner House, Jayanagar, in Bangalore. This must be March 2015. It suddenly struck me that the best way to make sure chess is a commercially viable sport is if we ourselves start it in a Tour format. You know, one event after another. Likhit was initially apprehensive about it, but then we all got busy with our lives. It has been my quest since half a decade now. The question is always the same—how do we make chess a financially powerful sport. To all my friends, especially to guys like Srinath, and Sagar (who co-founded ChessBase India), I would ask the same question and would tell the same thing: We will change chess forever. Well, ChessMine is not exactly earth shattering per se, but it is a decent start. Lot more to be done.
Srinath: It was Priyadarshan’s idea. Our idea to organize tournaments was initially discussed in early 2015. However, for various reasons, the plan never materialized. We carried on with our lives, several events passed, and then in May this year, Priyadarshan suddenly pinged me and told me about the idea of ChessMine. I was excited to hear and said ‘Let’s do it’. So we began in May this year, out of the blue.
What does the ChessMine team plan to do differently?
Right now, we have started off with this first event but the future will see a set of tournaments, all inter-related by points. Something like a ChessMine Tour. Eventually, we will bring in the real big events to India. We want to make chess an attractive sport to follow. It is a big task, but I have always believed that it can be done.
The real-time coverage for chess in India is beyond terrible, and we aim to fix that in the near future. Generations have passed but the simple economic truth still holds true—cash is still the king. So, we aim to build a sustainable chess content distribution model that the commercial sponsors will be interested to be a part of. You know, Kabaddi was nothing a few years back, just a village sport. But Kabaddi on TV with a reach of millions of people is a completely different game.
Chess lacks TV coverage not because there is some grand conspiracy. It lacks that level of coverage because the commercial broadcasters don’t see value in broadcasting something for which you cannot produce demand by just telecasting it on sports channels. So a key innovation is more strategic in nature rather than technical. It is to make sure that we build a chess-literate population that will be able to consume the chess content we will eventually produce in the future.
We aim to keep coming up with interesting concepts, whilst constantly endeavoring to promote the game. One of the things we want to do differently though is generate revenue through commercial sponsors. Right now, the revenue model in Chess is very different.
We think there is enormous untapped potential in chess, and if marketed in the right way, we’ll be able to achieve this, especially in a country with a burgeoning chess population like India.
Can you reflect on ChessMine’s recently concluded debut rapid & blitz event at Bengaluru?
It was not bad at all. Good start in terms of branding, press coverage, quality of players. I think the achievements and the good points behind the tournament are there for everyone to see. I need not speak the obvious.
However, I am obviously not satisfied. A lot of novelties need to be streamlined. The current economic model is unsustainable in the long run. A lot of good events that were flagship once upon a time in India, have slowly witnessed a decline over the years. (Except probably Delhi, which under Mr Bharat Singh Chauhan is just getting better with every passing year. But it is an exception.) I know in my heart that ChessMine will reach a similar low if we do not innovate and make our events a commercially profitable venture. Chess will only benefit if we manage to survive and even thrive in the future. My primary job right now is to build a sustainable economic model. More could be done and more will be done in the future events.
Reflecting and looking back on the event, I feel proud and happy about the work we have done. The kind of players, the amount of players… And doing this in our first event, it was a great feeling. Having said that, there were a lot of inaccuracies and mistakes we made as first-timers. We have listened to the reviews and we hope to come up with a much better event the next time. In terms of reaching World Class levels of organization, I think we still have a long way to go, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Personally, what do you think about the quicker formats of chess? Can they be the future of our ancient game?
Well, the kids enjoy it. Only the parents and coaches don’t. Old school mentality. I have been a manager for a couple of super talented players and all they do and ever did when they were younger was play blitz all day. Even the legendary Viswanathan Anand grew up by literally playing blitz all day at the Tal Chess Club in Madras. In fact, that was his primary USP when he was younger—the Lightning Kid! I wonder why there is a common misconception among people that quick chess is harmful—is isn’t! It is fun, it is adrenaline pumping, it is beneficial. It is fun and it will remain fun.
Of course, we will also be doing a lot of classical events in the future.
