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South Asian parents say booming chess scene in India reflected in Calgary community

The game of chess is seeing a boom in popularity and success at the highest level in India thanks, in part, to a new generation of young players inspiring kids to take up the game.

That’s having a ripple effect across the globe, including in Canada.

Many Indo-Canadian parents in Calgary believe that learning chess can play a part in ensuring their kids’ academic success and providing a connection to their culture and history.

Chess was invented and first played in India around the 8th century and spread around the world, changing and being adapted as it was embraced by other countries and cultures.

India now has more than 70 grandmasters. A 16-year-old boy, Rameshbabu (Pragg) Praggnanandhaa, became the youngest international master in the game’s history at just 10 years old before becoming a grandmaster himself. He recently defeated the highest ranked player in the world, Magnus Carlsen. It was big news in India and in the chess world.

Sshanaya Luthra, 9, sets up her chess board at home. She took up the game six months ago. She says it’s already helping her with problem solving and math. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

“It became popular in India because of the grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, but nowadays we have prodigies here in Calgary and all over India, where parents take pride in their kids learning chess,” said Swapna Bhagat Luthra.

“I’ve always believed Asian parents have always been a little more rigorous when it comes to academics and a little more stressed about children achieving certain targets,” said Luthra. 

Luthra’s nine-year-old daughter, Sshanaya, started playing chess six months ago after receiving a board as a birthday gift. She now plays her dad at home and at a chess club in the city’s northeast.

“It’s a strategic game, and what I’ve seen in her is she’s using her mind and strategies to come up with solutions, and her decision-making has improved and her analytical skills are being tested,” she said.

“I enjoy that you get to use your mind,” said Sshanaya Luthra, sitting in front of her board at home in Saddleridge. “It helps me with mathematics and taking big decisions and the best decisions.”

“You actually get to use your hands and interact with the board, but if you play video games, it’s just a screen,” she said. “I feel proud when I play it because it’s a complicated game with many strategies and rules.”

Aaqil Alpuri, 12, spends hours practising chess on his laptop in his bedroom in Sunalta. He also plays at the Calgary Chess Club and in local and regional tournaments. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Aaqil Alpuri, 12, spends hours practising chess on his laptop in his bedroom in Sunalta. He also plays at the Calgary Chess Club and in local and regional tournaments.

He’s a fan of one of Praggnanandhaa’s biggest rivals.

“I know Pragg but I’m not exactly his biggest fan. I’m a Magnus Carlsen fan. He’s the highest ranked player and the strongest, so he became my personal favourite. He’s like the Ronaldo of chess.”

Alpuri plays matches and tournaments every Tuesday, facing kids and adults playing at his level. He also trains and plays online every day. 

“I like that it’s strategic and it’s something not everyone knows. It’s not like hockey where you have to have a specific skill,” said Alpuri. “It’s really fun. You just have to put in a lot of effort and you’ll be a very proficient player to rise through the ranks, and soon you’ll be strong and hard to beat. And that’s the best part, being hard to beat.”

“It’s not a game that’s nerdy like some people say,” said Alpuri. 

“There are video games versions of chess, too, and multiple variants if you don’t like the standard, classic way,” he said.

Alpuri says he wants to improve his ranking with the Canadian Chess Federation, maybe becoming a grandmaster himself one day.

The Calgary Chess Club says around 20 per cent of its 200 members are from the South Asian community with a big Filipino contingent and other members from all sorts of different backgrounds.

“We have a diverse crowd. And it’s not just about being a super genius. It’s more about controlling your emotions so you can process all the information in front of you when you’re playing, and I think there are real benefits in all problem-solving skills,” said Lars Lowther, the club’s president.

“There are all sorts of benefits that the South Asian community recognizes in the game,” Lowther said. “The younger players look up to great players, and they want to emulate those great players.”

The Calgary Chess Club offers classes and holds weekend tournaments.

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