Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
About 20 years ago, when I was in standard XI or XII, I qualified to play in a state-level chess tournament for schoolkids in Sholapur. I was part of the Pune contingent, and the school championships covered practically every other sport played in India—though chess was a first that year. When my team of four players landed up the day before the event began, we were shown into a large hall and told we’d be sleeping there for the night, with many of the other athletes and sportsmen who had shown up. About 60 people could have fit in it in normal circumstances. There were more than 100 of us. No bedding was provided, part of the floor was wet (leakage from somewhere), and sleep didn’t come easy.
The next morning, we found that the toilet facilities intended for us amounted to a small shed outside the building that had three or four cubicles in it. Inevitably, fights broke out in the rush to use it. There were judokas, wrestlers, weightlifters and shot-putters around. As you’d expect, we chess players had to learn to control our bowel movements.
I came third, and qualified for the nationals. Bizarrely, it coincided with my final exams, as it must have for many of the schoolkids who qualified. I did not go.
The regular age-group tournaments that the national chess federation organised were not much better. I represented Maharashtra once in the national junior championship (under-20), in 1992 or 1993, and the tournament was held in Vijaywada in the peak of summer. ‘It is so hot here,’ a local friend told me, ‘that crows drop down dead in summer.’ The electricity, which was variable, went off one day before the round began. I was drawn to play a player I respected hugely for his theoretical knowledge, though I felt that once you leave theory out of it, I was better than him. So, to take him out of his opening repertoire, I played 1. b4—the Orangutan opening. He arrived late at the table, took one look at the board and burst out laughing. The sweat poured down my face, and my head throbbed. I lost that game, finished lower in the tournament than I’d expected, and retired from chess at the age of 19.
I don’t blame my early departure from the game on outside circumstances. It was evident to me that I wasn’t good enough to play the game at a higher level, and I will always cherish the memories I have, including the time I beat a future grandmaster (I was 18, he was 15, but already considered a prodigy; I still remember the spectacular rook sacrifice I unleashed, leading to mate in four.) I also made significant pocket money in college as a chess hustler, but that’s a tale for another day.
Why I relate these stories, though, is to give a sense of how hard it was to make it in any Indian sport apart from cricket. Most of those sports are run by the government, and I don’t need to elaborate on the inevitable inefficiencies that result, and the hardships and bureaucracy that young sportspeople have to battle. You always feel that you’re fighting against the system, and whatever you achieve is in spite of it. I cannot stress this enough: To just survive the damn system, to keep playing the sport you love through years of this crap, you have to be made of stern stuff.
To actually come out of this and excel at the international level: that’s a whole different deal. To those guys: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
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For chess players, it was hard for another reason. Back then, in the pre-internet, pre-liberalisation days, it was impossible to stay in touch with the cutting edge of chess knowledge. Chess books beyond basic ones were hard to come by; and were treasured when they did, even if they were outdated. And while all local players were bound by pretty much the same limitations, when Indians moved on to international chess, they were hopelessly behind in terms of knowledge and training.
One of my friends, Devangshu Datta, played chess at the national and international levels in the 1980s. Over an email conversation, which I quote with permission, he described how the barriers for Indian chess players were “absolutely mountainous.”
“To put it bluntly,” he wrote, “when I started playing East Europeans, the difference in ‘chess culture’ was stark. We knew so much less, it wasn’t funny. To take an analogy, it was like putting a bunch of talented kids with a basic knowledge of, say, self-taught HSC level maths into direct competition with people who had post-grad math degrees.
“We’d struggle through the opening and hit the middle game and start wondering what to do, then in the post-mortem, the opponent would say, ‘Oh, my trainer AN Other taught us that with this structure you have to play this way,’ and you’d be like, ‘Shit.’”
It was around that time that Viswanathan Anand broke through to establish himself as one of the best players in the world, and a potential successor to the great Garry Kasparov. This week he successfully defended his World Championship title against Veselin Topalov. His achievements, which I do not need to summarise, are greater than they would have been if they belonged to a Russian or East European player. They are beyond stupendous. In the context of where he came from, it’s like a guy takes a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and wins the championship. That guy, frankly, is more than just the best driver in the world.
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After Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in that classic chess match of 1972, interest in chess in the US spurted. I suspect Anand’s achievements will have a similar effect in India. The live coverage of his match against Topalov was eagerly followed on Twitter, with near-live commentary being produced by some tweeters. For a chess player, the precision of his play in some of the games, like the last one, was breathtaking. But even for non-chess players unaware of the nuances, the match was dramatic and compelling. As I write these words, the day after his win, the newspapers and TV channels are full of him. Chess, amazingly enough, might just be on its way to becoming a spectator sport in India.
And what a time to be a young chess player in India. As Devangshu told me, “Until 1993, India had to wait an extra 4-6 weeks for Informant, a paper digest of, say, the 1000 best games played in the past quarter (many annotated by the players) to arrive from Belgrade. The East Europeans got it on day one. Now you get them instantaneously as they’re played. We get the annotated versions as quickly as anybody else, and I have home analysis of nearly the same calibre and quality as Anand does. You have free chess engines available that are as strong as the world champion or stronger in many respects. Plus, all the material is digital and includes depth of annotation that was unimaginable.”
Also, needless to say, playing chess competitively requires little investment in equipment, unlike other sports. (A chess set is all you need to start, and later a chess clock and an internet connection.) You aren’t dependent on the government any more. You have all the resources you need—and if you watched Anand at work this week, you also have the inspiration. For this reason, I expect India to produce a wave of strong chess players in the years to come.
Who knows, one of them may even win the World Championship someday. But it won’t be as big a deal as this. Anand is special.
Previously on Viewfinder:
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)