The greatest thing about chess is that no matter how far we advance as a human race, the sport has always managed to survive. Centuries have passed, chess has travelled as an idea across the world, and somehow it has always survived, and even transformed itself suiting the needs and demands of the geographical and cultural market it is in—Shogi in Japan, Go in China, and so on. Chess is like that girl you love. You age, you change, but love is constant. Chess will not die, for sure. It may change though, and we should be ready to accept that. So yes, I believe in Chess 960, and we will bring the best in the business to India for a 960 event sometime in the future.
Rapid and blitz are very exciting formats, but I don’t think they are the ‘future of chess’. I think, they are more like the ‘present of chess’.
Personally, I think modern chess is like producing energy with non-renewable sources. I think it’ll run out someday, even though right now the situation isn’t as alarming. However, things have become saturated to a certain extent, almost everyone knows a few basic things and it has become much easier.
In my opinion, we should start moving towards Chess960, just like we started to generate energy with renewable energy sources a while ago. If we start now, then by the time it reaches a crisis point, we will have a viable alternative ready. However, I don’t think this will be an easy task, as Indians are conservative, chess players are conservative… and we are talking about Indian Chess here ☺
Conducting an event of this stature is no mean task. What were the challenges involved and how did the team overcome them?
Well, there was no big challenge in all honesty, apart from the funding and the race to get sponsorship. We had to majorly invest in this tournament ourselves, and thanks to our benevolent investors, that was not too difficult. Now, our job is to return the faith they have put in us by making this work a commercial entity.
Can you narrate a few interesting stories relating to the formation of ChessMine and the debut event?
After all the hard work, stress, and running around, getting our first monetary sponsorship from a commercial entity was just a 5 minute job. I called up my friend, Sushrutha Reddy who runs the Innovators Chess Academy, and asked if Akshayakalpa, which is run by his cousin, would be interested in sponsoring chess events. He told me to call the CEO and ask it myself.
So I did, immediately. I explained all the things ChessMine as a company was offering Akshayakalpa, and the CEO, Mr. Shashi Kumar, hopped in with a Cash Sponsorship that covered 16% of the Prize Fund. Now, looking at all the big talk we do, it is not an earth shattering thing. But any start is a good start!
And immediately after the tournament, one of our co-founders, Likhit Chilukuri, brought in another entity – Hyderabad-based Vardhaman college.
You keep trying for a long time and nothing works. And suddenly, it works. I guess life is all about trying until you hit the bull’s eye.
There were tons of interesting events, just leading up to the formation of ChessMine! The space here is too short. I think someday we can come up with a book about it 😛
How do you plan to take things forward from here?
Well, for starters, we will continue hosting high-quality tournaments. Secondly, we will be building the base on which the entire pyramid rests on—the grassroot. On a personal level, I am still striving to create that perfect product-market fit that will help Chess as a sport to grow exponentially.
I want ‘change’ as an idea ingrained in the ethos of whatever I do, and the same will be with ChessMine. We will change according to the times. The legendary American architect Daniel Burnham once said that we should never make little plans because according to him they have no magic to stir men’s blood and will not be realized themselves. Let me provide the exact quote:
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.
I dream of a model that will survive after we all are dead, and beautifully create a financially happy life for the all the people involved in chess as a market.
There was news about a ChessMine academy opening up in Delhi. Can you tell us something about it?
This is the legendary Vishal Sareen’s doing. You know the kind of cred he has in chess. 3 Arjuna Awardee Students, a list of titled players, etc. It is incredible to even think that he is a part of this team. We have started off with a high-quality branch of the ChessMine Academy in Delhi, which is run by Vishal. ChessMine Academy also offers world-class online training to chess players who want to improve their game.
Apart from that, we hope to open many such branches across India. Anybody who is willing to work hard, has some credentials as a chess player, passion for the sport, can write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will help you set up your own chess academy. Online or offline, your choice.
On a parting note, I will like to add the following: Make Chess a Financially Powerful Sport.
(A big thanks to Akshay Halagannavar and Hari Tiwari for the wonderful pictures from the ChessMine Rapid & Blitz)
You can also read this interview in our Follow Chess App!