By Anupama Chandrasekaran
CHENNAI (Reuters) - As India's Vishwanathan Anand squared off against Norway's Magnus Carlsen to defend his title as world chess champion, 11-year-old Shyamsundar and his 9-year-old sister Padmapratibha unfolded their cloth chess boards and sat cross-legged in the lobby of the hotel where the grandmasters were playing.
Their mother, B. Tamilarasi, traveled with them 450 km (280 miles) from Madurai to Chennai, allowing them to miss school to watch the Anand-Carlsen matches and take part in chess games throughout the two-week event.
"When I watched the inaugural ceremony for the World Chess Championship, I dared to think that they too could eye the world championship crown some day," she said.
With India having overtaken France as the nation with the most players rated by the World Chess Federation, the country that invented the predecessor of the strategic game is finally proving to be a hotbed of chess talent.
The enthusiasm for chess ignited by Anand in the 1980s is now a fervor as India hosts the world championship this year.
Anand and Carlsen are playing a total of 12 games through to November 26 on a glass-encased, soundproof stage at a five-star hotel in Chennai on India's southeast coast. Their first two matches, on Saturday and Sunday, ended in draws.
Just 22, Carlsen is considered the favorite after beating Anand in their last encounter in June. Anand, 43, is unperturbed.
"Whether someone thinks you are a favorite or not and what percentage, I don't know what you can do with that information anyway," Anand told a news conference last week.
A household name in India, Anand is widely credited with firing up the nation's passion for chess more than two decades ago with his world junior tournament victory in 1987 and his world championship wins starting in 2000.
Indian states including Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have made chess part of the school syllabus and countless clubs are cropping up.
Anand's key sponsor, software services firm NIIT Technologies Ltd, runs a program to introduce chess in more than 2,000 schools.
"The World Chess Championship has charged the country with intellectual voltage and I am getting double the number of calls I would get for enrolment every month," said Manual Aaron, 78, who runs a chess tutoring center in Chennai.
Low-cost chess sets and books, online resources and the game's association with intelligence make it a popular choice for middle-class parents who would cringe at their children spending time on other games.
Four years ago, when Tamilarasi's children were introduced to chess at school, they latched onto it and got their mother to consider private tutoring.
Tamilarasi and her husband, a government official, gave it a shot, even letting their children take time off school to concentrate on chess.
Although chess sets are cheap, travelling to other states for tournaments can cost anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 rupees ($160 to $800).
"We don't plan leisure trips or buy the latest clothing. Instead we direct our money towards the game," said Tamilarasi. "It is a risk but we are hopeful that our plans for our children to become chess champions will click."
($1 = 62.7300 Indian rupees)
(Editing by John O'Callaghan and Robert Birsel)