Carlsen and Bhupathi
Magnus Carlsen is keenly watched by the spectators that includes former Indian tennis ace Mahesh Bhupathi during the global chess league in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The game of chess is ingrained in every sand across the UAE with a rich history spanning several decades. It is not just a sport, it is a lifestyle and has become part of the culture with legends like Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen winning their early titles in the country. The recently held Tech Mahindra Global Chess League has given the right impetus to spur the growth of the game at a time when the sporting capital of the world is aiming to increase the number of Grandmasters in the UAE.

“We wanted more Grandmasters, that’s the goal of the entire chess community in the UAE. We currently have one active Grandmaster, Salem Abdulrahman, playing while the other has not been playing for the past 15 years. Why don’t we have more than one Grandmaster? We want Grandmasters in both men and women’ categories, Saeed Yousuf Shakari, Secretary General of the Dubai Chess Club, told Gulf News. “The clubs are bringing the best coaches and are spending a lot on the players. It is a simple question everyone is asking, we are working towards it and are waiting for that moment.”

More on chess

Saeed Yousuf Shakari

600 million players worldwide

Chess clubs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah are at the forefront of the move, conducting several tournaments in a month that caters to the needs of a cross-section of people from the beginners to amateurs, semi-professionals, professionals and the casual players who are part of the community league.

Over 600 million players are part of the chess community worldwide and the Fide’s push to bring more focus on women and youth sectors will only serve as the right environment to the UAE’s dream.

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Grandmaster Salem Abdulrahman Saleh, the UAE's top-ranked player, carries the country's hopes in Arab Championship in Algeria. Image Credit: Supplied

History of UAE chess

The UAE Chess Federation was established in 1976 and became a member of Fide in 1977. Chess clubs were set up in Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah and Al Ain. Subsequently, Chess and Culture Club for Sharjah women started in 1991 and then the Dubai Chess and Culture Club in 2000 to bring the total number of registered clubs to 16 in the country.

The UAE has been hosting some of the top events including Chess Olympiad and World Championships in the past.

“I played the World Junior in Sharjah 1985 and the Dubai Olympiad back in 1986. So my association with tournament organised here goes back a long way. In that sense, Dubai has always seen itself as the meeting point and that’s why it became the perfect location for the Global Chess League,” five-time Grandmaster Anand told the media before the start of the inaugural team event.

Dubai Chess Club has been conducting two events a month in rapid and blitz formats and on some occasions the classical format, especially during the school vacations to give more chance for the aspiring players to compete in the classical time control.

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Carlsen earns final GM norm in Dubai

“Dubai Open has been running since 1999, this is our biggest showpiece. Our tournament has seen an increase in the number of players as well as the standard of the game. We are always happy to see champions of their country, continents and some champions of the world come to Dubai. We are also happy to provide the opportunity to some of the young prodigies to shine,” Shakari added.

Among those prodigies is five-time world champion Norwegian Carlsen, who earned his final GM norm with a round to spare in 2004, becoming the third-youngest to achieve the feat then. Another one of note is Kazakhstan’s Bibisara Assaubayeva. The two-time Women’s World Blitz Chess Champion has dazzled in Dubai Open and Dubai Junior events before winning The Grandmaster title.

Special talents in UAE

Chess has moved high up the order since the time Emirati Saeed Ahmed Saeed won the Under-14 World Chess Championship held in Mexico in 1979. The early success acted as the catalyst for the bigger deeds. And one of the measures to achieve their goal is to expose the UAE players, both Emiratis and residents alike, to the numerous high-quality tournaments held in the country and across the world.

Chess is improving a lot and we have some really talented players in both Emiratis and residents. Fide Master Abdulrahman Mohammad Al Taher is one of the promising prospects from UAE, he is only 16 years old and it is a big achievement, said Omar Noaman, Assistant Secretary General of Sharjah Cultural and Chess Club. We have many international champions in the 8-16 age categories.”

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The Sharjah club conducts on an average of 40 tournaments annually with the Sharjah International Masters as the showpiece. Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah Club conducts a total of 40 tournaments annually that includes 30 classical tournaments throughout the year and 10 blitz and rapid tournaments during Ramadan that sees a participation of about 350 players.

The sixth edition of the Sharjah International Masters held in May this year saw the strongest participation in invitational open tournament history with an average player rating of 2618. Indian prodigy Arjun Erigaisi won the tournament, which had a sizeable UAE participation with top-ranked Grandmaster Salem Saleh leading the charge, followed by International master Saeed Ishaq, Fide Masters Ammar Sedrani and Abdulrahman Mohammad Al Tayer.

How to set up the chessboard
The board is placed with the black square on the player’s left.

The pawns occupy the second row.

On the first row, rooks are in the corners, followed by the knights and bishops. The queen sits on the square of her colour (black or white) with the king beside her.

Iranian Grandmaster Parham Maghsoodloo with a rating of 2734, Indian Grandmasters Dommaraju Gukesh (2732) and Vidit Gujrathi (2731), Chinese Grandmaster Yu Yangyi (2729), Russian Grandmaster Sanan Sjugirov (2712), American Grandmasters Hans Niemann (2708) and Ray Robson (2704) were also part of the strong field.

