A world that swirls in 64 squares

Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe, goes an old proverb. The great Kasparov was more prosaic: Chess is mental torture, he declared. Love it, hate it, but there’s no ignoring it.
Last Updated 16 July 2022, 20:15 IST

Every day, millions of people escape into a world of 64 black-and-white squares populated by kings, queens, bishops, rooks, knights and pawns. On this insular planet, they employ strategies with intriguing names: Sodium Attack, Sicilian Defense, Bishop’s Opening and Ruy Lopez, to name just a few. It is a silent, cerebral universe of opponents hunched over the board, in deep thought, seemingly doing nothing, even as their mind ticks away furiously examining the possibilities of several moves and parallel lines of attack and defence.

Something about chess intrigues the world at large and the chess maestro (who, intriguingly in this world of gender-right terminology continues to be called ‘grandmaster’ or GM) is treated not just as an expert in the game. The GM’s mastery of the game is reckoned to leak into other matters as well. He (and it is largely a man’s world, as we will see later) is also reckoned to be a whiz at much else: mathematics, logical thinking, memory and thinking speed.

A higher-order pursuit?

The idea that playing chess makes you smarter comes from the observable fact that chess requires intense concentration and memory and what observers of the game perceive as intelligence of a very high degree. Since academic pursuits require similar skills, therefore playing chess is likely to affect academic achievements positively. Or so goes the reasoning.

Studies do show some moderate effects of chess instruction on cognitive abilities and academic achievements — especially in mathematics. But most studies compared the effect of chess with groups doing no alternative activities. When compared to an alternative activity such as sports, there were no significant effects on children’s skills. Chess is not an academic silver bullet, at least not to the extent that common wisdom would have it.

A prop in pop culture

The opinion that people have of chess players being exceedingly nerdy and coldly clinical has been, in part, propelled by films and works of fiction that often showcase chess-playing characters as calculative individuals who coolly and cleverly make the world do their bidding, even as they stay behind the veil, holding the strings.

In the 1926 short story ‘The Adventure of the Retired Colourman’, Sherlock Holmes claimed that an aptitude for chess was “one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind”.

In Wazir (2016), Amitabh Bachchan is a wheelchair-bound chess-playing old man who wreaks vengeance by carefully manipulating another individual to actually execute the moves. The 1982 film Blade Runner’s main antagonist, Roy Batty, is yet another chess-playing fiend. Chess-playing villains have also featured on episodes of Criminal Minds, CSI and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, all popular TV crime shows.

In the 1968 heist thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, Faye Dunaway seduces Steve McQueen over a fireside game of chess. Dunaway is the investigator in this instance and McQueen the thief, but still, for her game of deception, she uses chess.

To top it all, in another 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000, the supercomputer with a deep dark side, defeats one of the astronauts at chess to demonstrate its formidable and ultimately, destructive intelligence.

Chess, it appears, is even in non-human realms, something of a prop for evil!

Then there are the eccentrics

While in the fictional realm, chess-playing eccentrics are a-plenty, there are several such characters in real life too. None more so than the enigmatic American, Bobby Fischer. A child prodigy, he became a grandmaster and won the US National Championship in 1958 at the age of 15. In 1972, he and the Russian, Boris Spassky faced each other in the world championship in what was billed as the ‘Match of the Century'.

It was the height of the Cold War and the match came to be seen as a proxy for the US-USSR tussle for supremacy in world politics. Spassky was under enormous pressure to win. As always, Fischer behaved erratically, initially refusing to play and then finally agreeing to do so when the prize money was doubled. Fischer beat Spassky spectacularly, underlining his position as the foremost chess intellect of his times.

This match inspired a musical, Chess (1984), by Tim Rice, a documentary, Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011) and a movie, Pawn Sacrifice (2014). Post this breathtaking triumph, Fischer went off the rails, famously refusing to defend his title in 1975, making bizarre comments in the press, and finally withdrawing from both competition and public life, only to resurface from time to time in controversial circumstances, before his death in 2008. He became something of a stereotype for the chess nerd — eccentric, unpredictable and socially inept.

In the India of the 1930s, a chess prodigy by the name Mir Sultan Khan, emerged. Hailing from rural Punjab, knowing very little English, Khan then proceeded to dazzle the world with his abilities. Even the difficult-to-please Jose Raul Capablanca, world champion from 1921 to 1927, is said to have called him a ‘genius’. In fact, his game against Capablanca, which ended in Sultan’s victory, is counted as one of the greatest games of all time. He figured in the top three or four in virtually every championship he entered and won the British Championship in consecutive years in 1932 and 1933. And then, as spectacularly as he had entered it, by the mid-1930s, Khan exited the world chess scene, never to play again.

A gender-skewed gambit?

