The game is supposed to have originated in India 1500 years ago around the 6th century. It was called Chaturangam , Sanskrit for four organs. In military terminology it meant the four divisions of an army i.e., Horses, Camels, Elephants and the Humans. It subsequently spread to Persia where it was called Shatrez or Shatranj as the Hindi belt in India calls it and Chess as it is known around the modern world. Once the Muslim empire took to the game, it spread to Europe in tandem with the spread of the Empire. If all this gives you an impression that I am some sort of an expert in this game, let me bust the myth. A cursory Google search will tell you this and much more. Precisely what I did before I started writing this note. Suffices to say I am a complete greenhorn as far as this game is concerned.
Chess made a dramatic entry into my life when Viswanathan Anand became India’s youngest National Champion at the age of 12 or some such ridiculous number. While glancing through the newspaper announcing the occasion my old man looked at me with utter contempt and said that a kid of my age or thereabouts was already a National Champion and here I was, a virtual wastrel or words to that effect. (The typical Tam Bram parents when they look beyond an Engineer or a ‘medical’ as a career option for their children look at ‘intelligent’ sports like chess, Cricket or Football being rather pagan. But then I digress) Stung by the dressing down from the Pater, I jumped headlong into mastering chess. To cut the story short I managed a whole of ninety minutes before rightly concluding that Chess was not for me. Being a hyperactive and restless brat, I could not even visualize a life spent sitting quietly on one seat and pouring over a board of 64 squares till eternity. Gosh Maan! This was almost like studying! If I could do this for Chess then I might as well spend it better by employing the time over my lessons. (My teachers in school always washed their hand off me by giving me the mandatory 40 marks and promoting me to the next standard. 40 marks out of what you ask? Out of pity! But then I digress again)
As I grew up in a country which was then the perennial underachiever of the world, sports gave me one outlet where I could possibly bask in the reflected glory of ‘national pride’. I followed all the games, a Vijay Amritraj and a Ramesh Krishnan here, a Prakash Padukone or a P T Usha there. Post India’s triumph in the ’83 World cup I too along with the rest of India became a single sport fan. For the rest of the disciplines I was part of the multitude whose only contribution to Indian sport was “For a country of 80 crore people, shameful that we can’t win even one medal at the Olympics!” kind of helpless lamentation. It was in such a scenario that chess made a dramatic re-entry into my life. Rather Viswanathan Anand did!
Multiple things made me take notice of Viswanathan Anand. First among them was a sense of bitchiness hoping he wouldn’t do too well thereby giving my old man an excuse to renew his favourite hobby of giving me the ‘dose’. As Anand started moving up the Chess ladder, India’s youngest International Master here, first Indian to win the World Junior title there and the resultant India’s first Grand Master, admiration cloaked with a sense of helplessness took over. “How can this guy attain so much, so fast? Bloody Lightning Kid!” As victories over Karpovs and Kasparovs and Kamskys and Kramniks started coming along regularly I became a convert. Parochialism deep in slumber within me woke up. This man was after all ‘our man,a fellow ‘madrasi!’ IPL came much later or I would have ‘Whistlepodu’ for the original Chennai Super King! As I sang hosannahs about Sachin and ilk most of the time, one part of my mind surreptitiously kept track of what this wizard was upto. And finally when the pre ordained World Title came once, twice, five times, ‘Vishy’ Anand for me graduated from being the ‘Magician of Madras’ to become India’s best sportsman ever. I still can’t understand one single technique of this highly nuanced sport, the e4s and c5s, the Sicilian Defence, the Queen's Gambit but the sheer weight of Anand’s five World Crowns in a highly competitive and truly global sport forced me to acknowledge that no sportsman has served this country more than this now portly, bespectacled professor look alike who took his first step towards greatness by beating his mother fair and square on the board. Humongousness personified.
For those of you like me who are raised on an overdose of Cricket and who find it difficult to agree with the above lines, let me just say this. Roll your tongue like you are licking the softest chocolate ever made, salivate and slowly say “Five time World Champion, FIVE TIME WORLD CHAMPION!” I rest my case. The runner up medal at the just concluded World Title round notwithstanding, Anand has done more than enough to be a Legend of the game and I dare say The Legend of Indian sports. By a quirk of fate he is not the first sportsman recipient of India’s highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna, circumstances colluding in such a way for Sachin Tendulkar to be bestowed with that record, richly deserved if I may add but I hope the country honours Viswanathan Anand with the same, sooner rather than later. Not doing so would be a travesty of Himalayan proportions.
PS: Apart from his skills in Chess, one more reason for the Father to have a grouse with me was……………you guessed it right! The name!