For a sport that has been making rapid strides since the coronavirus pandemic, chess’ ‘IPL moment’ arrives today: in the form of the Global Chess League where 36 Grandmasters — with a notable number of world champions among them — will compete in a mixed-gender team environment which they’re not accustomed to playing over the course of the regular chess tour.
Six teams will feature in the first season of the GCL, which could be a game-changer for a sport that traces its roots to India.
For the Indian market, the IPL-isation of the sport comes at an opportune time. The country is fast gaining heft in the world of chess with as many as nine players in the top 100 in classical rankings and 82 GMs. India is also experiencing a boom in the number of casual players and chess fans.
“I think India is doing a lot of right things so far, and it is a matter of time before it is clearly the leading chess nation in the world,” former world champion Magnus Carlsen said recently.
We asked #AI to reimagine our Grandmasters as real Alpine Warriors
Here’s a of facts about our chess stars@GCLlive @anandmahindra @C_P_Gurnani @jagdishmitra @SanjayGupta_APL @FIDE_chess#GCL #Midjourney #GlobalChessLeague #MadeOfSteel #ChessPunks #AIArt #MidjourneyAI pic.twitter.com/ZXl0GbkcRD
— SG Alpine Warriors (@SGAlpineWarrior) June 19, 2023
Another former world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, could not hide his envy recently as he spoke to a Russian website about a young generation of “four or five outstanding Indian GMs emerging at the same time” which he pointed out was rare even in the Soviet era.
In a sense, the GCL will show off Indian might in the sport. While the league is global in outlook, all the six franchise owners are Indians. They include three entrepreneurs with experience of owning sports franchises — U SPORTS, Insurekot Sports and Punit Balan Group — while Triveni Engineering & Industries Ltd, Chingari App, and APL Apollo-led SG Sports are investing in sports leagues for the first time.
The league will see nine Indian GMs in action for the six teams, with young prodigies like D Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi and R Praggnanandhaa getting the opportunity to team up with Carlsen.
As I am no longer the current world champ we are getting on to new lables. Trying «Icon» on for size now.
Let’s see https://t.co/70k9PMiwpZ
— Magnus Carlsen (@MagnusCarlsen) June 12, 2023
“I’m hoping to learn as much as possible from Carlsen. Maybe, we can discuss games afterwards and as a team, we can maybe even work together a bit (on strategy and chess tactics). I have not got much experience of doing that with him,” 17-year-old Gukesh, touted as one of India’s strongest bets to be a world champion in the future, told The Indian Express.
The Indian connection doesn’t end with the owners and players. GCL will also see Indian Grandmasters and International Masters forming the brains trust for teams — GM Pravin Thipsay (Ganges Grandmasters), GM Swapnil Dhopade (Chingari Gulf Titans), IM Vishal Sareen (SG Alpine Warriors) and GM Abhijit Kunte (Balan Alaskan) will be involved as chess strategists or team principals.
While organisers and team owners are tight-lipped about operating costs and how much money they’re spending in the first season, Jagdish Mitra, chairperson of GCL, said it was a “fraction” of what owners would be spending to run a team in a football or cricket league, despite the first season of GCL taking place at Dubai’s Chess & Culture Club, thanks to an association with the Dubai Sports Council.
— Viswanathan Anand (@vishy64theking) June 20, 2023
A joint venture between the global governing body of chess, FIDE, and India’s Tech Mahindra, the league has been in the making for a few years.
“India is very important for FIDE. It’s a strategic partner. Which is why it is important for us to have FIDE-approved events happening in India. That’s where the Global Chess League came into the picture,” FIDE CEO Emil Sutovsky told The Indian Express.
Getting world-class players
Attracting top-quality names like Carlsen, current world champions Ding Liren, Ian Nepomniachtchi, Yifan Hou, among others has been a coup of sorts.
Mitra said that the organisers made separate presentations for each player, pitching them the league and why they needed to be a part of it. He added that Carlsen had the most number of inputs and questions, but was very supportive of the entire concept.
“This will be something new. Something that has not been done this way in over-the-board chess. I am looking forward to exploring this format in the future… Personally, I very much enjoy team events and the team spirit within the group. I am looking forward to meeting the other players in the team, and I look forward to competing with and against the exciting young generation of Indian players,” the Norwegian World No. 1 said in a statement.
Sports leagues in India have been aplenty since the Indian Premier League emerged onto the scene. And while the cricket league has grown into a behemoth, many others have struggled to stay afloat.
“In cricket, we have the IPL and after it was introduced in 2008, we saw so many young players picking up the game. The face of the sport changed as well. I think more young players will get interested in the game after following GCL. I hope in the same way, more young players pick up chess after GCL,” said Raunak Sadhwani, who is the 10th youngest player in history and the fourth youngest Indian to become a GM.
GCL already has plans in place for the first five seasons, with the six franchise owners already committing to staying on for that period. The league also plans to expand: with two more teams being added in the third season and the league expanding to 10 teams in Season 5.
