Diverse in India: Chess Skills Elevate Student to Elite College

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

CHENNAI,  India — With the blessings of his parents, VAV Rajesh made a decision at the tender age of 11 to move to this bustling city that is considered the “Mecca of Indian chess” in order to become a professional chess player.

Five years later—like a sacrifice meant to gain a better position on the chessboard—Rajesh’s decision has already paid off.

After being taken in and sponsored in chess tournaments by the highly esteemed Vellamal boarding school, eventually, Rajesh’s chess skills stood out so much that they enabled him to bypass India’s onerous college entrance exams and gain one of the seats reserved for athletes at Loyola College, where this fall, Rajesh, 16, is set to complete his first semester as a freshman majoring in computer science.

Like Loyola University in Chicago or Loyola University Baltimore, Loyola College in Chennai is just as much Catholic and Jesuit. A recent visit to the campus found students perambulating about the school’s dusty, half-grassy courtyard near the life sciences and main buildings on an examination day. It was about midday when a prayer was said by a school official over the loudspeakers.

For what it’s worth, the college, which was founded in 1925, emerged as the No. 3 arts college in India in a recent series of college rankings published by India Today.

The school happens to be the alma mater of reigning world chess champion Viswanathan Anand, who also hails from Chennai.

Students told a visitor that the tuition is 8,000 rupees per semester. Recently, that translated to about $178—dirt cheap by American standards.

Rajesh—whose parents are high school teachers in his native Andhra Pradesh, a nearby Indian state—says the college’s reputation as the best college in Chennai factored prominently in his decision to go to the school. He heard about how good it was from current students and alumni.

“It’s the best. That’s why I chose it,” said Rajesh during a break about halfway through the World Junior Chess Championship, in which he is representing India.

Statistics show Rajesh has a good chance of reaching his goal of becoming a professional chess player. At the time he was interviewed, Rajesh was ranked as the fifth best player in India under the age of 16, and the 13th best player under the age of 16 in all of Asia, according to the World Chess Federation.

At the World Junior, he made his country proud by eliciting a draw from the top seeded player, Russian Grandmaster Maxim Matlakov.

“His score at FIDE [acronym of the French name for the World Chess Federation], he got a 2200 score (a master rating in chess), so we gave him admission with free education,” said S. Vijaykumar, head of sports and games at Loyola College, of Rajesh in explaining that the college reserves several seats each year for athletes—including chess players—who win national acclaim.

Rajesh has been on the national radar since at least 2005, when he won the Under 10 section of the Asian Continental Chess Championship.

Rajesh’s chess dreams have already had an impact on his decisions around higher education.

For instance, while he had an offer from another university to study engineering, Rajesh opted for computer science because it requires less study and thus affords him more time to play in tournaments, such as the World Junior.

“He’s happy with his decision,” said Navalgund Niranjan, a chess-blogging friend and fellow competitor in the World Under 20, who also attends Vellamal. Vellamal still provides Rajesh with a place to stay.

Rajesh said his backup plan is to get a job at a software company in Chennai’s booming IT sector. He says he may also pursue graduate school, such as a master’s in business administration or a master’s in civil administration.

Asked whether he might one day regret passing up the chance to study engineering in order to play chess, Rajesh said confidently: “I won’t regret it.”

It remains to be seen how Rajesh might be molded by his Jesuit education at Loyola.

“Here, sports are an important part of the curriculum,” said Vijaykumar, the sports director at Loyola College. “But Loyola College is looking at the all-around development of the students, economically, physically, mentally and socially.”

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