Text by Akhil Sood. Photographs by Uma Damle. Styling by Aradhana Baruah. Assisted by Simran Sethi. Hair and Make-Up by Aradhana Khanna
In between explaining complex psychological concepts that she’s read about thanks to her intense love for chess, Tania Sachdev takes a quick break. She’s almost apologetic as she takes a bite from her pizza slice. “I’m sorry, I’m very hungry!” she laughs. Sachdev is sitting at her desk in her house in New Delhi, leaning over a chessboard. This is a rare moment of relative calm for her. She has spent the past three hours posing for photos — some rehearsed, some improvised. She has to step out in 10 minutes, so she’s quickly wrapping up lunch. In another couple of hours, her trainer will arrive.
When we speak, Sachdev is scheduled to leave for the Chess Olympiad 2018. The Olympiad, which happens every two years, is the most prestigious team chess tournament in the world. She is part of the Indian contingent, one of five members. At this point, she’s bursting with the kind of nervous energy — an underlying excitement — that often precedes any major life event. She leaves for Georgia, where the 43rd Olympiad is being held from September 23 to October 7, in another couple of days.
Sachdev is one of India’s finest chess players. She’s the second-highest ranked female player in the country, and has been the national champion on a couple of occasions in the past. She has a string of successes to her name, and was presented with the Arjuna Award in 2009. Her titles include International Master (IM) and Woman Grandmaster (WGM). The Grandmaster (GM) title is missing from her list of honours, but she’s not overly concerned, believing that if she keeps on working hard, the achievements will inevitably follow.
Having spent pretty much her entire life embedded in the realm of chess, she knows of no other world. “This is my normal,” she says, explaining how she never felt like she missed out on any essential childhood experiences. Instead, chess exposed her to a world of travelling and different cultures. Thirty-two now, Sachdev started off at the tender age of six, and was a prodigious talent even then: U-12 India champion, bronze medallist in the World U-12 Girls Championship, Asian U-14 girls champion; and she continued on the same trajectory in adulthood.
As I speak to her, it becomes apparent how all-consuming her passion for chess really is. This is the life she was made for. Even as she underlines the many challenges she’s faced, she always circles back to her love for the sport, and how it drives her. “I really do enjoy playing a lot,” she says. “I think that’s a prerequisite if you have to lead a life in sport. You have to love what you do. Otherwise you’ll probably never be very good at it. And you won’t be able to handle what comes with it.”
And there’s quite a lot that she has to face. Given how young she was when she started off, Sachdev has had to mature and develop her personality while in the limelight. In India, we tend to deify our sportspersons, projecting all our hopes and dreams on to them. And, if they ever have an off-day or two, we knock them off the very perch we created for them, cruelly and vindictively. “It’s really hard,” she admits. “In sports, you’re only as good as your last tournament. When you perform well, there’s so much adulation. People who are doing well for the country get a lot of recognition and support. But then if you have a bad tournament, it’s the other extreme. It’s actually become a lot worse now, with social media. It’s gone to another level.” Growing up, she tells me how one of the biggest challenges she faced was dealing with adversity. “I think it’s one of the most amazing life lessons you learn from sport. You’re going to learn that anyway in life. Life is going to mess things up for you, and you’re going to have to stand back up again. Most people learn that much later. But when you’re nine years old…you’re going to lose a game; you’ll let in a goal, you’ll fall down, get run out, play a bad shot. And you will deal with the negativity around it as well.”
There’s also a lot of “non-constructive criticism” that comes her way, she says. But ultimately, she wouldn’t trade any of this for the world. She considers it an honour and a privilege to represent the nation, and all the accompanying stress and pressure, and she treats it as a great responsibility.
As with most of the successful sportspeople, Sachdev too is fiercely competitive. “The rush of competition, of playing for your country, sitting on the board, fighting it out, making mistakes, the happiness of a good tournament, the emotions and the tough times, I love all of that!” She points out the importance of a strong support system around her, to help her focus and deal with the rigours of constantly touring. “I think I’m a really difficult person when I’m playing a tournament. You’re in your zone; you have your own way of doing things, so you need someone who’s unconditionally supporting you around it,” she says. While she’s made long-lasting friendships through her years on the circuit, there is a certain isolation that does exist when you’re playing chess professionally. “You’re alone. You’re taking care of everything internally. It’s really hard; the pressures are high, it requires focus, you’re preparing all the time, you have a schedule you have to stick to.” She’s learnt to cope with these pressures, and doesn’t mind travelling alone. That said, she does attribute a great deal of credit to her mother, who used to travel with her for tournaments regularly and has learnt over the years to provide the exact kind of support Sachdev requires.
She admits to being “horrible” after a bad tournament, especially when she has to face the barrage of well-meaning, but ultimately hollow consolations: “It’s just a game”, or “winning and losing is a part of it”. Instead, her competitive nature compels her to analyse her defeats, focus on where she went wrong, and get back out there to do better. In fact, one of the simple joys of being on the road for her, that she looks forward to, is to go out for a meal with her friends in the chess circuit after a match or a tournament, and then analyse each other’s games and dissect each move with candour.
For many years, there used to be all these clichés attached to chess. That it was exclusively the domain of the geeks, the nerds, the bespectacled kids no one really understands — the absurdly intelligent, socially awkward misfits. Certainly, it was much like that when Sachdev was growing up. But the tide seems to have turned. Sachdev, herself, has a personality at odds with those lazy tropes that used to exist. And chess too, she says, has seen a radical change in its perception over the last five years. The very traits that made it ripe for ridicule are now working in its favour: “I think ‘smart’ and ‘brainy’ and ‘nerdy’ and ‘geeky’… I think that’s really sexy actually. Chess has this kind of really cool, niche intellectual appeal now,” she says.
While her commitment to playing remains unwavering — Sachdev freely admits, with a disarming modesty, that the only thing she’s good at is chess — she also serves as sort of an ambassador for the sport, reaching out to wider audiences and making it more accessible. Often, she does commentary for chess matches, and she also has an association with Red Bull through which they put out short primer videos and host events to involve the youth. Sachdev has a positive, cheerful personality; she appears to be someone who genuinely enjoys what she does, which is perhaps what allows her to reach out to more people. Endearing and approachable, both to the press and fans, Sachdev tells me how she enjoys all the peripheral activities that come with being in the public eye. She’s active on social media — she can’t even imagine handing over control of her accounts to someone else — and often connects interacts with her fans. “I feel very connected to people. I like talking to people, learning about them, having conversations.”
Further, making the sport more accessible is something she feels strongly about. Her own path — a young girl playing chess in north India — was very unconventional at the time, but the game has wider mainstream attention now, and she wants to help people who may have an interest in the game but not the kind of access they need: “In some ways, I feel the game has given so much to me my whole life. Even me sitting here right now. So I can do something; I can use my ability to promote it. The mental and physical development that it brings; how it breaks gender barriers… sports is really the coolest thing in the world right now, and I want to bring it to people who love the game,” she says.