While Jio Cinema will be streaming the league in India, Mitra said that NBC (USA), Fox Sports (Australia), Eurosport (Europe) and Dazn would also broadcast the league to 150-odd territories in the world.
The biggest innovation, though, is how the league will make the sport exciting. While other sports have adrenaline-pumping action on the screens, chess will remain a sport where players sit across a table and besides rare moments of visible emotion, there is not too much that they give away.
The league is trying to counter that with commentary and fan-engagement measures. The commentary team for the league includes chess players like Russia’s Peter Svidler, Tania Sachdev, Keti Tsatsalashvili, stand-up comedian Samay Raina, among others. The league has also made forays into Metaverse, where fans will be able to simultaneously play games with virtual avatars of players like Viswanathan Anand and Carlsen. There are also plans to bring in the element of fantasy gaming that will allow fans to predict the next move by players.
“We’ll make it glitzy, interesting and yet simple. It’s the same thing that T20 leagues did to cricket. T20 leagues don’t stop you from enjoying the legacy versions of the sport. But it expands the base constantly, by disrupting the way the sport is played. The league is our chance to experiment and be disruptors,” added Mitra.
MEET THE SIX TEAMS
Ganges Grandmasters: Led by Insurekot Sports (ISPL), an entity owned by Suresh Kotak. ISPL also owns teams in Pro Kabaddi League and Ultimate Table Tennis League.
Ganges Grandmasters will have the following players: GM Viswanathan Anand, GM Richard Rapport, GM Leinier Dominguez Perez, GM Yifan Hou, GM Bella Khotenashvili and GM Andrey Esipenko.
SG Alpine Warriors: Owned by SG Sports Pvt Ltd, which is led by APL Apollo, a building material company.
SG Alpine Warriors will have the following players: GM Magnus Carlsen, GM D Gukesh, GM Arjun Erigaisi, GM Elisabeth Paehtz, GM Irina Krush and GM R Praggnanandhaa.
Balan Alaskan Knights: Owned by the Punit Balan Group, which is led by entrepreneur Punit Balan. PBG has invested in various sports leagues in India over the last two years including tennis, handball and kho-kho.
Balan Alaskan Knights will have the following players: GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, GM Teimour Radjabov, GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov, GM Tan Zhongyi, GM Nino Batsiashvili and GM Raunak Sadhwani.
Chingari Gulf Titans: The team is owned by Tech4Billion Group, which also owns the Chingari App, which is a Web3 Social Networking App that centres round videos.
Chingari Gulf Titans will have the following players: GM Jan-Krzysztof Duda, GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, GM Daniil Dubov, GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, IM Polina Shuvalova and GM Nihal Sarin.
upGrad Mumba Masters: The team is owned by U SPORTS, led by Ronnie Screwvala, who have sports teams in kabaddi and table tennis leagues. They also own an esports team.
upGrad Mumba Masters will have the following players: GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, GM Vidit Gujrathi, GM Alexander Grischuk, GM Koneru Humpy, GM Harika Dronavalli and GM Javokhir Sindarov.
Triveni Continental Kings: The team is owned by Triveni Engineering & Industries Limited, an integrated sugar manufacturer from India and a player in engineering businesses comprising power transmission and water, and wastewater treatment solutions.
Triveni Continental Kings will have the following players: GM Ding Liren, GM Wei Yi, GM Yangyi Yu, GM Kateryna Lagno, GM Nana Dzagnidze and GM Jonas Buhl Bjerre.
“The first season of the league is happening in Dubai. Some of the biggest players from the world are competing. This is a global league from India. When the league was pitched to us, we saw that there are senior players and junior players. So through this league and our team, there is a great opportunity for junior players to be groomed by veterans.” — Deepak Salvi, co-founder and COO at Chingari, which owns the Chingari Gulf Titans
“Chess is a sport that resonates with all of us, and being a part of something as revolutionary as the Global Chess League really does excite us at U Mumba. The collaboration between Tech Mahindra and FIDE has done an exceptional job of expanding the reach of chess to a wider audience.” — Suhail Chandhok, CEO, U Mumba & upGrad Mumba Masters
“While chess has a rich history, it has yet to establish itself as a mainstream spectator sport. GCL has the power to change that, and we eagerly wait for the league to start.” — Kailash Kandpal, CEO, Insurekot Sports Private Limited
“PBG supports multiple sports and chess is a game which has its inception in India, it is something we always wanted to be part of and inspire more sporting enthusiasts to take up the game of chequered squares.” — Punit Balan, Owner, Punit Balan Group
“We are known for our rich legacy and nation-building initiatives through years of innovation and this venture marks another significant step in establishing global recognition for India.” — Dhruv M Sawhney, Chairman, Triveni Engineering & Industries Ltd
“GCL, as a concept, will bring a new level of excitement to chess. SG Sports is honoured to be a part of the league’s inaugural season, and our partnership with the league will help strengthen our position as India’s leading sports brand.” — Sanjay Gupta, Group Chairman of SG Sports