Chess is in the air. More to the point, the game of chess has been pervading the city of Chennai, as this great cultural and sporting centre has just been hosting the 44th Chess Olympiad, popularly referred to as the Chennai Chess Olympiad. By definition, chess is not a game calculated to get the adrenalin flowing amongst the masses. It is not cricket or football. Its cloistered indoor format with the participants staring down their kings, queens, pawns, rooks, bishops and knights over 64 black and white squares is hardly calculated to engender an atmosphere of wild, raucous cheering. Bridge comes closest to chess in terms of the participants sitting across a table and wondering what to bid. That said, at the end of a marathon, such as we have been witness to over the years, featuring the likes of Korchnoi, Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Fischer, and more recently Anand, when the winner finally whispers the ultimate death knell ‘checkmate’, the crowds watching behind glass screens have been known to erupt in joy; as much out of relief that the ordeal is over as in celebration over the winner’s triumph.
I have no intention here of providing a laundry list of the names of the winners and runners-up in the aforementioned Chennai jousts or in attempting to describe any of the games. I have no competence in that regard. What is more, all that has been done and dusted and the media has been fulsome in its coverage. Challenged as I am in the finer aspects of this board game, I could at best pick up that India has a bunch of brilliant youngsters, some of whom may not even have had their first shave. I am, of course, referring to the boys here. The brilliant girls too looked barely out of their teens. So, it is clear that Indian chess is in safe hands.
That our Prime Minister and Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister chose to be present at the inaugural gala, sitting side by side, speaks volumes for the importance attached to this tournament at the highest levels. The two prominent political honchos were seen whispering sweet nothings to each other during the song and dance sequence that was unfurled for their delectation. What priceless exchanges took place between them will remain forever a matter of speculation, given that they don’t speak the same language, in more ways than one! Rumours floating around that someone sitting close to them heard the PM ask CM Stalin, ‘Do you prefer the Ruy Lopez opening over the Queen’s Gambit? Personally, I favour the Sicilian Defence; if I am playing black, naturally,’ were just that – rumours. In any case, Stalin looked quite blank and was not heard answering. He turned helplessly to his PA who merely shrugged his shoulders. My own instinct tells me that the PM was probably saying something like, ‘Stalin Bhai, why are you wasting your time with these Mahagathbandhan losers? Align with the NDA and we can fly sky high.’ At which point, the PM applauded lustily as one of the Bharatanatyam tableaux came to an end. Stalin continued to look befuddled while he carefully patted his hair in place.
Given that PM Modi and CM Stalin are on opposite sides of the Indian political divide, this may have been the first time they came together on a common cause. The Chess Olympiad fandango was probably just a smokescreen for the two strong leaders to engage in some confidential and informal backroom chats. Two Grandmasters picking their way carefully through the squares! The machinations of politicians are unpredictable and sometimes can make strange bedfellows. This may, and this is pure conjecture on my part, have been a first-time effort at chess diplomacy in our country. In the international arena of political intrigue over the years, journalists have frequently used chess as a metaphor to describe diplomatic moves and manoeuvres.
While my own light-hearted speculation on the just concluded Chess Olympiad in Chennai, against the backdrop of Indian politics was precisely that i.e., satirical speculation, there is a lot more to the game in the global arena. On the international stage, over the years, the game of chess has reflected in deadly earnest, the more serious political conflicts that sparked worldwide interest. When precocious American child prodigy Bobby Fischer took on his Russian counterpart Boris Spassky for the World Championship title at Reykjavik in 1972, the entire world was agog. It was almost as if Nixon was facing off against Brezhnev. Even those who could not tell the difference between a rook and a knight sat up and took notice. Because this was not just any ordinary chess game. It was widely projected as the ersatz cold war between USSR (as it then was) and the United States being played or fought out over a chess board in neutral Iceland’s capital city. For the record, the enigmatic, unpredictable genius, Fischer defeated Spassky to be crowned world champion, while America and most of the world representing capitalist interests, went berserk. It was as if the USA had militarily annexed the USSR. Even the world’s most popular rock band, The Beatles, in a different context, had the world dancing to Back in the USSR.
India has always had a close association with chess. Historians aver that the game shatranj or chaturanga, was first discovered and developed in India during the 6th century AD. In more contemporary times India could boast of many fine chess players, but none of them hit the headlines globally. However, it was not until the 80s and 90s that a quiet, unassuming lad from Madras, Viswanathan Anand, blazed a phenomenal trail of glory for his country. He became the first Indian grandmaster and was awarded the Padma Shri at the age of just 18 and in 2007, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the first sportsman to have been so honoured. (The Congress party’s politically opportunistic awarding of the Bharat Ratna to Sachin Tendulkar came later). The rest of ‘Vishy’ Anand’s fabulous career needs no elaboration as it is well recorded for anyone who is interested. He has just this year been elected Deputy President of the FIDE (World Chess Federation). If India today boasts a clutch of highly talented young chess players, the meteoric rise of ‘Lightning Kid’ Anand has undoubtedly been the primary inspiration. It is worth adding here that the late film director and maestro Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), set in circa 1857 during the Indian mutiny against the British, won international plaudits and reaffirmed India’s pioneering role in developing the game of chess, though the game itself played a subtle, metaphorical backdrop to the main storyline.
Having said earlier that chess is not a mass spectator sport, if you are even remotely interested in the game and find two people at a roadside table, heads bowed in deep concentration over a chess board, you will gravitate towards them along with several other passers-by already studying the moves closely. It is a powerful, magnetic attraction. Vladimir Putin once said, ‘Chess makes men wiser and clear-sighted.’ Judging by recent events in Ukraine, the Russian strongman was clearly not a particularly good exponent of the game. I end this reflection with an amusing, though true, anecdote that demonstrates the enormous influence the game has had over people from all walks of life. Some legendary musical and chess names feature in this story.
The eminent Soviet composer and pianist, Dmitri Shostakovich was an avid chess player. Whenever he and Serge Prokofiev (Romeo and Juliet, Peter and the Wolf) were at the same musical event, they would go to one of their hotel rooms for a serious game. He frequently collaborated with violinist David Oistrakh, and they spent every free minute at their chessboard in the green room. His love of chess was well known in the Soviet Union, a nation where chess was big news. A reporter once asked Shostakovich ‘Who is the strongest player you have faced?’ Shostakovich told them this story: When a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in the early 1920s, he made a little money playing the piano accompaniment in silent movie theatres. One day, walking through the lobby after the film finished, he noticed a man looking over a position on a chessboard. Shostakovich asked if he’d like to play a game, the stranger accepted.
Shostakovich tried a new opening idea he and his friends had seen in the latest German chess magazine. The stranger seemed puzzled, studied the position for 4 or 5 minutes, then crushed Shostakovich with an idea the German magazine hadn’t mentioned. ‘I have never been so quickly and decisively defeated,’ Shostakovich admitted. He thanked the stranger and introduced himself, ‘Shostakovich, Dmitri Dmitriyevich. The stranger, in turn, introduced himself, Alekhine, Alexander Alexandrovich. That was my toughest opponent,’ he told the reporter. Judging by the great composer’s laconic reaction, it is not fully clear if the renowned composer actually realised that he had just moved the ivories, not too astutely, against one of the all-time great chess players, one who dominated the world of chess at the turn of the 20th century. It makes one ponder on the existential question of why Russians have had a vice-like stranglehold on this game since time immemorial.
With so much chess and its allied subjects occupying my mind during this past couple of weeks, I leave you with my opening gambit (I am playing white). All set? King’s pawn, 1.e4. Good luck and take your time.