Dream is to create more Grandmasters

GM Salem has been given enough opportunity to strengthen his position and improve his rating. The 30-year-old returned rich with the experience in the Dortmund event and is currently leading UAE’s challenge in the Arab Games in Algeria. On return, he will play in the Abu Dhabi Masters and then the Qatar Masters, where Carlsen is likely to be in the field in the Open tournament.

Omar Noaman

“Our dream is to create more Grandmasters,” said Noaman, echoing the sentiments of Shakari.

Salem will also take part in the World Cup in Baku in Azerbaijan. We bring top-rated coaches to give our players good preparation and give them the opportunity to perform and improve their rating,” he added.

The Abu Dhabi Masters is another great opportunity for the UAE players to establish themselves in the big league.

The 29th Abu Dhabi Chess Festival, to be held from August 14-25, caters to different categories that includes the Abu Dhabi Masters, a family tournament, a community event and has added the veterans above 55 years in this edition. More than 600 players are expected to participate in the annual event, the largest in the festival’s history.

“The demand is huge due to the growing popularity of chess. The number of participants have grown exponentially and requests are pouring in to increase our training centres and branches, which are currently two in Abu Dhabi,” said Saeed Khoory, Executive Director of Abu Dhabi Chess Club, which was established in 1979. Khoory was proud to mention that Rouda Essa Alserkal, who won the Under-8 Junior World Title in Brazil in 2017.

Saeed Khoory

The young aspirants had a great learning experience with watching the likes of Anand, Carlsen, two-time challenger for the title of World Champion Ian Nepomniachtchi, former Blitz world champion Levon Aronian and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Women Grandmasters Alexandra Kosteniuk, Koneru Humpy and Hou Yifan, a four-time world champion and the innovative Team competition also gives them the new experience of being part of a team event.

All guns blazing in home stretch

Carlsen’s SG Alpine Warriors and Anand’s Ganges Grandmasters did the early running before Triveni Continental Kings and upGrad Mumba Masters came out all guns blazing in the home stretch to book the final spots with the Kings crowned champions.

Promising Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa of SG Alpine Warriors racked up an impressive undefeated run of seven victories with only three draws to be the Most Valuable Player of the tournament even before it reached the grand finale.

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Epic match between Carlsen and Anand

“UNBELIEVABLE. In my wildest imagination I hadn’t expected such an intense, enjoyable and transformational tournament,” tweeted Anand Mahindra, Chairman of Mahindra Group. “I believe the Global Chess League has given many moments to the world of Chess to cherish, starting from the epic match between Magnus and Vishy to seeing some of the young and dynamic talents from across the world on display.”

Rich with the experience of the first inaugural event in Dubai, the UAE players will eager to firmly move towards their goals.

“We have put in place a clear process and our technical team is working hard to achieve our goals. Our first aim is to improve the technical level of our young players and the way they train, titles and ratings will follow automatically. From the players’ perspective, they have to make steady progress from being an amateur to a professional player, which requires a lot of dedication and sacrifice. Then they can become the Grandmasters,” concluded Shakari.

How playing chess helps in bonding and a mental workout

A move to kids keep their gadgets away

Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Entertainment Editor

Here’s the deal: I am a sore loser, and my three children are sore losers too. Perhaps, they inherited that ungainly trait from their father... Oops, I meant their accomplished mother. But jokes aside, I knew that we had to somehow offset that ungainly character trait, and that’s when playing chess entered our crowded lives. Around the same time, the hit 2020 Netflix mini-series ‘Queen’s Gambit’ — a tale of a female chess prodigy addicted to pills — entered my life. Also, watching my parents play a game of chess and Scrabble every morning with each other had somehow convinced me that it’s a great habit to cultivate.

Majusha Radhakrishnan, Entertainment Editor

For those thirty minutes as you decide your moves on the chessboard, you manage to keep your children — twins aged seven and a daughter aged 12 — away from their beloved gadgets. It’s also a low-maintenance sport. You don’t need fancy designer racquets, equipment, or fashion-forward gym gear to play a game of hard-hitting chess. All we need to do is put our thinking caps on and learn strategies on how to save our king and queen.

Very soon, you will also begin to realise that those diminutive pawns are our sturdiest foot soldiers, while the more stately knights, rooks, and bishops are efficient ways to protect our territory. It’s a game that also rides partly on being strategic. It also teaches you a thing or two about collating all your forces to deal with a possible enemy. And during those 20 minutes of the game, you also learn to hustle — a skill that can help you navigate these challenging times that we live in.

Crucial life lessons

I have often told my twin boys that in chess, and in life, your queen can be your biggest strength, so treat her well. It’s an unorthodox method to inculcate feminism into their impressionable minds, but I am confident that it’s an inventive way to include some crucial life lessons early on in their lives. And if you are wondering if we are still ungracious in defeat, then I can confidently vouch that we are still a work in progress and are learning to graduate honours intact while losing.

