The prolific blogger, economist, and public intellectual Tyler Cowen recently reposted a map on the geography of Indian chess grandmasters (reproduced below). The map was originally posted on X [Twitter] by “The_Equationist” under the heading “This chart speaks for itself.” I am not sure that it does, nor do several of Cowen’s commenters. But for those who understand the basic spatial contours of socio-economic development in India, the map does show a familiar pattern. Almost all Indian grandmasters come from the more economically vibrant and educationally developed states of southern and south-central India. Conversely, few come from the densely populated and economically lagging Ganges Valley, India’s historical core, or indeed from any other northern part of the country. Based on socioeconomic development alone, one might expect a few more grandmasters from Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi, but the pattern remains unexceptional.
What is especially striking is that three states in particular stand out for producing grandmasters: West Bengal (labeled here simply as “Bengal”), Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. But again, for those familiar with the geography of Indian intellectual life, this pattern is not particularly surprising. West Bengal has long been famed as India’s intellectual center, particularly in fields in the humanities. This feature of Indian geography has occasionally hit home. I few years ago, I was peripherally involved in a search at Stanford University for a new faculty member specializing in the history of modern South Asia. Well into the process, a South Asian member of the search committee asked whether the rest of us had noticed that all the top candidates were Bengali, hailing from West Bengal. I had not noticed.
Tamil Nadu, which really stands out on the map, is also famous for the intellectual achievements of its inhabitants, which veer in a more scientific and technical direction. Such intellectuality is particularly notable among the Tamil Brahmins (or “Tam Brahms”), who have been subjected to some reverse discrimination in their homeland and are thus well represented abroad. Maharashtra does not have the same intellectual reputation as the other two states, but it is, in many regards, India’s economic standout and its center of popular-culture production.
One of Cowen’s commenters, Sathish, mentions that almost all of Tamil Nadu’s grandmasters come from its largest city, Chennai (formerly Madras), noting as well that 15 of the 29 studied at the same school. Another commenter, sxb, provides the necessary background information:
It started in the 50s with the first Indian international Master, Manuel Aaron. He started the Tal chess club in Chennai, brought in Soviet chess books and even a Soviet Grandmaster for a month with more visiting and Anand, the Indian prodigy, was his pupil. Basically all the local players worthy of note went through that chess club. It blossomed from there. Anand was born and lives in Chennai and has been a great role model for chess in India and got many youngsters interested in the game.
As geographers have long noted, place matters. So does personality, as this story so well demonstrates.