By Tushar Bhaduri
The first image formed in the mind at the mention of the word ‘chess’ depicts two intelligent persons pitting their wits against each other over a board of 64 black and white squares.
The best chess players are considered some of the brightest minds in the world, which is the reason why the title of World Chess Champion carries so much prestige, for the individual as well as their country. The number of Grandmasters a country produces can also be a contest for bragging rights.
Ever since the Cold War when the title fights between American Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union took on geo-political significance, chess has been considered more than just a game for the avid followers as the players themselves became pawns in The Great Game.
Not for nothing is chess considered the most political of sports with many of its strategies being followed in statecraft as well as on the warfront.
Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand emerged on the chess scene at the tail-end of the Cold War, but experienced first hand how the ideological narratives shaped how the game was perceived.
“Fischer-Spassky was the pinnacle of the Cold War rivalry in chess. And there was some echo of that when even a match between a Soviet defector and a Soviet champion or someone who doesn’t fit in, like (Garry) Kasparov. You still were able to take sides. And every journalist who was sent to cover chess, even if he couldn’t follow the chess, he could write a few lines about the KGB, mention that some spies are standing here, some spies are standing there. He can mention bugs, and bugging and a few conspiracy theories,” Anand said during a recent The Indian Express Idea Exchange.
The Cold War, in its previous garb at least, is no longer there. But chess continues to be an instrument of state policy.
So, it should come as no surprise that the 44th Chess Olympiad, being held at the seaside town of Mamallapuram, would be used by some to make political statements and gestures.
Part of a bigger setting
To begin with, the event has come to India due to seismic geo-political events. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine prompted the International Chess Federation (FIDE) to take the Chess Olympiad out of Russia, the original hosts. The country’s players and teams were also barred from the event.
The All India Chess Federation jumped to fill the vacuum and has set the stage in next to no time. And both the central and Tamil Nadu governments have not been shy to take credit.
The courts also had to step in. The Madras High Court ordered the Tamil Nadu government to ensure that photographs of the President and the Prime Minister are published in all Chess Olympiad advertisements in print and electronic media, The Indian Express had reported.
The state government’s argument for not using the PM’s photographs in publicity campaigns was because ‘consent from his office came late’.
Things reached such a stage that several BJP functionaries walked out of an event in the lead-up to the Olympiad when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not given credit for India hosting the event.
Even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin claimed a big role in staging the mega event.
“After the scheduled venue in Russia was cancelled, I directed my officers to grab the opportunity if that comes to India. In March, I made the first announcement in this regard… Usually, a minimum of 18 months are required to prepare for such an international event. But we formed about 18 committees and managed to organise it in just four months,” he said during the inauguration ceremony.
And he couldn’t help pointing out the large proportion of players from Tamil Nadu in the Indian teams, 26 out of 73 Grandmasters. “That means 36 percent of Indian Grandmasters are from Tamil Nadu. It is a game of intelligence and mathematics. And Chennai can be rightly called as the chess capital of India.”
Even the veshti-draped mascot Thambi became a political reference point. “Former Chief Minister (and the founder of DMK) C N Annadurai used to call everyone Thambi. The mascot was named after those memories,” Stalin said.
Pakistani players and teams participating in sporting events in India, and vice versa, is always a sensitive matter. Just when it seemed that there would be no problems at the Chess Olympiad, Pakistan pulled out of the tournament on the day of its inauguration, when its team had already reached Chennai, over the torch relay passing through Jammu and Kashmir.
One wonders what would happen if a certain fast bowler Umran Malik, who also hails from there, is included in an Indian cricket playing XI for a match against Pakistan.
Looking beyond the ongoing Chess Olympiad, the Russia-Ukraine situation is likely to play out on the 64 squares as well. Arkady Dvorkovich, the current FIDE president who is seeking re-election, is considered part of Putin’s inner circle. If he gets another term, it remains to be seen whether the ban on Russia and Russian players continues, depending on how long the conflict in Ukraine goes on.
As always, chess – the unique game of the mind where players have to think several moves ahead and elite Grandmasters have to operate almost at the level of supercomputers – will blur the line between sport and politics.