Our Great Idea

Make it available for Indians

16 Jul 2020

The chess boom in India has been driven by ChessBase India and its multitasking co-founder and CEO Sagar Shah. Five years ago he convinced the Hamburg headquarter to reduce prices for the subcontinent.

Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal have traveled for chess a lot, with him, an International Master, writing and reporting and her, a former junior champion with four WIM norms, capturing photos and videos.
Sagar Shah and Amruta Mokal have traveled for chess a lot, with him, an International Master, writing and reporting and her, a former junior champion with four WIM norms, capturing photos and videos. (David Llada)

“In 2014 my wife Amruta and I were invited to Hamburg by Frederic Friedel, the co-founder of ChessBase. I had just scored my first GM norm at the open in Dresden where I won ahead of 29 grandmasters. My chess career was at its peak. At the same time, the desire to share experiences had always driven me. I like to talk chess, to write about games and positions, to make accessible to others what I have learned. Before the trip to Germany I had sent Frederic a couple of my articles. He liked them, and so Amruta and I went from Dresden to Hamburg after the tournament.

For someone loving chess deeply the visit to the ChessBase headquarter was a huge inspiration: We saw twenty-two individuals working and making a living with chess, but not by playing or teaching. This was a new concept for me. One guy doing product testing, another packing DVDs, a third one writing articles for the website. There and then I understood that it is possible to make a living from your passion in many different ways.

I am a chartered accountant and could have made a career out of it. But for me chess was so enticing, I wanted to do something related to it. Amruta had told me before we married in 2014, that if I don’t do something related to chess she wouldn’t marry me. She was half-joking of course, but also somewhat serious. Chess was the thing that connected the two of us. We wanted it to continue, to see different places, to explore ourselves through chess.

We want to make chess the most popular sport in India. I see ourselves at the brink of creating a chess explosion in India.“

After visiting Chessbase in Hamburg I dreamt of having a company like this. A company, in which everyone is working in different spheres of promoting chess. At that time it was a far-fetched dream, but it didn’t need to happen over night. I started to write for ChessBase on a regular basis. It was exciting, and the feedback was good. It also affected my chess. Instead of analyzing games and searching for opening novelties that I could apply, I was writing. I love to multitask, but it comes with the downside that you cannot focus on one thing and excel at it.

I fulfilled another GM norm in 2015 and was really close to reaching the title, but at this point I became hundred per cent committed to ChessBase India and to our vision: We want to make chess the most popular sport in India – which is quite a task considering the status of cricket. We also promote chess as a social tool that can be used in many ways to do good for society. I see ourselves at the brink of creating a chess explosion in India.

The couple from Mumbai is central to building India’s chess community. Their wedding in 2014 was attended by many chess friends.
The couple from Mumbai is central to building India’s chess community. Their wedding in 2014 was attended by many chess friends. (private)

Back then Amruta and I realized that for players in India there was no avenue to get really good chess products. ChessBase was the best tool to work on chess, but there was no easy way to get it. If you ordered via chessbase.com, you needed an international credit card which not many Indians had. And few Indians could afford the software at its regular price. Piracy was rampant, there was an abundance of illegal ChessBase copies that kept crashing computers. We discussed this with ChessBase and asked if they could make an exception. Eventually, Chessbase agreed to slash their prices by 60 percent for the whole subcontinent. We became the sole distributor for India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Just having products would not make us popular, it would not connect us to people. So we decided to use social media to grow our base.”

The shop became the base on which we could build. As the sole distributor in this region, we started with a small website. In the beginning, people sent money to our bank account, then sent an email, then we checked if the money was there, and then we would send them files. It was quite a process for just one task, but that’s how it all began. Now we had set up a nice store, but just having products would not make us popular, it would not connect us to people. So we decided to use social media to grow our base. We started with the ChessBase India Facebook page, which grew quickly and is one of the most active Facebook sites in chess now. Our readers enjoyed what we were doing and our focus on Indian chess and its protagonists.

Youtube changed things for us once again. I never expected that it could be such a powerful medium, especially back then when there were so few chess channels and streamers. We started with a trip to the Candidates Tournament in Moscow in 2016. I recorded interview with my phone. At some point we started to embed a chessboard in the video to show the positions the players were talking about. I think we did some good journalistic work there. People started noticing, our videos became shared, and the Youtube channel started booming. When 100.000 people saw our video of Carlsen losing to Bu in the World Cup 2017 and our followers went up to 5,000 we were still surprised that there was such an interest. Today, we have crossed 383,000, and it is one of the world’s biggest Youtube chess channels. For sure we have the highest number of videos: 3,400, and all of them in pretty decent quality. We also have some of the most popular chess videos in the world. One clip with Praggnanandhaa has more than 30 million views.

Our Youtube channel reflects our main attitude: Sharing is the basis of our company. Whenever someone does something good in the world of chess, we will want to cover it and make it accessible to everyone. No accounts or subscriptions must be necessary to follow our chess coverage. But since we have so much material with so many gems in it, we need to organize it in order to make it more available and valuable. We are planning a portal that makes it easier for people to find what they are looking for, especially for new visitors.

A foundation connects affluent chess lovers with talents and social iniatives.
A foundation connects affluent chess lovers with talents and social iniatives.

Another pillar is the ChessBase India Foundation that we set up in 2018. The Foundation are promoting chess for the blind and visually impaired. We find sponsorships and scholarships. We want to make sure that our biggest talents can pursue chess even if their families cannot afford it. Chess lovers trust us that we pass on their donations to people in need.

When we started ChessBase India, many of the young guys you see now had just started their rise, they were 1800- or 1900-rated players. Their growth is a big motivation for us, we have grown along with them. Today it seems natural to continue the journey of promoting chess in India rather than going after my final GM norm. It remains an unfulfilled desire for sure, but I don’t see it in the near future.”

As told to Conrad Schormann

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