While the 2016 film, Queen of Katwe and the 2020 OTT series, The Queen’s Gambit, both featured women as chess-playing protagonists, in real life, women have not made much of an impression in the competitive chess scenario. While most chess tournaments are open to men and women, just 37 of the more than 1,600 international chess GMs are women. Garry Kasparov, Nigel Short and Bobby Fischer, all top players, have all made derisive comments about women’s chess.

Most arguments about why women are underrepresented have centred on the nature-nurture debate. Around the time Mir Sultan Khan was making a mark, a certain Fatima (second name unknown), also from Punjab, played the British Women Chess Championship in 1933 and won it easily. That she is even more unknown than Khan tells us something.

Affirmative action policies in recent years have improved women’s participation considerably and most chess watchers agree that it is only a matter of time before women claim their rightful slice of the chess board. As Hungary’s Judit Polgár, considered the strongest woman player of all time, and the only woman ever to be ranked in the world’s top 10, once remarked, ‘We are capable of the same fight as any man. It’s not a matter of gender, it’s a matter of being smart.’

The chess republic of the world

From the time the Second World War ended till the USSR imploded and fragmented in the early 1990s, Soviet chess players dominated world chess. Not only did the Soviets monopolise the world champion title after 1948 (except for the Fischer interlude), they were dominant in all other areas of international chess competition.

The story of Soviet chess goes back to the Russian Revolution when chess became a training tool for military recruits. The Bolshevik ascent resulted in the programme being strengthened even further. The Stalinist regime actively encouraged it with Soviet chess becoming a vehicle for touting the superiority of Soviet culture.

For many years, chess was the favourite game in virtually every Soviet household. Chess classes were a feature of most schools and tables for chess were installed in parks, with hundreds gathering in the evenings. A clear indication that ‘nurture’ was the Soviet magic weapon.

Between 1948 and 1993, a steady stream of Soviets held the world title one after the other. Mikhail Botvinnik held it on three occasions (1948-57, 1958-60, 1961-63). Tigran Petrosian (1963-69), Anatoly Karpov (1975-85) and Garry Kasparov (1985-93) were the other dominant players of this era. It was not without reason that Spassky (world champion from 1969-72) was under such pressure to retain the title when he played Fischer.

Even after the Soviet Union’s demise, Russian dominance continued for another decade and a half. Kasparov held the title till 2000 and Vladimir Kramnik till 2007. But the empire began to come under attack from India’s own Viswanathan Anand (undisputed champion from 2007 to 2013 — his first world title in 2000 was at a time when there were two world champions due to a federation dispute) and Sweden’s Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion (from 2013).

In a deep blue funk

In 1997, Garry Kasparov lost a game to a computer (chess engine). It was a seminal moment in chess history. It was in 1986 that an engine entered a championship for the first time. In 1988, the engine Deep Thought beat a GM, but later it lost to Kasparov. Another engine, Deep Blue, lost to Kasparov in 1996 before defeating him in 1997. By the late 1990s, the top engines had become so strong that few players stood a chance of winning a game against them. Engines have their own chess ecosystem now, with ‘amateur’ and ‘commercial’ engines as well as their own tournaments. And of course, chess players use them extensively to develop their game. We will soon know, whether, like HAL 9000 (the antagonist in Arthur C Clarke's Space Odyssey series), they have a dark, evil side too!

The Indians are coming!

When 16-year-old R Praggnanandhaa beat Magnus Carlsen earlier this year (not once, but twice — in February and May), it was a clear sign, if one was needed, that Indian chess had arrived! India today has 73 grandmasters (two of them women), up from 20 in 2007 (Russia has 241). Interestingly, no other country has more GMs who were born after 2000, a clear portent of the coming Indian dominance of world chess. In 2019, nine of the 42 GMs that FIDE, the World Chess Federation, ratified, were from India.

Vishwanathan Anand is, of course, India’s most famous chess player. But many others have blazed a trail before him. Manuel Aaron was the national champion of India nine times between 1959 and 1981 and India's first player to be awarded the International Master title (a grade below GM). In 1982, 16-year-old Dibyendu Barua (India’s second GM after Anand) defeated world number 2, Viktor Korchnoi. The three Khadilkar sisters — Vasanti, Jayshree and Rohini — dominated the women's chess scenario in the 1970s and 80s paving the way for others like Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli — both GMs today.

Sports journalists often speak of the Chennai dominance of Indian chess. Starting with Anand and now continuing with Praggnanandhaa, the city boasts of having close to one-third of the total number of Indian GMs.

Perhaps, India’s emergence in world chess is not surprising. It was here that the game was born sometime in the fifth or sixth century CE, in a version known as chaturanga! Things have now, perhaps, come a full circle.

The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.

(Published 16 July 2022, 20:05 IST)

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