Cultivating patience through the 64-square board

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

Sitting in front of a chess board brings back memories of a time when my father taught me to play the game.

As a child who did not play competitive sport in school, I was fascinated by what two players could do with a few pieces on a 64-square board. The permutations were many and what was required was the ability to sit still and focus — on the chessmen and the possible moves your opponent would make.

I love playing chess because it enables me to forget everything around me and focus on the game. I am able to immerse myself in studying the pieces on the board, and conjure up the next few moves that could take my opponent by surprise.

Alex Abraham, Senior Associate Editor

When I was in college, I would try to reconstruct the games played by Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. I even tried learning some of the opening moves made by grandmasters. But I soon realised that I found joy not in imitating the grandmasters, but in playing my own game — predicting what my opponent would do, blocking his moves and catching him by surprise.

A big confidence booster

I played to enjoy the game.

I carried my small chessboard with me while going on picnics and even on long train journeys. Fellow travellers would be my opponents. The game helped kill time on the train and also make friends.

I marvel at the patience my father had in teaching me the basics of chess — correcting me when needed and letting me win on numerous occasions so that my confidence would get a boost.

Last summer, on a whim I asked my father if he would like to play a game for old times’ sake. He agreed happily. After 45 minutes, when I was just wrapping up the game, my father got up and said with a smile: “I let you win.”

Why I am a reluctant chess player

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

We had a chessboard at home long before I learnt to play. My father taught me the rudiments of the game, but losing to him often nearly killed my interest. I became a reluctant player.

Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor

My interest was rekindled by the 1972 World Chess Championship when Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky battled American maverick Bobby Fischer at the height of the Cold War. The games at Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik captured the world’s imagination. I too was caught in the eddy of interest in chess.

Fischer won and soon became my idol. I read up on him and his games. In later years, during my visits to the British Library, I would pick up books on chess. I read about the chess greats and their games: Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Mikhail Botvinnik, Emmanuel Lasker and Alexander Alekhine were some of them.

Strong middle game, but

It helped improve my chess. I learnt of new openings and the power of gambits. It helped me understand the importance of occupying the central squares and when to castle and when not to. Rising confidence gave way to aggression on the board. I never lost to my father again; he became a reluctant player.

As my fascination for cricket grew, I found less time to play chess. In fact, I stopped playing chess, although I followed the progress of Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.

Yet on rainy days, we played chess at the cricket club. I didn’t always win. Mostly because my endgame wasn’t as strong as the middle game. I also found that my concentration wasn’t good. I realised that I was better at cricket than chess.

So, I remain a reluctant chess player.

How the chess pieces move
A player can move only one piece at a time.

There are six kinds of pieces, and each moves differently. The pieces cannot move through other pieces. The only exception is the knight, which can jump over other pieces. It moves in an L-shape to a fifth square.

A rook moves in straight lines while the bishop travels through diagonal squares. The queen is the most powerful piece, moving diagonally and in straight lines. The king, too, can do that, but only one square at a time.

The pawns can only move forward one square at a time, except for their first move, where they may move ahead by two squares. They can only capture pieces on one square diagonally in front of them. Pawns that reach the other side of the board can be promoted to a knight, bishop, rook, or queen.

A piece cannot be moved into a square occupied by the player’s own piece. But it can take the square occupied by an opponent’s piece by capturing it.

Dreams come true for UAE teenagers

Grade X students Shredha and Aishwaryaa savour meeting their idols

A. K. S. Satish, Sports Editor

Dubai: It’s a dream come true for two aspiring young chess players from Dubai during the recent Tech Mahindra Global Chess League when they met their idol Magnus Carlsen.

Shredha Shaji and Aishwaryaa, both Grade X students of GEMS Our Own — Al Warqa, were awestruck after meeting the five-time world champion. The avid chess players also saw the Norwegian in action in a classic match-up with Indian Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand.

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Shredha with Magnus Carlsen and Aishwaryaa with Hou Yifan

“I watched most of his videos but watching in action was special. I like the way he plays his game, the strategies and the calculation he comes up with. I love watching Carlsen,” said Shredha, who started getting a bit nervous when Carlsen walked past her. She has one GCC and three UAE gold medals in CBSE cluster.

The 14-year-old Shredha, who started playing chess along with her sister when she was six years old, now competes regularly in competitions and has won medals along with her teammate and friend Aishwaryaa.

“I want to become an international chess player in about six years’ time,” said Shredha.

Who makes the move first in chess?
The player with the white pieces always makes the first move; it’s considered an advantage since it gives the first opportunity to attack. And that is decided by a toss (flipping a coin or having a player guess the colour of a hidden pawn).
White makes the first move, followed by black, then white again, and black. This continues until the end of the game.

The mental aspect

Aishwaryaa, who has a rating of 1,200 and also met four-time world champion Hou Yifan, also aims to make it big and has adopted her own time-management.

“It is a tough task. Whenever I get time, I finish my subjects before hand and keep some extra hours for practice,” Aishwaryaa added.

While they aim to make it big on the chess circuit, both were unison in accepting that the mental game has helped them to focus better on studies.